The cars we loved.
The Pontiac Bonneville was always one of Pontiac’s biggest cars. While sharing the same platform, it was positioned below Oldsmobile’s Regency/Delta 88 and above the Chevrolet Impala/Caprice. The Bonneville had the distinction of being more performance oriented, thanks to the powerful V8 in some 1958 models. Performance would come and go in the Bonneville, as big engines made their way into intermediates kicking off the Muscle Car era of the 1960’s. Although not always a highway bruiser, the big Pontiac usually had a performance edge. The Bonneville has gone through many transformations from to becoming a mid-sized car from 1982 to 86’, then losing rear wheel drive and gaining a V6 in 1987. During those years where the Bonneville became a smaller car, the demand for a big sedan from Pontiac prompted GM to borrow a Canadian version to be sold as the Parisienne alongside the then smaller Bonneville.
From 1987 through the 90’s the Bonneville had become a caricature of its former self. It had regained its full size stature, but was saddled with underpowered engines. GM would address this issue in SSEi and later GXP models with a series of supercharged V6s. Gradually GM would push the boundaries of big front wheel drive sedan performance in all its large cars. By 1999, the 3.8L Series II Supercharged V6 produced 240 hp to the front wheels. Styling was a weak spot. The restraint seen in Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets gave way to wild bolt on aerodynamics on the Bonneville. The exaggerated gills, ribs and ducts looked silly on the smaller Gran Am, but absolutely ridiculous on the big sport luxury car. The interiors were not much better. The Star Trek inspired styling showcased all the technology available to the driver, but at the cost of ergonomics. It was so bad that the Bonneville (along with the Gran Am) were often cited as what was wrong with Pontiac design through the 80’s and 90’s.
Pontiac would address many of the problems of earlier cars with varying degrees of success. In 2000 the 9th generation Bonneville would get a significant restyle that was essentially an all new car built on the H-platform (like the previous generation). In many ways the new car would have much more in common with the famous Wide-Track cars of the 60’s. Primarily in that it was wide. At over 62 inches it had the widest track of any car in its class. This added width combined the StabiliTrack stability control system gave the Bonneville road manners more fitting of a sports sedan. Attractive 18-inch wheels wrapped with W or V rated tires provided the looks and sharp handling, while 14in rotors with ABS made for short stopping distances. In a subtle nod to its sporting nature, there were red painted brake calipers in 04’ and 05’ models of the GPX.
Not only was it wider and better performing than before, it looked much better. Pontiac finally showed some restraint in the styling department. Although you could tell it was a Bonneville, it lacked many of the so-called aero enhancements of the 90’s models. There were still small traces of rib lines and the fog lights looked as if they might have been stuck on, but overall it was an improvement. As the years passed, the outside began to look better, especially with the 04/05 models. The front now had a conventional air dam and fully integrated fog light openings on the GPX. The SE models got their own front end treatment that was equally attractive. All models shared a sleek greenhouse with ‘C’ pillars that gracefully lines tapered to a taunt trunk anchored by large tail lamps. Even the side of the car was devoid of frivolous lines, creating to a more contemporary look. Tasteful and muscular were now words that described the Bonneville, adjectives not commonly associated with Pontiac’s largest car ten years earlier.
In interior received a less dramatic makeover. It was improved, but still had the look of previous cabins: that being cheap and haphazardly designed. Not that the dash layout was all bad. It had the overall look of the departed Aurora’s control center, but was more organic with its many curves. Unfortunately, the best Pontiac interior during this time was in the GTO, a car sourced from GM’s Australian subsidy Holden. No lessons were learned from that world-class cockpit, as Pontiac’s budget must have been too tight to give it the Bonneville’s interior a world-class makeover. Under the hood, things would look and sound much better.
Bonneville’s usually had some form of V8 as an option until 1986. After that, various supercharged v sixes would be the top option for the sporty SSEi and GXP models. When the Oldsmobile Aurora was discontinued, the Bonneville got two more cylinders to fill the void in 2004. It was now more competitive in GPX trim with V8 powered the Ford Crown Victoria and the Chrysler 300 series to name a few. Cadillac’s 4.6L Northstar V8 with 275 hp, was able to propel the Bonneville GXP to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Not bad for a big front wheel drive car with a long list of luxury options weighing in at close to 4,000lb. All Bonneville were equipped with a four speed automatic transmission, when it had become standard for cars of this caliber to have 5 speed transmissions.
As good as the Booneville was it was barely keeping up with the fast changing American full-sized sedan landscape. In a 2004 comparison test in Car and Driver magazine the Bonneville placed second in a trio behind the Chrysler 300 Hemi and ahead of the aging Ford Crown Vic LX.
The Bonneville was dropped from Pontiac’s line in 2006. Its replacement the G8 was an Australian sourced car that represented what the Bonneville should have been in the first place. The 04’ and 05’ Bonneville’s more than any other were moving in a styling direction closer to that of the G8. The absence plastic body cladding and the smooth integration of fog lights and front air dams represented an overdue improvement that was too late to save the legendary nameplate that help foster the muscle car revolution. The Bonneville had come full circle in 2005, hanging around long enough to see a new era of RWD big sedan performance from America (via Australia).