The cars we loved.

1994-1998 Pontiac Grand Am: Middle America’s Favorite Midsized Sedan?

1995 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe

1995 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe

By the 90’s, the Grand Am (GA) had become Pontiac’s sales leader. For a brand that touted itself as “Building Excitement”, with a long history of GTO’s and Firebirds, it was ironic that when the time came to put the money where priorities were, most buyers went for the middle of the road Grand Am. Despite the racing connotations of the name, the Grand Am never raced in any significance – even in NASCAR. So why were so many smitten with Pontiac’s version of the N body car?

The Perfect Formula For Mas Appeal
For one it was sporty looking, cheap and reliable. While calling it cheap may be extreme, it cost far less than the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Owners, especially of the SE sedan paid the price at resale time. The broad range of cars that the Grand Am competed with like the Sebring and Contour were closer in their lack of sophistication, but the Grand Am was exciting to look at, and sometimes to drive. The coupe competed with coupe versions of the Camry and Accord, but also with the far more sophisticated Nissan 240SX. There was no convertible, but the coupe and sedan looked similar, eventually sharing the overdone styling and acceptable performance from V6 or multivalve inline fours.

Sales Champ
The 1992 to 1989 model years represents the Grand Am at its highest point sales wise. Records were set often, enough that Pontiac survived long enough to see the dawn (of the new millennium that is). All thanks to the strength of Grand Am sales. While the late third generation car was good  looking, the 93-94 model years may be the best looking if sales were an indication. These were the years before Pontaic begun to go overboard with the boy racer look. For all the Grand Am represented, it was solid front wheel drive transportation. You could get it in mild SE to wild GT trim. It also represented a safety value in that it had ABS and a driver airbag when many of its competitors could only brag about having disc brakes.

The most pedestrian versions came with a 2.3L inline four Quad 4, a detuned version of what powered hot versions of the Oldsmobile Calias. With 115 to 120 hp in the Grand Am, it was no more powerful than the engines in countless Cavalier and Sunfire subcompacts. While somewhat sprightly in those cars, in the larger Grand Am it was less than quick. For those who needed more oomph, there were the SE or GT models. The GT came standard with GM 3.4L V6. At 180 hp which was enough to move coupe versions of the Grand Am to 60 mph in under 8 seconds. This was more than enough for most Grand Am drivers, who were more interested in looking fast than being such. The Trans-Am was always there for anyone who needed to step up to higher performance.

Refinements, But No Regrets
Shake ups in both engines would see a new multi-valve 2.4L. that would become standard on the SE and GT models.  While the new engine was more refined, it was less powerful. A similar shakeup happened with the V6. It dropped in displacement to 3.1L and settled into the 150 to 160 hp ranges. Depending on which trim, a Getrag 5 speed manual was available for any of the four cylinder cars, while the a sometimes problematic three speed automatic was standard with the V6.

94' SE Interior

94′ SE Interior

The weak spot for any 90’s era Grand Am was surely its interior. While the sheet metal may have looked sporty, in a teen parent kind of way, the interior was a serious mess. Not that many GM cars of the period were known for their excellent ergonomics. Pontiac let curvaceous volumes and swooping lines pass for ergonomics. The materials, usually a collection of grey plastics, looked more at home on a preschool toy. The big buttons and comically large controls did not help matters, looking like they were made for the small hands of children. Cost cutting was obvious, from the cheap fabrics to the unsupportive seats. There was never an option for leather until fifth and final generation – post 1999, when it became a choice for GT buyers. The interior would change a few times, each time a gradual improvement, but still sorely lagging behind the competition in that “GM of the 90’s” kind of way.

While the initial 103 inch wheel base was shared with the Skylark, Malibu and Achieva, for the Grand Am it was stretched by 6 in. The extra inches in theory may have helped with rear leg room in the sedan, but did nothing to improve access to the back seats in the coupe. More importantly, it had the potential to improve ride quality, but the low profile 16′ wheel and tire combo on the GT model was less than smooth riding on anything but the best roads. Despite the trailing arm semi-independent rear suspension, the Grand Am could hang in a curve with the second best of them, but lagged behind the Accord and far behind the 240SX in that respect.

1997 SE Sedan

1997 Pontiac Grand Am SE Sedan

No Longer Keeping Up with the Chevys (Jones)
The versatility of the Grand Am line up no doubt contributed to its overwhelming success. Sedans outnumbered coupes in sales, mostly due to the Grand Am’s target market of young families who wanted the versatilty of a sedan without the dowdy image of a mini-van or emerging SUV. Looking cool had its price. As mentioned before, the coupe was difficult to get into if your destination was the rear seat. All models suffered from excessive noise, from the fake (but cool looking) quad exhausts in the GT, to engine and road noise in all other models.  These issues were more or less dealt with by the turn of the century. 100,000 mile warranties by the mid 90’s increased buyer confidence, but sales were starting to taper off ever so slowly.

Still people in the American mid-west and South could not seem to get enough Grand Ams. Even today, the sight of a Grand Am is as common as any car on the road – especially if you happen to be in the backwater towns of Ohio or Indiana. The value the GA represented ultimatly fell short. Its low resale value was not helped by the over abundance of used models to choose from – often looking the same for years at a time. To its credit, owners tended to hold on to the cars longer than the other N bodies. Just drive along the redneck parts of cities like Columbus, OH and you will see plenty of Grand Ams with stickers of American flags, references to pro wrestling, NASCAR or Jesus in the windows.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with any of that (the Jesus part), but if the GA had taken its Euro fighter mission seriously would those people still have made Pontiac’s all time best seller? The Grand Am was no longer the Eurofighter it had been designed as after say 1991, but had become a caractre of a performance car for Middle America. No one ever said that building excitement had to be real, the look of it did just fine for over 4,000,000 buyers by the end in 2004.

1993 Grand Am GT Sedan

1993 Grand Am GT Sedan


One comment on “1994-1998 Pontiac Grand Am: Middle America’s Favorite Midsized Sedan?

    February 10, 2013

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This entry was posted on January 9, 2013 by in 90's cars, General Motors, Pontiac and tagged , , , , .
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