The cars we loved.
There was a time when the slogan ‘Pontiac Builds Excitement” was really beginning to mean something in the early ’80s. GM’s excitement division appeared to be on a roll while still figuring out how to make performance cars in a new heavily regulated environment. First a new Firebird in 1982 to counter the Mustang, then a sporty Gran-Am to go head to head with BMW’s 318. The new Gran-Am had been Pontiac’s first real attempt to match the German’s with a performance oriented sedan. Trouble was, the Gran-Am was a compact car, and Americans being big car lovers that we are would take a larger cars like the LeMans more seriously. Problem was the LeMans was in need of a long overdue makeover.
The answer would be the new 6000, introduced in 1982. The 6000 was family of mid-sized cars based on GM’s ‘A’ platform that included the usual clones from Buick, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Pontiac’s version included a sedan, wagon and coupe and would be the sportiest of the A platform clones. Fitted with a base 90 hp four-cylinder engine, the early 6000 was little more than adequate transportation in base trim. An optional 2.8L V6 engine made it a bit more exciting with 112hp, but it was still far from a performance car in its LE trim. While the Germans were stirring up the compact car market, Detroit seemed to be caught with its paints down. While the Citation X-11 was a great start, it was not typical of what Americans wanted in a European styled sports sedan (or coupe). Pontiac would need something larger than it’s Citation based Phoenix to be a real contender.
It would not be until 1983 that the 6000 in new STE trim would be known as a legitimate BMW fighter. Funny when looking back, seems even then everyone was aiming for the BMW 3 or 5 series. The new STE was more than marketing hype as it actually had what it took to be a legitimate competitor. The new Special Touring Edition started with the LE’s optional engine and added a 2-barrel carburetor, part of the High-Output designation Pontiac bestowed on its sportiest cars. The hyped up engine produced 135 hp and improved the STE’s straight line performance (12 seconds to 60 mph). Although the ad campaigns would tout the electronic dash and info monitoring system as cutting edge technology, the 6000STE was really an old-fashioned car under the hood. It’s fuel system used carburetors which had been discarded on all but the most basic models by 1982. Other clues hinted to the more pedestrian mission of the 6000 from which the STE derived, like the omission of a tachometer.
The interior gave other mixed signals also with its combination of GM plastic meets Pontiac spaceship design. What seemed like hundreds of little similarly sized buttons were placed in a grid under the main display area. Despite the anti-ergonomic style, it was still gutsier than most American made compact sedans of the era. That gutsiness was best observed on curvy roads. Anyone aspiring to build a car with “European Handling” knows that there’s more to performance than straight line abilities, so the 6000 STE would benefit from some serious attention to handling. Large for the time 14 in wheels on standard Goodyear Eagle GTs with four-wheel disc brakes brought the cornering and stopping abilities within the European competition. Rare for any American car at the time, the STE (AWD) had a fully independent suspension with a self-leveling rear air system that aided stability. The self-leveling system was available in the front wheel drive cars also. They featured a more conventional (for Pontiac) rear twist beam type axle with trailing arms. The front wheel drive models were actually more fun to drive and became a media favorite among the automotive press.
When pitted against more expensive rivals from Audi, Volvo, BMW and Peugeot, a 1983 Popular Science comparison ranked a 2.8L STE as its top choice. Other media outlets came to similar conclusions. Even with the accolades, the STE model would have low sales. The before mentioned AWD option debuted in 1988 but was mated to a less powerful 3.0L V6 and saddled with a 3-speed automatic transmission. Fewer than 150 AWD model were produced that first year. The following year the potentially best platform for a performance variant, the coupe was dropped. It sold poorly anyway. Its absence allowed Pontiac to focus on reshuffling the model lineup.
Now Pontiac was not only aiming for BMW, but Audi and Volvo as well with an all-weather performance car, except that the all-wheel drive cars were slow and heavy. The AWD system became standard on the lesser S/E model while the front wheel drive STE remained the dry road performance leader. Eventually, the STE designation would disappear after 1991, leaving the S/E holding the performance banner for the 6000 family.
Pontiac would not build a direct replacement for the 6000. The 6000’s main legacy to future Pontiac’s was that it used one of the first applications of the 3100 V6 that would become the backbone of Pontiac’s mid to larger size models. The STE designation was used on the Grand Prix until 1993. The Grand Prix that followed was much bigger and heavier. Its performance was not much better in low to mid-range models. It would not be until 2005 that Pontiac would build a true successor, the G6 GT. By that time it was already too late as the market for this type of car had migrated over almost entirely to the Japanese and Germans.