Why The Pontiac GTO Is A Future ClassicS

What if I told you that for well under $20,000, you could get yourself an import car with two doors, four seats, a stick shift, a 6.0-liter V8 with 400 horsepower and a legendary nameplate attached to it? Meet the Pontiac GTO. No, not that one, the under-appreciated one from the 2000s.

With yesterday's revelation from Maximum Bob Lutz that Pontiac was working on a successor to the GTO before the brand went kaput, it seems only right to highlight the 2004-2006 Goat as our Future Classic today. This fire-breathing Australian-American muscle car unquestionably deserves that status.

The GTO was an excellent car. It still is an excellent car, and I would argue that its incredible prices now make it an even better buy than it was 10 years ago. But sadly, it never got the love and admiration it really deserved, and that happened for a couple reasons.

To understand this GTO, you have to understand the era of General Motors it came from. At the time, they were real big on "leveraging the global resources of the GM Group," which meant utilizing their assortment of cars from different markets in new ways.

From this approach we got the Saab 9-2X, a rebadged Subaru WRX; the Saab 9-7X, a rebadged Chevy Trailblazer; the Euro-market Cadillac BLS, a rebadged Saab 9-3; the Cadillac Catera, a reworked Opel Omega; and various Saturns from Vauxhall and Opel.

It's a clever idea, but admittedly, it's kind of a lazy one. But at the end of the day it's just badge engineering on a global scale, and the results were decidedly mixed. They were hardly the first to do it, of course.

Why The Pontiac GTO Is A Future ClassicS

My favorite from this period happens to be the GTO, which everyone knows was a rebadged Holden Monaro from GM's Australian Holden division. (It was also exported to the Middle East as a Chevy Lumina SS, of all things.)

Being the performance-loving madman that he is, Lutz was the one who pushed hard for the Monaro to reach American shores after he and other GM execs drove it during a business trip and were impressed with it. After all, both holden and Australian Ford had their own unique takes on the V8 muscle car for decades, but they very rarely made it to the U.S., a fact I always found rather strange considering how well they would appeal to Americans.

After a lengthy process, the Monaro finally came to America seeking freedom and burnouts in 2004. Debuting after the death of the Firebird, it was meant to fill the V8 coupe gap in the Pontiac lineup. It was gifted with a Pontiac nose and a legendary Pontiac name, GTO, after the iconic muscle cars of the 1960s.

Those were their first two mistakes. I'll get to them in a bit.

Why The Pontiac GTO Is A Future ClassicS

The neo-GTO had the power to back up its mighty name. One engine was available at first — a 5.7-liter LS1 V8 good for 350 horsepower, which was replaced by a 6.0-liter LS2 with 400 horses. Those numbers are about on par with most V8s today, but they were stellar for their time, hence their duty in the Corvette as well.

Was it a snarling, nasty, ass-kicking machine like the GTOs of yore? Well, not exactly, but it was an extremely competent and fast V8 coupe. A 2004 Motor Trend test found the car to be full of surprises, like its incredible-for-GM fit and finish, plush interior, and the fact that it was actually quite comfortable.

The muscle is certainly there: Under the hood lies the same 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 that powers some Chevrolet Corvettes; in the GTO, it delivers a studly 350 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 365 pound-feet of torque at 4000. Coupled to the optional ($695) Tremec six-speed manual transmission (an electronically controlled four-speed automatic is standard), the Vette V-8 kicks the GTO with inspiring swiftness. Even wearing its standard M+S tires, our test car scorched from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and tripped the quarter-mile lights in 13.62 seconds at 104.78 mph—numbers that would leave a 1960s-vintage GTO seeing yellow.

[...] So the 2004 GTO isn't the rip-snorting, retro-themed muscle machine many die-hards may have been waiting for. We're not disappointed. What GM has delivered instead is a superbly crafted, tastefully styled, tautly muscled grand-touring car that stimulates your brain, not your kidneys. That such a suave machine wears the Pontiac badge may be the biggest—and the most pleasant—surprise of all.

With all of that in mind, you would expect the GTO to be a sales hit. It was not. It sold far fewer than the predicted 18,000 units in 2004, leading to the addition of the LS2 and two scoops on the hood to make it generally more GTO-y.

Why The Pontiac GTO Is A Future ClassicS

These improvements netted a lot of praise from Car and Driver in 2005, when they comparo-tested it against the then-new 2005 Ford Mustang GT. Despite besting the Mustang in the power department by 100 horses and having a suspension setup that doesn't predate the invention of fire, the GTO came in second place to the Mustang by just one point.

Still, the mag had a lot of praise for the car:

The sound piped out of the exhaust comes from the new LS2 6.0-liter V-8 lifted nearly intact from the C6 Corvette. It makes 50 more horses than last year's 5.7-liter LS1, for a total of 400, and 400 pound-feet of torque. Last year's GTO was 0.2 second slower to 60 and in the quarter than the new Mustang GT; if you'd driven them back-to-back, it's unlikely you'd be able to differentiate between the two. Now the disparity is quite apparent as the GTO has moved below five seconds for the 0-to-60 sprint-that's M3 territory.

[...] Bend the GTO into a series of corners that require no downshifting, and it's easy to be seduced. Steering is far more communicative than the system in the Mustang; the effort increases as cornering loads increase. Turn the wheel off-center, and the GTO dives into the corner as predictably and voraciously as a goat at an all-you-can-eat tin-can buffet. A bit of body roll accompanies maneuvers near the 0.88-g threshold, but understeer almost never rears its head.

Doesn't that sound appealing? Sadly, the GTO was also hampered by its price tag: at the time, it was a hefty $5,000 more than a loaded Mustang GT.

What we had here was a big, comfortable, well-designed, powerful, fun to drive grand tourer with one of the best V8 engines ever made under its hood. But the car-buying public's response was unenthusiastic, and sales struggled before the car was killed after 2006. GM has said it was always meant to be a limited-production car, but I have a feeling we would have seen more of it.

It wouldn't be the last time GM brought its Aussie offerings over here. There was the dearly-departed G8 sedan, which probably deserves a Future Classics feature of its own someday, and the upcoming Chevrolet SS, which I'm rather excited to drive.

So why wasn't it a sales hit? I think the design had a lot to do with it. Remember what I said about imports like these being kind of lazy? Had GM used their whole ass, they would have kept the Monaro guts and given it a brand new body that looked like an old GTO. Nostalgia is huge among modern muscle car buyers; in many cases they appeal to guys and gals who owned them in their youth and want something similar now. That's part of why the current Mustang, Camaro and Challenger have been so successful.

This GTO looked nothing like the old GTO; it looked like a "bloated Cavalier," as one magazine put it, and no amount of hood scoops could change that. Further, why did they call it the GTO? This all goes back to American car companies' tendency to use legacy names for cars when they really should come up with something new and different. The Monaro was a very different car than the old Goat; it probably should have been allowed to establish its own identity.

But this is all just marketing and branding hubbub. What matters is what's underneath. This GTO was and still is an excellent value, and now that one can be had for much cheaper than its original price, it makes a fantastic used performance car bargain. They're a hell of a lot less expensive than Corvettes from the same era, and they have back seats.

Yes, it's not super attractive on the outside. I think it follows what I call the WRX principle: yes, it's ugly, but once you start driving it, you stop caring what the outside looks like.

So I think the GTO hits all the future classic requirements. Unappreciated? Definitely. A good value? Absolutely. Character? Hell yes, it's an Australian import! Fun to drive? Well, duh.

The GTO may not have done too well when it was new, but when you see someone on the road enjoying theirs, give them a thumbs up. They know a great car when they see one.

This is Future Classics, a new, semi-regular feature where we identify amazing and unappreciated cars from the late 90s, 2000s, and today that could be highly coveted by future generations. You may want to pick one of these up while you still can!

Why The Pontiac GTO Is A Future ClassicS