9 August 2016

The 2004-2006 Pontiac GTO was a road rocket and sales bomb

It was two enthusiast dreams come true in one car. An American icon was reborn and, ironically, a formerly forbidden fruit was its foundation. Yes, an Australian-built muscle car was repurposed for American tastes. For those and other reasons, the 2004-2006 Pontiac GTO should have been a home run, to apply a baseball metaphor to cars. But it wasn’t. Here’s what happened.

Enthusiasts hadn’t forgiven Pontiac for letting the fabled GTO die out as a gussied-up Ventura compact in 1974. Yet, even as American muscle cars were fading in the 1970s, there were rumblings from the Southern Hemisphere. The success of the Australian Mad Max movies helped spark interest in cars from Down Under, including the Ford Falcon that Max drove, and the Monaro V-8 coupe from General Motors’ subsidiary, Holden. Both of those cars used American-bred V-8s. Without the regulations facing American carmakers at the time, the Australian subsidiaries kept cranking out muscled-up road warriors.

Flash forward to the dawn of the 21st century. American muscle was back, but there were some hiccups. GM ended production of the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird after 2002. Pontiac, the “excitement division,” was suddenly out of the performance business.

GM president Bob Lutz is credited with the idea of turning the Holden Monaro into a new-wave Pontiac GTO. The top version already had a Corvette LS1 engine. It also had a six-speed stick, independent rear suspension, a sleek coupe shape and was sized a bit larger than the Camaro and Mustang.

In a sense, the Monaro – or at least its German sedan cousin – had already been to the States as an Opel Omega dressed up as the Cadillac Catera. It bombed, and a key reason, other than reliability issues, was its bland design.

But importing the Monaro wasn’t quite so simple. In addition to converting the Monaro to left-hand drive, GM had to rework a few things to bring the car up to U.S. safety standards, including moving the fuel tank to a safer spot above the trunk floor. As a result, the GTO had a small trunk.

Furthermore, attempting to brand the Monaro as a “Pontiac,” designers gave it a hastily contrived split grille front fascia and some GTO badges. GM also tried mimicking the ‘64 GTO’s exhaust sound, but American musclecar fans didn’t like the wimpy-looking dual tailpipe tips exiting on the left side. The GTO didn’t even get fake hood scoops at first, but those would eventually come.

So, the new GTO didn’t look like a GTO. But it ran like no other Pontiac GTO before it. The 2004 model came with the 5.7-liter LS1 packing 350 horsepower. Forget comparisons to the 350-horse Pontiac V-8 in the classic models; the 2004 car’s horses were net and all accounted for.

A four-speed automatic was standard, and the six-speed stick was optional. Either way, the 2004 Goat could eat asphalt. Typical road tests pegged 0-60 at about 5.5 seconds and a 14-second or quicker quarter-mile at about 105 mph. That was out of the box. The GTO’s handling and ride were praised, one of the benefits of independent rear suspension.

“If you want to shop around for other true four-seaters that can run with this Pontiac, you’ll be visiting BMW and Mercedes-Benz showrooms and be looking at $50,000-plus window stickers,” said Edmunds in its road test.

Comparatively, the GTO seemed a bargain at about $34,000, but that was well above the $25,000 GM thought it would be; exchange rates got much of the blame. Strong initial demand sparked dealers to demand even higher prices, but the gouging didn’t last long. As sales slowed, the GTO soon came with discounts. A Mustang GT cost a lot less, was about as fast and, well, looked like a Mustang should look.

The new GTO was planned to be a niche model, but the niche was smaller than hoped. Pontiac dealers sold just under 13,600 GTOs for 2004, against an earlier projection of 18,000. When the 2005 GTO arrived it had the 6.0-liter LS2 with 400 horsepower and 400 net lb.-ft. of torque. It also got standard hood scoops, split rear tailpipes and brake upgrades.

With a six-speed GTO, Car and Driver got 0-60 in 4.8 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds at 107 mph. That was hauling, but it wasn’t enough to turn the sales tide. After three years, Pontiac sold just under 41,000 of what was its quickest, best handling GTO ever. That was long enough for the suits.

Yet GM tried again, importing the GTO’s four-door sibling, the Holden Commodore, to the U.S. as the Pontiac G8 in 2008. It won praise but also failed to sell, and it went down with the Pontiac ship when GM euthanized the division in 2009. That same year, Chevy’s fifth-generation Camaro arrived using the Holden-developed “Zeta” platform. And the Holden Commodore, meanwhile, came back, first as the Chevy Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV) and today as the Chevy SS for civilians.

16 Reader Comments

  • 1
    pete Kaczmarski Waupun WI>. August 10, 2016 at 16:58
    I purchased my '04 new for 26k..yes it looked blah until I purchased a fiberglass hood from MPD Inc. Now looks like a risen "V" hood of the 1969 GTO. It is the rarest color of all three years: barbados blue.
  • 2
    Rick Glowacki Michigan August 10, 2016 at 17:12
    I was one of those who anxiously awaited the new "GTO ".Only to be let down from its lack of style and looks . The Pontiac Sunfire looked better. It was a real shame . Nice power in a boring looking package.
  • 3
    gary ohio August 10, 2016 at 23:40
    They were fast enough but having had a 64 they just screamed import .
  • 4
    Howard Salsitz California August 11, 2016 at 01:20
    I have a '67 GTO which I will sell soon. I am thinking of replacing it with this second coming of the Goat! Great article. Very informative.
  • 5
    bryan cole Adelaide South Australia August 11, 2016 at 01:37
    Thank you for this article, as you are aware, the Holden Commodore ends in late 2017,- The company that I worked for supplied parts to Holden at Elizabeth. The Monaro was well received in Australia, as is the commodore, I was in plant (at Holden) whilst both vehicles were built, and their commitment to quality build and performance/handling was paramount- I still drive my 2010 commodore, and will not part with it, as it is the best handling car I have ever driven, I have driven many high performance and very expensive cars that do not have the all round package that Holden offers at the price they it for. For me it will be a very sad day when Holden closes, and the industry is the poorer for that - WHY DO THIS GM ?
  • 6
    George NOTL Ontario August 11, 2016 at 14:21
    To me this car was a waste of metal as the original prototype was a more appealing car for sure. I have a 1970 GTO Convertible and was waiting for the remake to be released and seriously wanted one but was sadly disappointed. GM blew this one. Probably why it didn't last. A Holden with a big engine. Really???
  • 7
    JR NFLD August 11, 2016 at 19:43
    Back in 2004 when these cars came out, I wanted one but GM would not sell them in Canada. You could not import one either. A couple of years ago, the Canadian Government started letting used ones into the country and I picked one up. It is a great car with the 6 litre engine, sports appearance package and nice interior. I wish I could have bought it new. Maybe if GM had imported them to Canada, they could have sold more and maybe Pontiac would still be around today.
  • 8
    BD US August 11, 2016 at 07:51
    Some claim the 06 GTO is bland in looks, some claim it handles poorly, some even claim it has mechanical issues (front struts)....I am on my 2nd 06 GTO and feel it is on par with the best GM cars every produced. The looks are those matching what the original GTO provided (a sleeper) without all of the ducts/foils and large wings others use to identify their car as a "go fast". The interior is one of GM's best, very comfortable and without unnecessary "fluff". It handles and performs on par with cars costing 2-3x's as much but can be repaired by a GM tech. And for those who remember driving the muscle cars of the 60's and early 70's....this car provides that same tire shredding, kick you back in the seat experience, along with handling the earlier muscle cars never dreamed of. Is it perfect.....nope, not close....small trunk, tire wells and struts that limit the tire sizes you can use and now no Pontiac to provide support, but will say that everyone who has seen mine (on my 2nd one due to a drunk driver smashing my 1st one), and especially those who have driven it fall in love with it.....if you want a great car, fun to drive, more power than should be allowed, comfortable to drive and with a stick gets 25mpg on the highway.......see if you can find one. Unfortunately ones in good condition that have not been raced or wrecked multiple times will be tough to locate, but if you are lucky, you will be glad you looked...........
  • 9
    Marty NY August 11, 2016 at 07:56
    The styling of this car draws my eye toward the small diameter rear wheels and large rear quarter panels. Also, the front end is too restrained to have been a true GTO replacement which is unfortunate. A styling miss in my mind.
  • 10
    Sal NJ August 11, 2016 at 08:47
    I had one of these for 5 years. Great car. Fast, comfortable, and had a great roomy interior. The leather seats were like living room recliners. Styling was a little pedestrian, but a set of 18" wheels and a front splitter really spruced it up. In my opinion the car was marketed wrong. It was more of a GT car than an American muscle car...an M3 or S5 competitor. That being said, I took it to the track and it ran a 13.6 with just an intake and catback.
  • 11
    John Grand Rapids August 12, 2016 at 16:18
    I have a double black '06 with a 6 speed manual and it is faster than fast! I've scared a few passengers for sure! A little bland in the styling department but strong in the performance and handling area. Sounds good too! I'll keep it forever.
  • 12
    Rob MD August 12, 2016 at 08:01
    Pontiac's big mistake was not building a retro car like Chevy did with the Camaro and like Ford did with the Mustang. People rejected the GTO because it just didn't look, well, GTOish.
  • 13
    Chuck Minnesota August 19, 2016 at 01:00
    Why on earth would anyone want one of these cars that looks like every other offbreed front wheel drive car that Darth Vader's grant child wouldn't even drool over? Cooky cutter looks failed this cars' sales. UGLY!!!! The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean would sing songs about a Ford Taurus long before they would for this "GTO" thing.
  • 14
    tim New Zealand September 10, 2016 at 22:41
    This car was just too good for you Yanks. All the negatives above are about the styling - which to my eyes is maybe just a tad restrained but nicely balanced. The real point is that it went like stink and handled with genuine aplomb. Those who don't get it are not drivers.
  • 15
    Rick Maryland September 18, 2016 at 21:50
    I owned a 2004, and now own a 2006. I absolutely love these cars. I think they should have named it the Monte Carlo, people would have been much more forgiving. It has no sharp lines, and no muscularity in it's looks. But it makes up for that with unrivaled power for the money, extreme comfort, the seats are by far the best I have seen in a muscle car in regards to comfort. Had a very un-GMlike interior for the years, the fit finish inside was better than the Vettes of the time, very sophisticated and well done. Overall, because it wasn't an in your face muscle car that had retro styling, it wasn't a hit. Give it a different name without the lofty expectations and this car delivers in every way, especially when you consider the money.
  • 16
    Keith Maryland September 29, 2016 at 21:40
    I own a 2004 model and I think they just aimed it at the wrong demographic by calling it the Pontiac GTO. Maybe they could have called it something like "Pontiac G7 GTO" or "Pontiac Monaro GTO" to spin it as high-performance GTO-like edition of a new model not necessarily aimed directly at the muscle-car crowd. The styling is restrained, but I *like* that. I bought mine instead of a BMW 335 in large part on Jeremy Clarkson's advice. I would guess that few of the Mustang GT or Dodge Charger SRT8 buyers Pontiac took direct aim at by calling it simply the GTO would say that. I want my car to perform, but I don't want it to be a strutting peacock. Not that it's ugly. It has a classy, sleek profile, especially if you clean it up by removing the useless spoiler that blocks 15% of your view to the rear and replace the GTO front fender badges with the home-market sidemarker lights.

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