Muscle cars and millennials: How the 2005 Pontiac GTO really opened my eyes

My first exposure to the resurrected Pontiac GTO was Car and Driver’s 2005 head-to-head comparison between the new “Goat” and Mustang GT. Both were legends reborn, but they took very different paths. The Mustang jumped aboard Ford’s retro styling formula, while also staying true to its solid-axle heritage. The GTO, back from a near 30-year hiatus, was much more visually subdued than Ford’s icon.

In fact, only a handful of badges, impressively bolstered leather seats, and dual exhaust tips offered any indication that the GTO was packing 400 horsepower and fully independent rear suspension. Car and Driver’s test results were close, with the Goat winning or tying every category but one: the ever-subjective “gotta-have-it” factor. And with that, the ’Stang pulled off a one-point victory.

A 6.0-liter, 400-horsepower engine lurks beneath the hood. (Matt Lewis)

Results aside, my 15-year-old brain was fascinated by the GTO and its Australian heritage (it’s basically a rebadged, third-generation Holden Monaro). The car disrupted my notion that big-gun performance always required flashy exterior styling. You might even call it my introduction to the “sleeper.”

Nine years later I was fresh out of college and quickly approaching my first anniversary with Hagerty. Ironically, my daily driver was a 2004 Mustang GT. Still, the GTO was always in the back of my mind—until a fortuitous sighting of the Pontiac brought it roaring to the front. Unlike the Mustang, GTO sightings are uncommon, especially in northern Michigan. As I stared at that parked GTO, I felt the same giddy excitement that the 15-year-old me experienced reading that magazine article.

2005 Pontiac GTO

My mind was already made up. No more waiting; I had to have a GTO. I spent the rest of the evening justifying my inevitable purchase. “It does solve the few issues I have with the Mustang,” I reasoned. “Upgraded interior, big supportive seats, independent rear suspension, and an LS engine.” Then I sealed my fate by visiting the car-guy danger zone known as Craigslist. I could afford it. That settled it.

Within two weeks, I’d located my target: a 2005 model in Cyclone Gray, with requisite six-speed manual, and a hair under 70,000 miles on the odometer. The car was five hours away, so I set off for a weekend road trip—24 years old and cash in hand—to purchase a car that I’d never driven. Foolish? Maybe. Yet, strangely, the whole ordeal felt just right.

I was queasy as I pulled into the seller’s driveway, equal parts anticipation and anxiety. The next few minutes were a blur. I tried to contain my excitement and fathom what was happening. It only took two words to snap me back to reality: “test drive.” Clutch in, key turned, and … dear Lord, that sound. Thanks to an aftermarket SLP exhaust, the tailpipes erupted into a roar like the start of a Van Halen concert. “You get used to it,” the seller assured me, but I secretly hoped he was wrong. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy goose bumps every time they started their car?

2005 Pontiac GTO wears Cyclone Gray paint

“You first,” I insisted as I slid into the passenger seat. We pulled onto the otherwise desolate two-lane highway, and even in the passenger seat I felt that this car was special. The owner stabbed the gas from 3500 rpm, and the exhaust’s tune immediately swapped out “Love Walks In” for “Hot for Teacher.”

“Your turn,” he said, as we pulled to the side of the road. I jumped into the driver's seat, made a few minor adjustments, and instantly felt at home. The GTO’s clutch is light underfoot with smooth hydraulic assist, a stark contrast to the gravel-truck third pedal in my Ford. Easing into the throttle, I noticed there is no hesitation—every inch of travel unleashes another 10-foot wave of power crashing on the pavement and 10 more decibels from Eddie and the band out back. I snaked back to our starting point, gunning it between corners and flashing a grin as big as the Joker’s. Back at the owner’s house, we made the exchange—cash for keys and title—and just like that, my dream was reality.

I’ve been told that we should never meet our heroes, because they rarely meet our expectations. But I rolled the dice and went for it anyway, purchasing a car that had captured my imagination as a teenager. Was the sleeper the right choice over the more popular Mustang? For me, yes. Car and Driver no longer uses the “gotta-have-it” factor in comparison tests, but my personal ranking in that category puts the GTO firmly ahead of the Mustang.