In 2004, I was eight years old. My neighbor across the street—Mr. Johnson, I called him—had observed that I was constantly romping around in a faded pink Power Wheels Jeep, my brother and I pretending to do NASCAR pit stops for it. As a car enthusiast himself, he did what he could to foster my interest in the hobby, and gave me his old issues of various car mags after he was finished reading them. I read many great publications well before I had the ability to fully grasp them, but one of them hooked into my mind at that young age and has stuck there since.
May issue of Motor Trend, 2004. “Two 4 One” read the cover: the $35K Pontiac GTO vs. the $70K Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG. An unlikely comparison, for sure, and it gripped me at eight years old. How could you compare two cars with such a large price gap, especially when one looked like the mundane Grand Prixs I’d see around town? Surely, a car that cost twice as much would be twice as good, and it was an unfair test. But of course, the GTO was just slightly off the performance of the Mercedes, and it made for a great comparison. It blew my mind to realize that out there were mundane, relatively cheap cars that could compete with vastly more expensive machines, and I was immediately smitten with the GTO. It’s just too bad the rest of America didn’t feel the same.
Seventeen years later when I found out I’d finally get to drive one—over a decade after the modern GTO and Pontiac itself kicked the bucket—it was borderline terrifying. I had been putting these cars on a pedestal from the first time I’d picked up that issue of Motor Trend. I had moved on from my childhood interest in most American cars in favor of more accessible Japanese ones, but the GTO had stayed a favorite of mine. Getting to meet a hero is a scary thought for me; an unmet icon can remain flawless, the idealized vision of my youth, even if the reality falls vastly short. What if sitting down in the car I idolized showed it was as fallible as the rest of us?
2006 Pontiac GTO 6.0: By The Numbers
- Base price (when new): $31,290
- Powertrain: 6.0-liter naturally aspirated LS2 V8 | six-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 400 @ 5,200 rpm
- Torque: 400 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
- Dry weight: 3,777 pounds
- Seating capacity: 4
- 0-60 mph: 4.8 seconds
- Quick take: The GTO still has the power and poise to take down automotive goliaths in a discreet, tasteful package.
The Origins Of Desire
The GTO specs stack up quite well almost two decades later, which helped allay some of those fears. The ‘06 I was handed the keys to had six liters of pure, natural-breathing GM LS2 V8 power backed up with a six-speed manual and rear-wheel drive, all wrapped up in a sleek two-door coupe. It’s what every enthusiast nowadays would kill for. The whole setup was good for 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, numbers that put it in the same ballpark as muscle cars a decade newer.
The interior has aged far more gracefully than most other GM products of the era, too, despite the six-figure mileage and four-figure price on the example I was driving. No cracks in the dash or the seats, no dead bugs in seemingly inaccessible crevices of the dash. Already, it was looking more promising than say, a catfish Camaro or a blobby Tahoe, which are great cars in their own right but tend to bear the scars of growing old.
Opening The Cutouts
And then it was time to drive. The cluster, knocked as dated in that original MT review, has aged like a fine wine. It’s readable and attractive. The 200 mph speedo certainly didn’t hurt my impression of it, either. I started off gaining my bearings, on idle through sleepy neighborhoods, trying not to wake the neighbors in the morning or attract any undue attention. Even without that caution, it was easy to slip under the radar. I’m used to driving vain cars—red Supras, slammed Hondas, right-hand-drive cabover vans—they ask onlookers to stare. The GTO immediately felt like a B-2; it wasn’t just stealthy, it wasn’t there at all. The two-door Pontiac is ignored by all but the most devoted enthusiasts that see it.
If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t, because finally we arrived at the interstate on-ramp. “Is it okay if I get on it?” I asked the owner. “Oh yeah,” they replied, “but wait one second.” I began to dig in, ignoring everything after the “oh yeah”, and then I heard God. This car was equipped with exhaust cutouts, which the owner had just opened for me. Immediately, I felt patriotic fervor grip me as I tore down the ramp in a way that only a naturally aspirated large displacement V8 can induce. ‘Murica, hell yeah.
We had gone from stealth bomber to A-10 Warthog with the press of a button; the entire car vibrated with sound as I redlined second gear. I didn’t stop there. I was wielding the hammer of Thor in vehicular form, and I was going to enjoy my divine power. I continued banging through gears up to “merging speed” until I realized that I needed to slow down out of felony territory. I stabbed the brakes, my friend closed the cutouts, and I was in a black mid-00s coupe comfortably turning 1,800 RPM in sixth gear as we took a calm cruise down the rest of the highway.
And that’s why this car, in this spec, is so damn good. Mat the gas, open the cutouts, and you have a brute that could seemingly turn even the most principled anti-imperialist into a jingoistic proponent of American power. Silence the exhaust, put it in sixth, and eat a hundred miles in comfort in a well-aged interior without so much as getting a single passerby to glance at you. The GTO came in a variety of eye-catching colors that ordinarily I’d advocate for on other cars, but I think the stealthy black paint of this one suits its purpose perfectly. And true, it didn’t come with cutouts from the factory, but it’s an easy and cheap modification that makes the best part of the car shine. The most enjoyable cars know when to have fun and when to be serious, and this GTO has as much restraint and calm as the driver can muster, all while being able to walk a significant number of cars the bank still owns.
That’s the key to the original story that gripped me so many years ago that still rings true today. Even though depreciation has brought their street values much closer, a CLK55 AMG—or a C5 Corvette, or an E46 M3—going fast with a loud exhaust gives off a different impression than the GTO does. That guy probably has a V1 Valentine and a lawyer on retainer; he’s indifferent to consequences because they don’t apply to him. A GTO is the muscle car of the proletariat. It allows you to have your fun but avoid the repercussions that surely would pertain to you.
And of course, there are other driving impressions that helped me realize that I have been right to desire one of these for seventeen years. The transmission is pleasant, with a tightly-drawn pattern and reasonable throw length. The handling is vastly better than its 3,700-pound curb weight implies, without any of the bone-rattling stiffness modern cars tend to lean towards. The seats are comfy, it’s easy to see out of, and it’s downright polite as long as you don’t mash any pedals too hard. It would be easy to recommend it as a daily driver.
But the crux of my enjoyment is that this car still feels like the underdog it struck me as in 2004. It is still, to most, an old Pontiac, and it embraces that in a way that aged so pleasantly. Only when you look a little closer—and hold the button down on the center console for a few seconds—do you realize it can still strike fear into the hearts of its vastly more expensive competitors, and have a riot of a time doing it.
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