Pontiac's Bonneville sure is an eye-catcher: aggressive, distinctive, even slightly overstated. It backs up its looks with a responsive, sporting personality. The supercharged SSEi, particularly, can run with the best from overseas. Yet underneath those racy lines lives a practical sedan with real full-size room.
The Bonneville was redesigned for the 2000 model year, and has not changed substantially since then. For 2001, the OnStar navigation and security system became standard on all models, and heated front seats joined the option list. Revisions for 2002 are a little more substantial and include new front and rear fascias for the SE trim level, 17-inch wheels for SE and SLE, and more standard equipment all around.
SE ($25,530); SLE ($28,720); SSEi ($32,950)
The Pontiac Bonneville demands attention. But whether its aggressive design is macho and muscular or borderline gauche, you'll have to decide for yourself.
The Bonneville begins with an assertive, pointed nose and Pontiac's signature bird-beak grille dipping down into the front bumper. Each trim level presents a slightly different face to the world. SE and SLE models come with fog lamps mounted in the outer edge of the bumper, while the SSEi's fog lamps nestle closer together, on either side of the grille. Bonneville's profile is a long, undulating S-curve that's emphasized by ribbed body cladding on the lower sides of the SSEi. Heavily trimmed taillights accent its round rump. Even the base SE model rides on 16-inch alloy wheels. Chrome wheels, new for 2002, are optional on SLE and SSEi.
The Bonneville's interior is roomy and comfortable. An optional front bench seat ($150 on SE only) provides theoretical six-person seating, although adult passengers will find the center of either the front or rear seat a little cramped. Rear-seat head and legroom is good for two passengers. The standard seating configuration includes spacious bucket seats in front that hold driver and passenger in quite snuggly, especially with cloth upholstery, which is a lot less slippery than the optional leather. The standard six-way power driver's seat helps folks of all sizes find a comfortable position.
A console that wraps around the driver, much like one would find in a sports car, lends a youthful, cockpit character to the Bonneville's interior. The front edge of this console wraps up over the top of the instrument panel in one great sweep. No less than eight fluidic vents in the dashboard can be aimed in any direction. Within the instrument pod, a group of six small but easy-to-read gauges cluster around the steering wheel. An oil pressure gauge and voltmeter join the speedometer, tachometer, fuel and water temperature gauges. The second set of audio controls on the steering wheel are convenient, and their safety value should be obvious. Yet the rest of the industry is only now catching up with this Pontiac innovation.
In addition, the SSEi comes with a message center that can display a variety of malfunction warnings. Individual settings for the driver's seat, mirrors, climate control and audio preferences can be programmed as well. All models come with catcher's mitt front seats designed to support the body in an accident. Seat-integrated safety belts contribute not only to safety but also to a comfortable fit. Rear-seat passengers are not forgotten, as they get a decent-sized center armrest with cupholders and a storage box. Pass-through access to the trunk for skis and other long items is available when the console is folded down.
The Pontiac Bonneville's driving characteristics live up to its looks. Even in the standard SE configuration, the Bonneville has enough power to provide respectable performance. Thanks to the engine's relatively large capacity, it has more torque than most of its rivals, and torque is what contributes to quick stoplight getaways and on-ramp acceleration. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and the chassis responds promptly to the driver's input.
Pontiac advertising has bragged for years about a wide track for secure handling. In fact, Pontiac has not built a car with a significantly wider track than anyone else's since 1960. (The Dodge Intrepid covers only a fraction of an inch less road, front and rear.) But never mind.
The Bonneville rides on a stiff body shell and a firm suspension that acquit themselves well on a twisty road. This is a solid-feeling car, one that doesn't wallow like so many full-size American models of years gone by.
Nor does it torque steer, as some other powerful front-drivers do, thanks to its clever suspension design. (Torque steer is the tendency to pull the steering wheel in one direction or the other under hard acceleration.) Traction control ($175 on SE; standard on other Bonnevilles) helps keep the front tires from spinning when accelerating hard. All models ride on an automatic load-leveling rear suspension, which helps keep handling consistent regardless of the number of passengers or amount of luggage aboard.
The SLE and SSEi, with their slightly stiffer suspension, handle better than the SE but still ride without too much harshness. The base SE rides a little softer, but still offers better control than other cars of similar size, such as the Toyota Avalon and Dodge Intrepid.
A clever tire-inflation monitor is a useful standard feature, keeping the driver appraised of the pressure in each tire. StabiliTrak stability control, standard on SSEi, enhances active safety by selectively applying the brakes to the front wheels to counteract skids. The SSEi also comes with GM's Eyecue head-up display, which projects vehicle speed and other information onto the inside of the windshield, just in front of the driver.
Anyone who needs a full-size car, but prefers a car with a sporty personality, should enjoy the Pontiac Bonneville. It has a unique look that fits Pontiac's performance image. The supercharged SSEi offers acceleration performance fully competitive with top near-luxury imports, yet offers much more interior room.
In its base SE form, the Bonneville compares favorably with the Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde.