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GRAND PRIX IN ’95 STAYS THE COURSE

SHARE GRAND PRIX IN ’95 STAYS THE COURSE

How about a little sympathy for the marketing gurus who have to find a way to sell cars that are not "ALL NEW FOR '95!"

That's the task that Pontiac has in selling its 1995 Grand Prix SE four-door, a perfectly good midsize family sedan that has to compete for attention with a host of clean-sheet-of-paper '95 models such as Ford-Mercury's Contour/Mystique twins and Chrysler-Dodge's Cirrus/Stratus siblings.Oh, sure, the Pontiac marketing mavens will try hard to convince buyers that the '95 Grand Prix bears only passing resemblance to the '94 version, but the fact is that once you get past an oil level monitor now available with the 3.4 liter engine, 5-spoke aluminum wheels now available with the SE coupe, and EVO variable-effort power steering on GT and GTP packages, the major changes for the 1995 Grand Prix are:

- A new "red orange metallic" paint color available for the SE coupe and sedan and;

- A new floor console with "improved and repositioned dual cupholders and ashtray."

Not much to hang an advertising campaign on, is it?

But they'll give it their best shot. Right now, they're going with "The sports car for grown-ups," a slogan reminiscent of Nissan Maxima's "The four-door sports car" and one intended to convey the following message:

You are a city guy who works in an office. You have a wife and 2.5 kids so you need a four-door sedan that seats five in reasonable comfort. But you still think of yourself as a 20-year-old college student who drives an old MGB roadster and hasn't a care in the world.

Phew! We sure ask our cars to do a lot for us, imagewise, don't we? Still, the new Grand Prix pulls off this sleight of hand better than most. For one thing, Pontiac has long carried the "performance" banner for General Motors, so that gives it a certain cachet right there. Owners might consider getting a bumper sticker that reads: "My other car is a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am!"

Then there's the "Grand Prix" moniker. Which would you rather drive if you're interested in promoting a macho image, a car named after a European racing series or one named after puffy clouds floating around in the sky?

Well, no sense in my worrying about it. I don't have to sell you a Grand Prix, I just have to tell you about it, throw in a little praise, zing it a few times to maintain my journalistic credibility and move on to the next ride.

Besides, Pontiac seems to be doing just fine without my help. In 1994, Grand Prix posted its highest sales since its 1988 redesign to front wheel drive - 131,658 units, up 26.2 percent over 1993.

The car I've been driving this past week is a "dark teal metallic" (greenish blue, or maybe bluish green) Grand Prix that carries a base price of $16,634.

According to the paperwork, my test car came with a $1,937 ISC option package that included 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, power driver's seat, AM/FM cassette stereo with steering wheel controls and power antenna, remote keyless entry, power driver's seat, cruise control, power trunk release, rear window defogger, power mirrors, dual covered visor mirrors and front/rear

floor mats.

Well, not quite. It was missing the remote keyless entry and the stereo controls on the steering wheel. Other options on the test car included 16-inch touring tires ($112) mated to five-spoke aluminum wheels ($259) and bucket seats ($70).

With a destination charge of $535, that put the bottom line at $19,012, a figure that a Pontiac spokeswoman said, "I think you'll agree the Grand Prix offers real value."

I don't know if I agree with that or not. I have never paid that much for a car so, on a personal level, it seems kind of high. On the other hand, in my role as reviewer, I've driven enough new cars to know that price is about average for a new midsize sedan. (Sticker shock is painless when you don't have to make the payments yourself.)

But you can forget that $16,634 base price. In real life, the price range for the Grand Prix SE begins at $18,406 when "popularly equipped" (trust me, you wouldn't want it without the "popular" options) and tops out at $21,915 fully loaded. Apparently, my test car was not fully loaded but was a little more popularly equipped than average.

The sheet metal on the Grand Prix is perfectly tasteful if not particularly memorable, but those 131,658 buyers this year obviously found it to their liking. Inside, it's roomier than I expected, especially in the back seat, which accommodated three people nicely on a ride to Sundance resort for Christmas dinner in the Tree Room.

The interior is nicely finished in a gray velour fabric called Cordea cloth that was both comfy and easy on the eyes. The dash is nicely laid out with large, easy-to-use buttons and switches on the sound system and climate controls.

However, the former delivered only adequate sounds and the latter was criticized by my passengers for its propensity to leave those in front with cold feet while those in back claimed they were being slowly barbecued.

Also coming in for brickbats were the vividly red-lighted instruments, an affectation that seemed out of place in a family sedan.

Motivating the SE is a 3.1 liter SFI V6 mated to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with a button that allows it to start in second gear for fuel economy and better traction in the snow.

This is a nice engine package, providing brisk acceleration that, along with the MacPherson struts on the front and independent tri-link suspension at the rear, goes a long way in supporting the "sports car for grown-ups" claim.

Did I mention that the trunk is a voluminous 15.5 cubic feet, and all of them easily accessible?

Nitpicks: I continue to be annoyed by GM's decision to have all the doors lock as soon as you put their cars in gear. I know this is probably a good idea, what with carjackers running around and all, but I still don't like cars that do things that I haven't told them to do and locking the doors without my express order falls into that category.

I also have no love for the windshield wipers. They sweep the glass in an odd, inside out configuration, leaving huge areas of the windshield unwiped at the top, sides, bottom and especially in the center where the unwiped area extends to a point about halfway down the glass. Also, the wiper control stalk (which also incorporates the cruise control) is difficult to use.

The SE's fuel tank holds a generous 17.1 gallons. The EPA rates its fuel mileage at 19 mpg city and 28 highway, theoretically giving the Pontiac a highway range of 478 miles before the tank runs dry. In real life, the "low fuel" light came on for me after only 332 miles of mostly freeway driving.