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General Motors is at its best when it creates specialty cars, and the '97 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP is proof.

It's quick, it's competent and - a portent of things to come - it backs away from the flashy exterior trimmings that have given Pontiac a bit of a gold chains image in recent years.The GTP, as well as the tamer members of the '97 Grand Prix tribe, is devoid of the plastic body parts that gave previous generations a look that seemed more appropriate to the deck of an aircraft carrier than the street.

If anything, the exterior design of the new line is understated - clean, smooth and, yes, elegant.

The Grand Prix shares the same chassis as the '97 Buick Century and Oldsmobile Intrigue, an all-new platform known as the W-car within GM.

Coupe or sedan, these are bigger cars than their predecessors - longer, lower and wider, with a three-inch wheelbase stretch and, shades of the Wide Trackin' '60s, increased width between the wheels.

The new chassis is noticeably stiffer than the old, a plus in the handling department, and the longer wheelbase yields a better ride, although this is harder to discern in the GTP, with its firm suspension.

Grand Prix sedans will be offered in SE and GT editions for '97, while coupes will be GT only. The basic SE sedan comes with GM's 160-horsepower, 3.1-liter V6, which is adequate but far from thrilling.

The pace picks up considerably in the GT, where GM's excellent 3800 Series II V6 - 195 hp and plentiful low-rpm grunt - takes the place of the previous 3400 V6.

But if you've got a hot rod heart - a psychological trait that's been the core of Pontiac marketing for years - you gotta have the GTP.

The GTP designation entails a $1,233 add-on package that includes stickier tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, rear spoiler and the supercharged version of the 3800 V6.

Although the new Grand Prix is close to the same weight class as the bigger Bonneville, the supercharged 3800 lends go-power that key competitors like the Ford Taurus SHO and Nissan Maxima SE just can't match.

With the supercharged engine and four-speed automatic transmission, the Grand Prix scurries to 60 mph in less than seven seconds, and it also takes the worry out of two-lane passing maneuvers. Stomp on the gas and, zoom, you're out and around whatever it was that was slowing you down.

There are two small negatives associated with the GTP power train.

The first is torque steer. That's a tendency for the front wheels to pull right or left during hard acceleration from a standing start.

This was once a common trait in high-horsepower front-drive cars. Remember the Dodge Omni GLH, and the Ford Probe turbo? But it's been quelled over the years, and there's only a hint of it in the GTP.

The second problem is wheel spin. The Bosch-built traction control system offered in the Grand Prix can't handle the extra output of the supercharged engine, so traction control is absent from the GTP package.

As a result, a hard stab at the throttle yields tire screech. While you may or may not regard this as socially acceptable behavior, wheel spin isn't something you're likely to want when winter reduces traction to near-nil.

A new Grand Prix traction control system is planned for 1998 GTP models. Meanwhile, you'll just have to tell your right foot to mind its manners.

Your right foot will also have a lot to say about how far you'll go between fuel stops.

When the supercharger is blowing maximum power into the cylinders, you can expect a corresponding jump in gas consumption. But even in brisk driving, the GTP delivers respectable fuel economy.

EPA ratings are 17 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway. During a gotta-get-home run from Traverse City, Mich., back to Motown, at, well, vigorous cruising speeds, I averaged over 26 mpg.

Considering what this car can do when you're in a hurry, that's a pretty respectable number.

The GTP handling is competent, and its Magnasteer power rack and pinion steering system is precise, albeit a trifle short on road feel when the wheels are pointed straight ahead.

Body roll is fairly well controlled in hard cornering and quick right-left-right transits, and there are no dramatic reactions, even if you decide to hit the brakes in the middle of a turn.

But even with its stiffened chassis, this is still a front-drive car, and its basic handling trait in really hard cornering is understeer. The faster you enter a given corner, the more the car wants to go straight ahead.

While Pontiac showed commendable restraint with the new Grand Prix exterior, the redesigned interior is strongly reminiscent of the previous generation.

The control and instrument layout gets good marks for function, but it's also a little gaudy with its red-orange night lighting and two-toned plastics.

Although Pontiac has obviously had success with its instrument lighting, there were several details that I found intrusive in night driving.

Tops on this list is the high beam light, which burns a dazzling neon blue when the high beams are on. It's important to know when your high beams are on, of course, so you can avoid blinding other drivers. But a little less intensity would be appropriate here.

My Grand Prix test car also had a head-up display, which projects a digital speedometer, as well as radio station data, into the lower part of the windshield.

The benefit is that the driver doesn't have to glance down at the speedo to check on vehicle velocity, which is a particular plus with a car that loves to gallop.

But even though the intensity of the head-up display projection is adjustable, I still found its lowest intensity a little bright - and hence distracting - for night driving.

A smaller quibble: Although the steering wheel radio control switches are backlit, the power window switches in the door panels are not. I suppose that once you're acclimated, they're easy enough to locate and operate by touch.

Thanks to its increased dimensions, the new Grand Prix is roomier than the old, which adds up to improved comfort, particularly for rear seat passengers.

The seats - leather-covered in my test car - were generally comfortable, with a good range of adjustability, although front seat side-bolstering is surprisingly modest for a car with sport sedan aspirations.

Side bolsters help keep the driver and front passenger anchored during spirited back road blitzes, and the GTP's seats aren't very well suited to that kind of driving. This is one area where more BMW influence would be beneficial.

The breakdown includes a preferred $1,389 option group (rear window defogger, steering wheel radio controls, six-way power seat, rear window antenna, trip computer, head-up display, custom interior trim and premium lighting); leather ($475); AM/FM/CD audio; ($250); eight-speaker sound system ($125); polished alloy wheels ($285); heated driver seat ($50); and power lumbar support ($100).

Devoid of all but the GTP package option, our test car would have cost $22,142, which adds up to a lot of go for your greenbacks. The Taurus SHO, in contrast, starts at about $29,500.

In a way, the Grand Prix GTP strikes me as GTO for the '90s.

It may not have the have the kind of tire-shredding muscle the GTO brought to the party back in the go-go '60s, but its blend of sophisticated good looks, all-around competence and supercharged power is very much in tune with the times.