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Pontiac G8: An Australian import

If you ever have occasion to share a drink with an Australian -- your luck is bound to run out, sooner or later -- do yourself a favor, mate. Don't offer to buy him a Foster's beer. Though Americans might think they are just being sociable, the lager made famous in the U.S. ad campaign as "Oostraalian fer beyr" is plague-ridden creek water, the downstream effluent of an upstream kangaroo petting zoo. Foster's makes Pabst Blue Ribbon seem like the scintillating golden cataract from Bacchus' boundless fountain.

Australians hate Foster's, just loathe it. Of course, offered a Foster's, the Aussie in question will be polite and probably only head-butt you. If she's a Sheila.

I bring this up because Australians and Americans -- one group loud and obnoxious, bred from criminals, the other group Australians -- have very different expectations of Australian-made products. The new-for-2008 Pontiac G8, for example, is a re-badged version of the Australia-built Holden Commodore, a reasonably quaffable V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive sedan based on GM's Zeta platform design (Holden is GM's Australian subsidiary). The G8 follows in the wide-track footprints of the now-discontinued Pontiac GTO, which was a badge job of the Holden Monaro.

To be sure, the Pontiac G8 executes hydrocarbons with style and élan. The sedan is available with a 3.6-liter, 256-hp V6 (paired with five-speed automatic), but the marquee powertrain is the V8 with the six-speed automatic (hence the name). The eight-can G8 I drove for a week was significantly solid feeling, all cold-rolled, sintered and cast-in-place. It was quick (zero to 60 in about 5.3 seconds). It could be prodded into an ugly and un-virtuous, tire-peeling tantrum with the traction-control turned off. It was fitted and kitted with high-grade plastics, dense rubberized dash materials and handsome two-tone perforated leather. For a GM car costing $29,310 ($31,845 with all the leather swaddling inside), the G8 is a notable value. It would be a shoo-in for Car of the Year, if the year were 2005.

But it's no BMW 5-series. You will see this preposterous comparison here and there in the automotive press -- words to the effect of "Pontiac G8: Bargain 5-series?" See, this is why you must control your intake of mood elevators before writing car reviews.

Australians would find this comparison wildly laughable, and usually they laugh only when someone is being kicked in the groin. To Australians, Holden is exactly where Chevrolet is in the U.S. marketplace -- mass-market, mid-price, working-class performance. In overall refinement, material quality, sophistication and -- most keenly -- ride and handling, the G8 isn't even on the same island-continent as the 5-series.

This is a common mistake people make, and when I say people, I mean GM. I remember Vice Chairman Bob Lutz going around calling the last-generation Pontiac Grand Prix an American BMW. As we know now, the Grand Prix was a BMW fighter as pointy wooden sticks are nuclear missiles. To invite such comparisons is to court disappointment. It's actually a disservice to the lesser product.

Spared the unfair comparisons to München schteeel, the G8 acquits itself very well. The cabin is big and comfortable, with excellent sight lines. The optional leather sport seats hold your keister nicely in place. The interior design has a nice cross-trainer sportiness to it, upscale if not exactly luxurious. I couldn't quite get the hang of the radio controls, though, which seem to have been randomized like Scrabble tiles.

Driven hard, the G8 wants to please, it really does. The engine leaps into the upper registers like a Gershwin score. The shift-able six-speed automatic -- with an engine-blipping program for smoother downshifts -- gives you lots of in-and-out corner control. I especially like the fact you can switch off traction control. When you get the car turned into a corner, you can get back on the throttle hard and, with the little grind-and-stutter of the limited-slip differential, power out of the corner with easily controllable rotation. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with this chassis and nothing a six-speed manual wouldn't make better. Look for a six-speed and a Corvette engine in the 2009 G8 GXP.

Steering feel is light and tight, with lots of lively feedback. The car delights in long, smooth sweepers spooled out in country lanes. The G8's body motions are well-damped and reasonably flat, although -- and this is where that extra $20,000 and BMW badge goes missing -- on uneven pavement the car wants to load and unload the rear suspension, getting a leetle bit floaty. I reckon when the more aggressively tuned GXP comes out, the laces of this shoe will be tightened.

Personally, I feel kind of sorry for the G8 -- or at least all the capable and talented people who brought it to our shores. This car has landed at an unpropitious moment in petrochemical history. I noted today, while I was standing at the pump putting $4.85-a-gallon hi-test in the galling muscle car, that I kind of felt like a guy standing at an ATM next to a bordello. The reek of monetized sin was upon me.

Surprisingly, though -- considering the flame-tipped bark and violent back-shoving of an angered G8 -- the thing gets really good gas mileage. I put my foot in it so often I almost lost my shoe, and the worst fuel-economy average I got was 16 mpg. This is undoubtedly thanks to Holden-GM's variable-displacement technology that shuts down four of the engine cylinders when loads are light.

Do I love it? Not really. I am pained that this car wasn't around three years ago. The G8 feels like hay that wasn't made while the sun shined. I think the supernumerary nostrils and front end design are small calamities. I could remodel this thing with a sledge hammer with good results. But the G8 is a fine performance car and a good price; it's just L8.

dan.neil@latimes.com

2008 Pontiac G8 Base price: $29,310Price, as tested: $31,845Powertrain: 6.0-liter overhead-valve V8 with active fuel management; six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; rear-wheel driveHorsepower: 361 at 5,300 rpmTorque: 385 pound-feet at 4,400 rpmCurb weight: 3,995 pounds0-60 mph: 5.3 secondsWheelbase: 114.7 inchesOverall length: 196.1 inchesEPA fuel economy: 15/24 mpg, city/highway (premium recommended)Final thoughts: Oostralian for "redneck"

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