Oohs by way of Oz

Cynics may look at the new Pontiac GTO and say it is neither. Built in Australia by General Motors subsidiary Holden, the GTO is an American-spec version of the Monaro coupe, which itself is based on Holden's popular VT Commodore sedan. It's a Pontiac in roughly the same degree that it is a can of Foster's lager.

As for it being a GTO, well, anybody who thinks this car looks like a GTO has kangaroos loose in the top paddock, if you know what I mean. The Goats of LBJ's Great Society era were overpowered, under-tired fantasias of steel and chrome, garish and glorious. The late-1960s GTOs were particularly decadent, with a wicked, rearward sloping profile as if the car were perpetually in mid-wheelie.

The new GTO's styling has the same effect on one's limbic system as a handful of codeine and an Indian night raga.

Fortunately, I am not a cynic. I don't care that it's Australian, and its work-in-progress looks may in fact represent an opportunity for Pontiac to, at last, bond with Generation FnF (as in "The Fast and the Furious").

Indeed, the GTO -- priced around $33,000 -- is exactly the sort of project GM ought to be doing. The General, which has spent a decade extending its global reach, is only now beginning to translate its investments into improved product for the North American market. For example, the new hot-selling Saab 9-3 is based on the Opel Epsilon platform, the same as the new Chevrolet Malibu. The coming-soon Saab 9-2 is based on a Subaru all-wheel-drive platform.

We shouldn't take the name "GTO" too seriously. This is purely an exercise in the power of suggestion. GM product czar Robert Lutz chose to resurrect the nameplate because he reckoned -- I think correctly -- that the Excitement division was the one that could most use the excitement. It is curious, however, that the word "Pontiac" does not appear on the car -- shades of the orphaned Olds Aurora.

It's an open question whether the GTO name -- redolent with associations from the groovy 1960s, from the Monkeemobile to "Here comes da Judge!" -- will work for the car. Purists and Goatheads have scorned the Neo-GTO as not being, as they say in Oz, fair dinkum. But the name sure has generated a lot of ink, which is exactly what Lutz & Co. hoped.

And, oh yeah, it's a hot car.

Here then, in no particular order, are the things I like about it.

Deep throat: Boot the gas pedal and listen to that sonorous, dual-exhaust baritone. Vibrating those vocal cords is a 5.7-liter -- as in 350 cubic inches -- pushrod V-8 churning the rear wheels with 350 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Old school? Sure, and low-tech compared with the computer-orchestrated overhead-cam engines of Honda or BMW. But those cars can't sing in the malevolent registers that the GTO can. This is muscle-car psychedelia straight from the '60s.

Strictly ballroom: You might be wondering why GM would go to the trouble of bringing an Australian rear-drive coupe to America when it only recently killed off the Pontiac Firebird-Chevrolet Camaro twins? Good question, and you can bet the United Auto Workers asked it too. But the fact is the F-body Firebird-Camaro, with its solid-axle rear end, could never have delivered the kind of balance and chassis sophistication of the GTO.

This thing drives beautifully. The car feels rock solid, with none of the cowl shake of the old Firebird. The ride is supple and well damped. The steering is crisp and communicative. Toss it from a tight corner to another, and it stays well composed -- none of that sideways momentum with compound interest that affected the F-body cars. In a high-speed curve the GTO gives up a few degrees of body roll as it acquires a grip, then stiffens up and shoulders through. The only thing it needs is more rubber on the road. Read on.

Department of the interior: Pontiac interiors -- in cars like the Bonneville -- are so ugly they are practically toxic. By comparison, the GTO interior is a work of art: clean, sober, mature, fuss free. Red dials with chrome bezels. Tasteful aluminized brightwork around the instrument panel and central console. Switches with a positive, intuitive feel. A nice, easy-to-operate Blaupunkt audio head with CD changer. Beautifully stitched seams on four of the best bucket seats ever assembled in a GM car. No LCD screens with flashing "Wide Track" icons. No gray plastic Chiclets.

Whatever the yobbos are swilling in Elizabeth, Australia, send a case to Detroit.

Tuner fish: This car comes to market essentially half-finished. Sure, it's quick -- zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds -- but a Ford Mustang Cobra SVT is quicker. Yes, it handles well, but a Mazda RX8 is in all likelihood faster around a road course. But as a stiffer-than-stiff, rear-drive, V-8-powered coupe with a six-speed transmission, the GTO has gobs of untapped potential. Wait until the aftermarket tuners get through with it.

It would be a relatively simple matter to squeeze an extra 50 horsepower out of the Chevy LS-1 engine. How about a cold-air induction system fed through functional hood scoops as in the old car? How about freer breathing intake and exhaust plumbing, and a megaphonic exhaust system that splits into true dual pipes, instead of the double-barreled cluster that sticks out from the car's left-rear bumper? How about a supercharger? Did I say 50? Make it 100.

And that's just the beginning. The Australian Monaro wears 18-inch tires. The America-bound GTO is shod with 17-inch wheels and tires, which gives the car slightly more compliant ride -- according to an Australian colleague who has driven both -- but sacrifices a degree of grip that would be welcome off the line and in tight cornering. Push the new GTO to its sliding, tire-squawking limits, and it's obvious the suspension isn't working very hard.

So bump up the wheel-and-tire package to 18 or 19 inches. Make room for bigger brakes -- the current four-wheel disc system does a merely adequate job of slowing down the car's 3,825-pound mass. Put heavier struts, springs and anti-roll bars on it. Lower the suspension. If the wheel wells can't take it, fire up the Sawzall.

It's not as if you would be desecrating a masterpiece. The car's styling is somewhere between a late-'90s Monte Carlo and an Olds Alero coupe. There is no scale fine enough to measure such low levels of visual panache. So bring on the fender flares, hood scoops, aero skirting, air dams, spoilers, wild wheels and assorted festoonery. Have fun with it, get crazy, make it your own.

This is exactly the sort of bonding Pontiac needs with the next generation of testosterone addicts.

Drift wood: Drifting, in case you don't know, is an Asian-bred motor sport that involves slinging cars around with their back wheels spinning -- fishtailing around a racecourse in a kind of burnout ballet. It is just now peeking out from underground tuner culture into the mainstream.

To drift, you need a rear-drive, stick-shift car with sufficient power to keep the rear wheels blazing. Drifting enthusiasts often have trouble finding such cars, like the Toyota Supra or the not-for-America Nissan Skyline GT-R. The GTO would be a pretty fair drifting car.

Going soon: The product plan for the Australian-built GTO is this: three years, 18,000 units annually in the North American market, then out. This is a limited-edition car -- limited, incidentally, so as not to arouse the wrath of the UAW, which didn't think too highly of importing a rear-drive V-8 car. The GTO is collectible.

Coupe d'etat: The GTO is a proper two-door coupe. Millions of Americans have lost sight of -- or maybe have never known -- the pleasure of a taut, competent sports coupe, the kind of car that bonds with the road instead of pummeling it into submission. Any car that moves the needle in that direction, I applaud. Also, with its taller-than-tall sixth gear and sleek aerodynamics, the GTO gets 29 miles per gallon on the highway, as rated by the EPA. That's substantially better than a Mustang Cobra SVT. (Unfortunately, the standard four-speed GTO automatic transmission drives the gas mileage way down so that the car is subject to the federal gas-guzzler tax.)

In conclusion: Though it's too much to suggest that GM did it on purpose, the new GTO -- a some-assembly-required supercar -- offers unprecedented opportunities for go-fast mischief by hobbyists and pro tuners alike. Of such relationships are lifelong loyalties made.

But the General may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It declined to share crucial dimensions and contours of the GTO with the aftermarket community -- the people who build the wings, the air dams, the trick lights and undercarriage glow sticks. This sharing process, known as "technology transfer," is a required step in the design of pieces that fit well on stock vehicles. It appears that GM wants to hoard the high-profit accessories business on the GTO for a while.

Bad idea. At this month's Specialty Equipment Market Assn. convention in Las Vegas -- SEMA, as it is known -- Pontiac unveiled its "Autocross" tuner concept of the GTO, which was a tame, even timid attempt at street cred. It was a reminder that car tuning as it has emerged in the last decade is essentially a folk art, not a commodity to be repackaged and sold over the counter.

Let the kids have at the GTO. The kids are all right.

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Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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2004 Pontiac GTO

Wheelbase: 109.8 inches

Length: 189.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,825 pounds

Powertrain: 5.7-liter fuel-injected V-8; six-speed manual or four- speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 350 at 5,200 rpm

Torque: 365 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds

EPA rating: 17 miles per gallon city, 29 highway, with six-speed manual; 16/21 city/highway with automatic

Price, base: $33,495 (including shipping and a $1,000 federal gas-guzzler tax applied to automatic-equipped cars)

Price, as tested: $33,495

Competitor: Mustang Cobra SVT

Final thoughts: Mighty morph-able power ranger

Sources: GM, Car and Driver magazine

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