Lifestyle

Pontiac Converts


G6gtconvertible_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

With the new G6 convertible, and the new Solstice roadster, Pontiac now has two fun, sporty droptops

Up Front

Pontiac has another bona fide winner on its hands in its new G6 Convertible coupe. The '06 version came out late—in April—and quickly sold out, so dealers are now selling '07s. The company rightly describes the G6 convertible as "red-hot," noting that the cars spend just an average of 11 days on dealers' lots before being snapped up. That makes two best-selling new Pontiacs on the market right now. The other is the Solstice two-seater sports car (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/5/05, "Solstice: A Brawny Beauty").

The G6 convertible has one very big selling point: It starts at less than $30,000 ($29,150, to be precise, for the basic '07 GT model) and comes with a push-button retractable hardtop that folds down into the trunk automatically. The clamshell top, designed in cooperation with Karmann USA, the Michigan arm of the famous German design company, is something of an engineering marvel for a car this inexpensive. General Motors (GM) had some difficulties getting the top to work, which is why the G6 convertible was late to market. But I ran the thing up and down many times, and it seems to work just fine.

The G6 GT—the model I test-drove—comes standard with a 3.5-liter, 201-horsepower V6. There's also a GTP version of the convertible with a 3.9-liter, 227-horsepower V6 and standard stability control that starts at $30,640 in '07. For another $1,450, you can upgrade, with a premium package that includes leather bucket seats, a power driver's seat, heated front seats, and satellite radio. À la carte options include 18-inch alloy wheels ($550), satellite radio ($325), heated seats ($250), a remote vehicle-starter system ($190), and adjustable gas and brake pedals ($125).

Pontiac has sold 92,278 G6s of all types in the first seven months of this year, 45.2% more than last year, including 17,516 sold in July alone. That's enough to make it the ninth best-selling car model on the market. The G6 has been moving up through the ranks of best-selling models, and that's partly due to soaring sales of the G6 convertible, which GM says accounted for 9.5% of G6 sales in July.

Even though the G6 convertible is in short supply, dealers don't seem to be gouging customers on price. The G6 convertible's average real-world selling price right now is $30,415, according to the Power Information Network, about the same as the Toyota (TM) Camry Solara, and about what you'd expect, given the car's sticker price.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

The front-wheel drive G6 GT convertible is sporty, but it's no sportscar. It weighs 3,858 lbs., which is a lot for the relatively small engine to get rolling. And, unfortunately, the G6 convertible only comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. To be genuinely fun to drive, a car like this really needs a smoother, more refined six-speed automatic—or, better yet, a stick shift. Both are available on other G6 models, and it's a shame you can't get them on the convertible, even as an option.

The G6 convertible is no speedster, either. Even with the bigger engine, it takes about 7.5 seconds to jump from 0 to 60 miles per hour. The GT version with the small engine took north of 8 seconds to get to that speed, which is pokey for a car that looks so sleek and swift. Handling isn't so much sloppy as "Detroit-like." You can't push this car very hard on curves and corners without quickly starting to lose control.

Pontiac's priorities are evident as soon as you start driving the car. It's just fast enough and sporty enough so as not to be annoying. The engine has an angry whine when you push it a little, and in the manual-shifting mode the clunky, four-speed automatic is a lot more fun to drive. It's sporty enough to satisfy most people, but it's no BMW.

The company put a premium on making the ride comfortable. For a small, inexpensive car, the G6 does an exceptional job at smoothing out bumps on the highway, and even on rocky back roads. With the top up, the car is also exceptionally quiet inside. Over the past 16 months, I've test-driven more than six dozen new models on the bumpy back roads around my house in rural Pennsylvania, and with its top up the G6 really stands out for the smoothness and quietness of its ride. With the top down, wind-buffeting in the front seats is minimal, even at highway speed.

The car's interior design has its pros and cons. On the plus side, the instruments and general design are very attractive. The dash and instrument setup have a pleasing curvy shape, and there's a crease snaking across the dash that adds to the effect. I especially like the form of the center console, and the way the two, chrome-ringed air ducts at the top go with the console's overall shape. The numerals and markings on the instruments are in a bright red that's very striking at night.

The downside is that the sharply raked windshield makes the dash very deep, and in my test car it was a vast field of too-shiny black vinyl that detracted from the otherwise attractive interior design. The felt roof liner covering up the workings of the retractable top also looks cheap and not very durable. It wouldn't have taken much extra effort on Pontiac's part to upgrade the materials a little more and add an elegant pattern or a splash of color to the interior.

The G6's other big downside is the same as the Solstice's: There's almost no trunk space with the top down. The top folds up into two large panels that take up most of the 12.8 cubic feet of luggage space in the trunk when the top is up. There's a retractable barrier separating the folded-down top from the spare tire, and the only way to create a useable amount of space underneath it when the top is down would be to remove the spare. So unless you want to risk driving around without a spare tire, you have to do without a trunk while driving al fresco.

On the other hand, the G6 convertible has something that the Solstice and its sister model, the Saturn Sky (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/31/06, "Sky High"), don't have: A rear seat. And it's not a tiny little afterthought of a rear seat, either. There's a surprising amount of leg, shoulder, and hip room, though head space is very tight. A couple could take an overnight jaunt on a sunny weekend in this car and still have space for luggage in the back seat. They probably could even take a child along, though two kids plus luggage would be a stretch.

BUY IT OR BAG IT?

This is a great car for someone who wants a good-looking, head turner of a convertible that can double as an everyday car. The retractable hardtop makes it fun to drive in spring, summer, and fall, but also comfortable in winter. The G6 has front-wheel drive and comes with standard traction control, making it practical for winter driving. And the relatively spacious rear seat offsets the lack of luggage space when the top is down. Just keep in mind that it doesn't have the speed and precision handling of a genuine sportscar.

If I were buying a G6, I'd consider paying up for extra interior leather and a bigger engine. The car gets decent mileage either way. The base G6 convertible is rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. You only lose about 1 mpg by going with the bigger engine, and the base model GT convertible is a little too pokey for my taste.

The logical alternative model to consider, in my mind, at least, is the Ford Mustang convertible (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/1/05, "This Mustang is Part Echo, Part Thunder,"). It has a ragtop, rather than a retractable hardtop, but it's a similar car and has the virtue of being a bit cheaper that the Pontiac. I'd also price out the Mini Cooper S convertible (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/06, "Maximum Mini"). Other models to consider are the new Chrysler Sebring, the Solara, and Mitsubishi Spyder Eclipse.

Compared to those rivals, the G6 offers excellent value. Even with the engine and interior upgrades I'm suggesting, you can take home a G6 convertible for a little more than $30,000. It also has the virtue of being manufactured in Michigan, if you care about buying American. And this is one Made-in-USA model where Detroit got most of the important things right.

To see more of the Pontiac G6 convertible, click here for the slide show


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