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First look: Holden's Pontiac is an LA story

On location: The Holden-built Pontiac GTO makes its world debut in Los Angeles.

The covers come off Holden's Pontiac GTO muscle car at the Los Angeles motor show

Holden logo4 Jan 2003

By BRUCE NEWTON in LOS ANGELES

HOLDEN achieves a significant milestone at the Los Angeles auto show today when the Monaro-based 21st century Pontiac GTO muscle car that will go on sale in the USA late this year is revealed in the sheetmetal for the first time.

Despite the distinctive Pontiac twin-nostril grille, there's no doubting the Aussie origins of the car. Indeed, there's more significant changes under the skin where the Chevrolet-sourced LS1 5.7-litre V8 engine gets sizeable power and torque increases.

The red V8 GTO in LA is labelled as a "show car" by General Motors, but in reality it is very close to production form. The rear indicator lights vary only in detail and optional 18-inch alloy wheels are fitted rather than the standard 17-inch items.

A yellow GTO show car will also be on the Pontiac stand at the more prestigious North American International Motor Show at Detroit, which kicks off next week.

The two show cars were put together by Holden's design department at its Fishermens Bend headquarters in Melbourne and air-freighted to the US in November.

Next September the first production cars start rolling off the assembly line at Holden's Elizabeth plant in South Australia, and the first GTOs should be in Pontiac dealers in the US before Christmas. Holden's deal with Pontiac extends to 2006.

Pontiac will offer only the LS1 V8 engine, either as a manual or auto, with pricing expected to start under $US35,000. Equipment for the four-seat coupe will include front and side airbags, ABS, leather trim, six-disc CD player with 10-speaker sound system, cruise control and trip computer.

Holden hopes to sell as many as 20,000 GTOs per year in the US but the watchful eye of the powerful United Auto Workers union and the company's own assembly line limitations ensures it will not climb beyond that figure.

Though miniscule numbers by US standard, the GTO deal shapes up to be extremely profitable for Holden even if the company is staying mum on any figures. However, it is admitting the total cost of the GTO development program is about $60 million, split equally between engineering and plant investment costs.

The program is a huge boost to Holden's exports, which have already covered the Middle East and could soon include South Korea, China, the UK and Europe. The GTO deal should boost the company to more than 50,000 exports in 2004.

The deal to develop the Monaro as the reborn GTO and sell it to the US was championed by GM's worldwide product czar Bob Lutz, who quickly gave the project the thumbs-up after driving the Monaro in February 2002 as a quick and effective way to plug the gaping rear-wheel drive gap in the company's North American performance line-up and revitalise the Pontiac brand.

Mr Lutz announced the go-ahead publicly only seven months ago, and the legitimacy of an Australian-built GTO has been firecely by US enthusiasts ever since.

"The public interest in the GTO has been everything we hoped it would be and more," said Mr Lutz. "This car is a strong statement from both Pontiac and GM that we are determined to re-energise the car market with vehicles that command attention and excite the customer's senses." The original Pontiac GTO was sold between 1964 and 1974 in the US with sales climbing beyond 50,000, before ebbing away in the fuel crisis of the early 1970s. The original Monaro was on sale in Australia between 1968 and 1979 and returned with much fanfare and strong sales in late 2001.

The GTO deal is also a major win for Holden as an international industry player. Selling cars back to its GM parent is an enormous coup and morale booster for a company which has ambitions to market itself under its own name on the global stage from 2005.

"The fact they have come to Australia and found an Australian vehicle and an Australian design to essentially relaunch a brand is pretty amazing," said Holden design boss Mike Simcoe.

The short development timeframe for GTO meant styling changes executed by Holden's design team were less aggressive than Pontiac wanted. The exterior differences centre around the front end, including unique bumper, foglights and mesh grille while there are also GTO engine covers, badging and a standard rear spoiler sourced from HBD.

Inside, the presentation is straight from the VY SS Commodore, which means GTO gets the updated instrument cluster, centre console and four-spoke steering wheel.

Technically, the biggest and most expensive change Holden had to achieve was the relocation of the fuel tank in front of the rear axle to cope with US federal and GM's own rear crash impact standards. This modification also engendered the only sheetmetal revision, which is to the rear quarter panel to account for a new fuel filler.

Engine modifications including a high-lift camshaft, increased induction airflow and opened-up exhausts which boost power from 235kW to 254kW at 5200rpm, and torque from 465Nm to 488Nm at 4000rpm. The GTO is also louder than the Monaro as a result of the exhaust changes.

The power boost was demanded by both Mr Lutz and Pontiac so the car would perform to the level American buyers expect of the GTO.

To further aid acceleration the first two gears in the six-speed manual Tremec gearbox have been shortened and the four-speed automatic joins the manual in having the 3.46 final drive ratio, up from 3.08 on the Monaro.

Pontiac's provisional performance claims issued at Los Angeles include a sub six-second 0-60mph time, a quarter-mile time around 14 seconds and a top speed of about 160mph.

In the interests of fuel economy, the GTO has also inherited the "1-4-shift" function from the Chevrolet Corvette in its auto gearbox. This means under normal acceleration the car changes straight from first to fourth gear.

None of the styling or technical changes are scheduled to flow through to Monaro at this stage.

This is actually a return to the US for Holden, which for a period beginning in the early 1950s sporadically sold a handful of cars in Hawaii.

But Holden is not the first local manufacturer to sell significant numbers of cars to the USA, with Mitsubishi already exporting the Magna/Verada there as the Diamante.

And Toyota is Australia's number one vehicle exporter, sending close to 60,000 Camrys overseas in 2002, although it does not sell to the USA.

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