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Pontiac steers a sporty line

For modern times, GM remakes brand as synonym for fun

Today we recall the days of heavy, powerful American steel.

One of the most memorable models was the 1949 Pontiac Chieftain Eight Deluxe convertible. It featured strips of chrome bisecting the massive hood, masks of chrome at the bases of bulging rear fenders, and chrome as sculpture all over its exterior.

In those days, it was acceptable to have a hood ornament shaped like a Native American chief, his headdress feathers flung into the wind as if in flight. Now, there's no place for such a figure or the 106-horsepower, eight-cylinder engine that powered the Chieftain.

Instead, we have Pontiac's latest model for modern times -- the 2006 Pontiac G6 GT, today's test car.

In its base version, at about $25,000, the 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, with 169 horsepower, is adequate for today's travel. Since it carries just four passengers, that is enough horsepower for some decent cruising.

Pontiac's efforts are just behind Cadillac's as General Motors Corp. makes an effort to redefine itself.

Pontiac's Solstice sports car gives the brand an edge that might bite into the market shares of such competitors as the Mazda Miata.

Dealers have whispered to me that they don't want minivans or SUVs branded with the Pontiac name, but they have to be pleased by the G6 in hardtop and convertible form. Each GM brand does not need one of everything that GM builds; it just needs enough varied product to sell. Solstice is already doing that and the G6 should certainly help spur more sales.

The G6 is a hardtop convertible that offers the advantage of true four-season driving. The wind that subtly whistles through the tiniest opening in a hardtop in summer becomes a driven blast when it brings with it the below-zero air of a New England winter.

This hardtop takes only a few seconds to open and close, and tucks neatly into the trunk. Though it eats up lots of trunk space that a soft-top would not, the pleasure of its quiet, protective ride in winter is worth the swap. Ditto for the rigidity it provides in frost-heave season.

The convertible comes in G6, G6 GT, and GTP models with four engine varieties, three of them based on the V-6.

Prices run from around $25,000 to more than $30,000 for our test G6 GT, which was equipped with a 3.5-liter, 217-horsepower V-6, a quick and smooth performer.

It is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car that uses a four-speed automatic transmission in both base and GT models. Larger engines in pricier models reach nearly 250 horsepower and have a six-speed manual as an option.

This is a quick, stable car when powered by the less powerful V-6, and its automatic transmission allowed me to redline to each shift point. Dash rattle, common in a convertible, was kept under control, though the car was noticeably stiffer with its top up.

Also, I found the suspension (and yes, GT does imply "touring") to be a bit soft -- not particularly while operating at power or in highway passing situations, but more on slower roads that got bumpy.

Inside, front and rear seats are soft at the center where they should be, and firm and gripping on the outsides, also good.

Standard features include antilock brake system and traction control, "touring" suspension, fog lamps, and an eight-speaker sound system.

To jump from just under $28,000 -- the price of this model -- to almost $30,000, we needed only add the $1,365 leather package. That came with heated, leather-appointed front seats, a six-way power driver's seat, and leather on the steering wheel and shift knob.

Pontiac is trying to redefine itself as GM's "sporty" division. This car -- in hardtop and convertible form -- steers it in that direction.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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