When Chrysler came out with the 300C, automotive journalists everywhere could be heard celebrating the return of the full-size, rear-wheel-drive, V8 American sedan. “Finally!” they cried, “A return to our glory days of yore!” Many waxed poetic about its slightly retro lines, saying that it looked like a proper American car. The gangster lines, the narrow windows, the hard angles, all bold, American design characteristics.
Then, last year, Pontiac released the G8 GT. The G8’s 361 horsepower was just enough to earn it bragging rights over the 340-horse 300C. The Pontiac was also around 100 lbs lighter than the 300C, and had a great deal more performance credential. Massive Brembo brakes, a tuned suspension, a wide, low-slung stance… and look! Hood nostrils! The Pontiac was a European-style sports sedan, where the 300C was old-school American luxury, but nevertheless, the 300C had a competitor again. Finally, there were a pair of American muscle sedans to do a proper shootout with.
Now, full disclosure time. Let’s face it, Butch loves his RWD sedans. I can’t think of many things I enjoy doing more than power-sliding a huge slab of metal around a corner. I got addicted to the sensation with my old ’63 Impala and it never really faded. That car has been gone for over 10 years now, but I still long for the chance to toss a big heavy car into a powerslide. Finally, while testing these two cars, I had my chance again. And yes, before anyone complains, I could have chosen the Charger R/T instead of the 300C. I could have done that, if I were blind and had the mental capacity of a block of Gorgonzola. Let’s face it: the Charger is an ugly car. It’s simply not attractive, and has almost enough class to look appropriate covered in NASCAR decals and parked outside a double-wide trailer. And it’s a four-door sedan. Chargers are not four-door sedans. Besides, I want to drive a car that at least pretends to have some style and class, so the 300C it is.
But something just didn’t feel quite right. I had already driven both the 300C and the G8 for this article, but something felt like it was lacking. I mean, we’re talking about big, American sedans, cars with a rich heritage, a rich history, and a special place in North American culture. Cars like the Ford Galaxie, the Chevrolet Impala, the Pontiac Bonneville, the Chrysler Imperial, the Oldsmobile Cutlass. So why do we only have two candidates for this review? Sure, we could bring in the Charger, but we don’t need two of the same car. After all, we’re not Motor Trend.
It was actually when I stopped by a dealership to pick up a Flex for a different test that a clever dealer reminded me of the final option, rounding out the offerings from the Big Three American automakers.
And that’s why we now have the Grand Marquis in this test as well. Oh yes. All your dreams have come true.
2009 Mercury Grand Marquis
So let’s start with the Grand Marquis. I’ll be honest, I may have had more fun driving this car than any of the others in the test. Does that mean it’s the best car in our head-to-head-to-head comparison? Not so fast, bucko.
The Grand Marquis is built on the Panther platform. This platform was originally introduced in 1979, and has remained largely unchanged since then. Let’s just go over that one more time. When this car’s platform was introduced, the concept of Ronald Reagan becoming president still would have made people laugh. In Canada, Trudeaumania was finally waning after a decade. Popular songs on the AM radio would have included “My Sharona” by the knack, “YMCA” by the Village People, “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers and “I Was Made for Loving You” by KISS. Editor-In-Chief Suzanne wasn’t born yet, and the immaculate Scarlett Johansson wouldn’t be born for another five years. Five more years. Seriously.
So let’s look at the advanced technology available in the Grand Marquis. It is a body-on-frame design. It has dual bench seats. Bench seats, ladies and gentlemen. And according to the pamphlet I was handed to go with the car, it features many advanced features to make your time in the Grand Marquis more comfortable. Features such as an electronic climate control and heated seats. And… uh… yeah, that’s about it. There’s no SatNav, no Sirius or XM, no blue teeth. Just blue hairs; I’m pretty sure they come standard. I’m not saying it came from the Grand Marquis, but I had never noticed having grey hair until shortly after my test of the Mercury.
So how does it drive? Well, let’s face it, it’s at a significant disadvantage. It’s an ancient car, sold primarily for ancient people. But it’s not as big a disadvantage as you might think.
The Grand Marquis uses Ford’s workhorse 4.6L SOHC V8, producing 224 horsepower, and 272 torques, and running through a four-speed automatic. Let’s face it, these aren’t specs that are going to blow anyone’s mind, particularly in a 4100-lb car. That being said, however, it’s not all bad.
Let’s face it, there’s something seriously fun about driving a car this obsolete. Our tester model came in a lovely Grandma’s Lipstick Red with a Wilford Brimley’s Oatmeal beige interior. Simply put, there are no options on trim levels or packages. They have one model available, and you betcha, we got it!
Driving the car is an exercise in nostalgia. It doesn’t so much follow the road as it does float above it. When you stomp on the gas and try to drive it aggressively, well, almost nothing happens. The nose launches skyward, and the tail squats like a dog begging for treats, but you don’t exactly go any faster. When you try and take it around a slalom course, it responds. And that’s about all we can say about it. It does everything you ask of it, but nothing particularly well.
Simply put, the Grand Marquis is the absolute best late-70s sedan we’ve ever driven. That may not sound like a compliment, but it is, if you take it the right way. No, the Grand Marquis may not compete against any of the sports sedans of today, but if you’re the kind of person who likes the old land yachts — and I am one of those people — this is the best option you’re ever going to find.
2009 Chrysler 300C
Remember how we said the Grand Marquis wasn’t as badly outmatched as you might think? It’s true. The 300C is a modern interpretation of the classic large sedans of the 60’s and 70’s. But whereas the Grand Marquis achieves this nostalgic call-out through a simple lack of significant updates, the 300C achieves it through technology and design.
It may seem to be an almost comedic irony that a car would be using technology to achieve the low-tech ride and comfort levels of the 1960s, but that is exactly what the 300C does; and when you consider that it’s intentional, they do a pretty amazing job.
Our tester was one of their new “SRT Design” cars. These are the 5.7L, 340-horse “C” model with all of the options that come standard on the higher-level SRT-8 cars, including massive 20-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, leather seats, SatNav, Sirius radio, MyGig, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment center that flips up out of the centre console. This car is almost overloaded with toys and goodies. Unfortunately, all these toys still do not completely make up for a mediocre interior.
Let’s face it, we want to like the 300C, we really, really do; but there are some things we just can’t overlook. The interior plastics, particularly on the center dash and console, are so bad they are almost offensive. The soft plastics of the upper portion of the dash appear to be made of the same rubber you use for winter floor-mats, and the seats, while comfortable, provide very little lateral support. We couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps they were actually intended for very large occupants; the seats seemed to have been designed for much larger backsides than most cars we’re used to. In fact, it’s fortunate we’re comparing it to the Grand Marquis, as that is one of the few vehicles capable of making the 300C look good.
So how does it drive? Well that depends on how you look at it.
The 300C is Mercedes’ attempt at creating a classic American luxury car. In some ways, they succeeded brilliantly; in others, it feels a little insulting. The ride is soft, sumptuous and comfortable. You are well-insulated from the rough patches of the road, and indeed from the world around you. The ride is quiet, composed and elegant. In highway cruising, it’s almost enough to make you think you’re riding in a car that costs significantly more than it does.
In my test drive, I drove about 50 km along a freeway to get the car to my testing road of choice. During this part of the drive, I couldn’t help but think many positive thoughts. “Enjoyable” would be the word I would choose, it I had to boil it down to only one. It has ample power, and while the suspension floated a bit when I encountered a stretch of highway plagued with frost-heaves, it was otherwise composed and lacking in drama. If I pulled out to pass someone, the car accelerated nimbly and aggressively.
Then I arrived at my test course. This is a winding series of largely-unused secondary roads that weave through a deep river valley. There are sharp hairpin corners and long, sweeping banked S-curves. And this is where it all fell apart. When I started pushing the 300C a little harder, it pushed back.
The 300C uses many components from the previous generation Mercedes E-class, a car I have driven, and found to be quite an excellent car. You would never know they were so closely related. As I pushed the big Chrysler around hairpin corners, the body rolled significantly. At one point, as I stomped on the accelerator coming out of a corner, the car rolled so much I started to slide out of my seat.
Now, admittedly, those of us writing a review on a car do tend to push a car significantly harder than your average vehicle owner will. Your average vehicle owner is not going to be pushing the car to its limit to learn at what point the back tires will kick out to oversteer. That said, however, there have been many times when I’ve had to rely on my car’s handling characteristics to keep me out of trouble. In order to do that, you need to have a significant level of confidence in how it will respond when called upon. The 300C does not inspire that confidence, and that is perhaps its biggest failing.
2009 Pontiac G8 GT
I have left this section of the review until last deliberately, as it is going to be the hardest part to write. I went into my test drive of the Pontiac G8 expecting an experience similar to the 300C. I’ve had a soft spot for the 300C since I first saw it. I considered it a very handsome car with strong, aggressive lines and a distinctive, bold character, and I had a similar reaction to the new Pontiac G8. It’s a beautiful, powerful-looking car, and to my mind has better lines than the 5-series BMW. But I anticipated a similar disappointment once I had driven it. I expected that it would look fantastic, and do very well in a straight line. But overall, I expected to be disappointed.
Let’s be honest, the G8 GT is an excellent car. Anyone who tells you anything else is probably a terrorist. I’ve heard people say it’s “excellent for a Pontiac”, or “excellent for a domestic car”. This is bullshit. It is an excellent car, period. When compared to the 300C and Grand Marquis, it is almost an embarrassment of riches. When compared to a comparable BMW or Mercedes, it is a worthwhile competitor at a fraction of the price.
Let’s deal with the weak point first. The interior is not fantastic. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and the seats are excellent, but there are some plastics that are not fantastic. Some of the touch surfaces, like the parking brake, have sharp breaks where two pieces of plastic meet. But overall, the majority of the touch surfaces are of good quality. The main problem is that there is a natural tendency to compare this car to vehicles approaching twice its price.
I find it difficult to write this review without sounding like I work for Pontiac, but the car really is just that good. On the same course as the 300C, the G8 felt like a large sports car. I was throwing the car at corners with increasing aggression and it never felt over-matched. The seats provided good support, and kept me neatly planted through manoeuvres that would have had me bouncing off the passenger-side door in either of the other cars.
The G8 GT is a large, comfortable sedan that would make an excellent road-trip car. Four large adults could stretch out and have room to spare. I am over six feet tall, and the large rear seats gave me ample leg, shoulder and headroom, even with the driver’s seat back in my driving position.
But it’s a car that readily serves double-duty. Part of the time, it’s a comfortable full-size car like the Grand Marquis or 300C, but with a flick of the gear-shifter, it behaves like a sports car. The manual-shift mode of the 6-speed automatic is really quite impressive, and allows you a great deal of latitude, almost enough that it makes up for not having a manual when you’re driving it as a sports car. Of course, as good as the slushbox is, we still can’t wait to get our hands on the 6-speed manual GXP version.
We’ve been told this really isn’t a fair comparison, and we heard comments to that effect from both the Ford and Chrysler representatives. I disagree. Let’s face it, it’s only not a fair comparison because the G8 is an excellent car. But why is that not fair? Chrysler and Ford both have had every opportunity to make a car as good as the offering from Pontiac. Ford, in fact, has the Falcon, which is the immediate competitor to the Holden Commodore in Australia, on which the G8 is based. So the only reason this isn’t a fair comparison is the fact that Chrysler and Ford don’t seem to think we deserve a car as good as the G8.
I think we do. And until Ford and Chrysler start to agree with me, the Pontiac G8 GT is the only viable option for a good domestic RWD V8 sedan.