Once upon a time - 1964 to be exact - there lived the world's first true muscle car, born from a performance-enhancing option package married to a Pontiac Le Mans. Its popularity gave rise to imitators, and life was exhilarating with the lusty roar of an American V8 and the robust performance of a pocket rocket. Then, one day, along came government-mandated bumpers and emissions control, and by 1974 the once mighty GTO had shrunk to a 200 horsepower Ventura/Nova shadow of itself.

Thirty years later, Pontiac breathed new life into the legendary GTO. Despite borrowing heavily from its Australian Holden Monaro, Pontiac managed to design an understated - and rather uninspired - look that is clearly Pontiac.

A split grille is framed by high-tech wrap-around headlights and underscored by a large air intake nestled between recessed fog lights. The GTO's lines flow from the sleek front end up the steeply raked windshield, arching toward the taught, elevated rear end, creating a wedge shape with a spoiler. Sadly, as much as the front end screams "muscle car," and the curve of the roofline says "retro-inspired sporty sedan," the rear end speaks pure Pontiac rental car, disguising even the dual exhausts peeking out.

One of the biggest improvements in the modern fairy tale version of the sporty 2+2 coupe are the interior appointments. Quality and fit raise a new bar on GM standards, with an overall straightforward design and easy-to-use systems conveniently - and usually centrally - placed.

The leather seats that come standard are comfortable and sufficiently bolstered to impart a racy feel. Deep rear buckets and ample leg room impress, even if getting in and out is less than speedy or graceful. Storage is as expected in a sports car: minimal. The trunk is less than minimal.

A telescoping, tilting steering wheel adjusts to each driver. Basic analog gauges are large, round and easy to read, but if you want the detailed information desired by engineers, you'll have to use the digital displays. Seeing beyond the interior requires even more effort. While the sloping hood assists with the front view, thick C-pillars and the rear spoiler disrupt an already limited rear view.

But pony cars are, of course, all about the horses, and this Prince Charming steed charges in with a voluptuous, throaty exhaust note as it perceptibly quivers in anticipation even when idling. It begs to be driven hard and put up wet. Powered by GM's LS1 V8 and producing about 350 horsepower, this GTO performs like a muscle car from the Golden Age. It's been refined to produce substantially more power and low-end torque. Pontiac claims the GTO can accelerate to 60 mph in less than six seconds and finish a quarter-mile in less than 14 seconds. Losing a bit of the pink-slip-swapping allure contained in the six-speed manual, the automatic is impressively responsive and quick, due in part to the low-geared 3.46 final drive axle ratio that maximizes off-line acceleration.

The stiff, performance-tuned suspension, along with performance tires on wide-stance 17-inch wheels, makes driving fun again. It doesn't corner with as much dexterity as its European competitors, but this performance car likes to hang it out - which can be done much better by turning off the traction control and powering out of corners when the front end wants to plow. Given its LS1 engine and rear-drive configuration, it's reminiscent of the Firebird, although it's less skittish over rough pavement while cornering, thanks to its independent rear suspension.

It may be loaded, but this pony car is missing a few things: the "look," the hood scoop, the distinctive body lines, the trim accents and a dead pedal being the most glaring omissions. Moreover, the speedo teases with a misleading 200 mph mark, but this pony is electronically limited to 155.

However, the tail on this pony has a happy, if expensive, ending. No longer a one-trick pony, this pony car has matured, learned a few new moves and adapted to the latest aero and electronic technology, safety rules and customer expectations. Yet it still promises that, taken out of the stall and put through its paces, together pony car and Prince Charming will live happily ever after.

2005 Pontiac GTO specs

Sticker: $32,795

2+2 coupe

350-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 engine

Four-speed automatic transmission

Fuel mileage: 16/21


17-inch aluminum wheels

Performance-tuned suspension

Four-wheel antilock disc brakes

Electronic traction control

Leather upholstery is standard

Power mirrors, windows, front seats and locks

Eight-way power-adjustable front seats

Premium Blaupunkt AM/FM/CD stereo with dash-mounted six-disc changer

Leather-wrapped steering wheel tilts and telescopes


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