For 47 years, the Pontiac Bonneville was a constant sight on Pontiac's dealership lots. Very few nameplates have lasted that long, and even fewer belonged to mainstream vehicles that were neither luxury nor sports cars. Like other long-lasting, everyman models from America's domestic automakers, the Bonneville subsequently experienced the major trends that swept through its brand and the auto industry as a whole during its lifetime, serving as a telling chronicle of what we've driven over the years.
Named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah where many land speed record attempts are made, the first Pontiac Bonneville debuted in 1957 as a tail-finned, high-performance convertible based on the Star Chief. It was the brand's top-line model and coupe, sedan and even wagon variants followed shortly thereafter. Through the late 1950s and '60s, the Bonneville earned a reputation for being both luxurious and performance-oriented thanks to generous power outputs from some of its big, muscle-car-era V8s. Today, some of these early Bonnevilles are highly prized as collector cars.
As with other cars during the Nixon era, the Pontiac Bonneville lost its performance edge as new governmental regulations went into effect. The biggest change occurred after the second gas shortage of the 1970s, when for 1977 Pontiac downsized the Bonneville into a more fuel-efficient, full-size car powered by V6 or V8 engines. In the early '80s the nameplate hit an all-time low when it was affixed to GM's midsize car platform, reducing the once-proud Bonneville to a gussied up LeMans. Another metamorphosis occurred in 1987, when the Bonneville returned to full-size status, atop GM's new front-drive family car platform.
This generation and the revamped 1990s Bonny that followed embodied Pontiac's new direction, focusing on exaggerated sporty styling and high-tech gizmos. In terms of sales and image, however, the Bonneville was on a constant slide as fewer consumers were interested in a large, sport-oriented front-wheel-drive sedan. Production finally ended in 2005.
Used-car shoppers interested in a Bonneville will most likely be taking a look at the two most recent generations of the car. In general, these cars provide plenty of interior room and trunk space thanks to their full-size sedan status, and, depending on trim, also offer respectable acceleration and handling. Typical downsides, however, include overwrought interior and exterior styling, some cheap interior materials and dubious build quality.
Most Recent Pontiac Bonneville
The most recent Pontiac Bonneville was produced from 2000-'05. This car's general shape wasn't too different from the car it replaced. But it was sleeker despite retaining some of Pontiac's signature ribbed plastic body cladding -- particularly on the exaggerated SSEi. This look was cleaned up on the V8-powered GXP for 2004, with a more attractive face and cladding-free sheet metal.
Inside, this Bonneville brought the idea of a driver-centered cockpit to new heights with controls angled heavily toward the driver. Dozens of little gray buttons and switches, eight round air vents, six gauges, an information center and an optional head-up display furthered the jet aircraft motif Pontiac was shooting for. This might sound cool, but it was tremendously busy and grew dated quickly.
This generation Bonneville didn't change much during its run. It was initially available in base-level SE, midgrade SLE and top-of-the-line SSEi trim levels. The bottom two trims came with a 3.8-liter V6 (205 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque) and a four-speed automatic transmission. The performance-oriented SSEi boasted a supercharged version of the 3.8 V6, increasing power to 240 hp and 280 lb-ft. These were hardly muscle-car numbers, but the SSEi outperformed other V6-powered large cars of the era like the Chrysler 300M and Lincoln LS. This advantage didn't last long, though, as horsepower numbers in the 2000s rose precipitously.
The SSEi was replaced by the V8-powered GXP in 2004. This 4.6-liter V8 made a healthy 275 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque and was enough to propel this large sedan from zero to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds. With that much power sent to the front wheels, the GXP handled it surprisingly well, with decent handling and few complaints about torque steer.
Although this generation's Bonneville was hardly our favorite full-size sedan, it did provide comfortable transportation for up to six passengers while adding in an appreciated amount of style and performance. The SSEi and GXP are the models that driving enthusiasts will want to focus on, but all Bonnevilles suffered from the gizmo-heavy interior and, like most GM cars from this era, inconsistent build quality and cheap, glossy interior plastics.
Past Pontiac Bonneville Models
The previous-generation Pontiac Bonneville was produced from 1992-'99, with a subtle midlife refresh in 1996. It was initially available in base SE, sporty SSE and supercharged SSEi trim levels. An SLE (Sport Luxury Edition) package was available on SE models starting in 1993 and became its own trim level for 1998. The SSEi did the reverse, as it changed from being a trim level to becoming an optional package (on SSE models) in 1994.
The SE and SSE Bonnevilles came standard with a 3.8-liter V6 that made 170 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. Those figures grew to 205 hp and 230 lb-ft in 1995. The available supercharged version initially made 205 hp and 260 lb-ft, and those figures swelled to 225 hp and 275 lb-ft in 1994. The supercharged V6 was boosted one more time in 1996 to 240 horses and 280 lb-ft of torque. A four-speed automatic was standard on all engines throughout this generation's lifespan, but SSEi versions starting in 1994 featured "Performance" and "Normal" shift modes that quickened downshift response and raised rpm shift points.
Major equipment changes included standard antilock brakes in 1993 and standard dual airbags in 1994. (Passenger side was previously only standard on the SSEi.) That year also saw the introduction of optional Computer Command Ride, a two-mode system that adjusted suspension performance. Electronic load leveling and keyless entry became standard features on the SSE and optional on the SE in 1997.
Inside, these Bonnevilles were driver-centered like the following generation, but much less busy. Nevertheless, SSE models are remembered for having optional 12-way power seats with lumbar control that included nine dedicated buttons on the center console. We thought this Bonneville was also a decent choice for large-sedan buyers, with sportier styling and more high-tech niceties than most of its competitors.
The previous Pontiac Bonneville was produced from 1987-'91 with styling that was considered quite head-turning for the time. It brought back some of the sportiness that had been sucked out of the Bonny since the 1960s, particularly the SSE model. Like future Bonnevilles, this one also reveled in technology, with the SSE sporting numerous gauges, driver information displays, an abundance of power seat controls and ahead-of-its-time steering-wheel-mounted audio and temperature controls.