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Pontiac rolls out delightful version of a European touring sedan

Every now and then you get a car to drive that you reallym don't want to give up. The Pontiac 6000-STE quickly comes to mind. In fact, Pontiac's flagship, the STE, is a well-executed, aerodynamic, delightful car, not only in traffic or out, but also just to sit inside while you let someone else do the driving.

What the Pontiac division is trying to do is develop an image as a ''driver's car.'' In so doing, it is trying to meet the competition of such Western European cars as the Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi - an ambitious goal.

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(STE stands for ''special touring edition,'' in case anyone wants to know.)

While the new STE gives a plush ride with good control, it is still not entirely in the same league as a BMW and some of its high-priced competitors. But it's getting there. The car is highly stable even on rough roads, although ''road feel'' is less through the steering wheel. But don't many US motorists want it that way?

The wheelbase is 104.8 inches, length 188.7 inches, width 68.2 inches, and height 54.8 inches. Curb weight is 3,021 pounds, somewhat heavier than the standard 6000. The Chevrolet-built V-6 high-output engine is transversely mounted; that is, it sits sideways across the engine compartment.

An added attraction is a trunk emergency kit that includes a trouble light, gloves, tools, flares, and a tow rope. There are even a couple of towels to wipe the grime off your hands (a nice European touch).

That the Pontiac division, like the rest of the GM car units, has an image problem is no secret. In going up the line, according to the ancient GM rule, a buyer might start out with a Chevrolet and, as his fortunes rose, graduate to a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile, Buick, and finally a Cadillac.

Everyone ''knows'' that a Buick or an Oldsmobile is worth more than a Pontiac. Right? So when Pontiac tried to ape the upscale divisions, it ran into trouble and its sales dropped off. At one time the Pontiac people were talking of selling a million cars a year. That was a long, long time ago.

A few years ago the division knew something had to be done. Under the direction of Robert L. Dorn, then chief engineer for Pontiac, a series of meetings was held in early 1981 to set the direction in which the Pontiac division would travel between then and 1990.

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The idea for a European touring sedan - in other words, the Pontiac STE - was firmed up at those meetings.

The focus was to be on a ''driver's car'' - less chrome and flash on the outside, less phony wood on the inside, and pro-driver performance and handling. BMW advertises itself as the ''ultimate driving machine.'' And isn't Pontiac after some of the ''image'' that BMW projects?

Too, the STE - sticker-priced at $14,281 - was to be a one-content car. In other words, loaded. The car would come one way and not have an option list that would befuddle an expert. That way the chances for assembly-line foul-ups would be cut. The cars were to be built one way, except for a choice of paint, leather seats ($545), and a sun roof ($295). Production is four cars an hour, compared with 40 to 45 or more on most auto assembly lines.

Now, with the 6000-STE making good time on the road, the image of craftsmanship shows up. The pieces fit together and the colors match.

Maybe, I suggest, the Pontiac designers could have done a little better job with the emergency brake. Foot-operated, it's hard to release. A small matter, of course. The federal government figures the STE at 22 miles per gallon, meaning in city traffic. On the highway it's in the mid-30s. I got close to the city figure during a 500-mile, week-long commute.

Pontiac claims 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 11 seconds. That's pretty good performance for a car such as this.

Detroit needs a little good news these days. The Pontiac 6000-STE is very good news to GM's Pontiac division - and to GM.


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