2002 Grand Am-Surprise fun

But when I found out the car's base engine was a four cylinder, I figured these "fun-to-drive" spots were yet another example of carmaker overhype.

Surprise! The 2.2-liter Ecotec twin-cam powerplant is actually pretty responsive. Standard on the SE1 sedan we drove, its 140 horses pull the car crisply away from stoplights, quickly dispelling the image of a doggy four cylinder. GM boasts that the engine's 10:1 compression ratio gives it a broad, flat torque curve that customers interpret as good drivability, and I would have to say that is true. Reinforcing this impression is a five-speed manual shifter, which is characterized by short throws and smooth action.

The Grand Am sits on a four-wheel independent suspension that seems to do the job. Its configuration is straightforward, strut/torsion bar/control arm in front, strut/torsion bar/trailing arm in the rear. Despite the simple design, the ride is not harsh. The car tracks well through turns, doesn't dive during hard stops, and exhibits little body roll. It smoothed out the potholes we hit respectably well. Its power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is tight and responsive. It has good structural rigidity and the solid feel that goes with a Hertz rating of 25, according to GM. ABS is standard. Discs in front and drums in the rear bring the car to a quick stop on demand.

Other standard features worth mentioning include an oil-life monitor that tells when the oil needs changing based on how the car has been driven. Rear cornering lamps project light to the side for backing up, and daytime running lights work on an automatic light-sensor control.

Mechanically the Grand Am is nearly identical to the Oldsmobile Alero, but the body styles of the two cars are quite distinct. Perhaps the most striking difference is the plastic side cladding on the Grand Am, apparently added to impart a sporty flair and more protection from parking lot dings.

We found relatively few points worth a caveat. The car is generally quiet, but the engine does have a characteristic four-cylinder buzz. The plastic side cladding is not everyone's cup of tea, and the sporty feel in the interior stops at the instrument panel gages. The cloth seats in our test car were comfortable but unexceptional. Finally, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was not impressed with the Grand Am in its 40-mph frontal offset crash test.

All in all, the sporty compact probably hits the mark it aims for. Potential buyers will probably find its performance more than adequate, especially in light of its 33-mpg highway rating. (GM offers a 3.4-liter V6 for those in search of more oomph). Our test vehicle carried an option package that included a power moonroof, 16-in. chrome aluminum wheels, radio/cassette/CD player, and eight-speaker sound system. The total with destination charges came to $20,100, a figure that many would probably consider to be a good value.

Leland Teschler