How the GM W Body Evolved From Embarrassment to Super Car in Only Twenty Years

GM has a history of killing their best models at the peak of their performance and popularity. No other chassis exemplifies this more than the ubiquitous W Body.
1990 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP 6 photos
Photo: GTPman via Wikipedia
My 2005 Grand Prix GXP V8My 2005 Grand Prix GXP V8My 1999 Buick Riviera SuperchargedMy 1999 Buick Riviera SuperchargedMy 1999 Buick Riviera Supercharged
For some reason, GM thought RWD cars were too reliable and comfortable for the world, so they hatched a plan to kill all RWD passenger cars back in 1977. What emerged is the Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac 6000, and the Cadillac Cimarron. The X-Chassis was a flaming, rusting bag of discontent that will never be spoken of again.

The public reacted with ridicule, so the experts decided to develop a decent FWD platform for the 1980’s. After spending over $7 Billion (in 1986 dollars), the world received the 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix along with the same chassis sold by every other GM brand. The suspensions were tuned to handle 200 horsepower at the front wheels, power they wouldn’t receive until 1996.

My 1999 Buick Riviera Supercharged
Photo: Andrew Nabors
Therefore, these chunky, clunky American models were sold by the millions to those who didn’t care about cornering composure or incredible understeer. In 1998, the last RWD examples of the Monte Carlo, Regal, and Fleetwood were selling out because dealers had leaked the future to savvy buyers. It came in the form of the Grand Prix GTP.

Someone at Pontiac figured out how to make high RPM power from their 3.4-liter OVH V6. Chevrolet had designed this 60-degree V6 as a smooth and reliable alternative to the 5-liter V8. They made the Third Generation Camaro and Firebird very reliable with competitive fuel mileage.Throwing caution to the wind, the cam-in-block design was modified to accept Dual Overhead Cams atop massive cylinder heads. The first Pontiac GTP screamed past 7,000 rpm and a few examples left the factory with intercooled turbochargers. The only problem was that since the heads were so massive, technicians and owners could not service the rear spark plugs. That’s why a running 3.4 DOHC is extremely rare and valuable around the world.

Buick wanted in on the fun, but they chose a much easier way to make power. After a few experiments with turbos, they decided to drop a meaty supercharger on their 3.8-liter V6. It so impressed my grandfather that he ordered a new Park Avenue in 1991 so Grandma could have her boost also. Because Buick never stops innovating, they revised the engine with a balance shaft, forged internals, and more boost for 1996.

My 1999 Buick Riviera Supercharged
Photo: Andrew Nabors
The 1996 Buick Series II Supercharged is the best V6 ever produced. Over 25 million have been sold around the world, and I have owned six of them since I could drive. Because my ancestors are Scottish Protestant Highlanders, we always have a few Buicks on hand in case of emergency. Right before I sold my 1996 Riviera, it was making 340 horsepower to the front wheels thanks to 1 Bar of boost. I would gladly buy it back since it offered 18 miles per gallon.

Any W-body can be easily swapped to manual transmission thanks to a dedicated aftermarket, and many such examples have been grafted on to mid-engine sports cars like the Fiero, Miata, and others that don’t want V8 weight. But what about us crazy folks? GM knew that RWD sports sedans like the M5 and the E 63 AMG would always be more popular, so once the CTS-V was released they decided to give the W-body a Grand Finale. My 2005 Grand Prix arrived with a 5.3L V8 borrowed from the Chevy Trailblazer. It sent 350 horsepower to the front wheels, and it was a perfect car for a decade.

The final W-bodies were sold as Chevrolet Impala Police Cars in 2017, and most departments will not part with them for any price. There will never be another W-body, so find one for yourself and you won’t be disappointed.

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