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1983-89 Pontiac 6000 STE: When Malaise-Era GM Caught Up With the Germans

It is widely considered that everything the Detroit automakers did during the Malaise Era of the 1970s and ’80s was uniformly terrible, but that isn’t really the case. True, many of the cars produced by the Big Four were pretty dire, but there were a few examples of brilliance—cars that were not merely less crappy than the norm, but actually possessed honest-to-goodness retina-burning brilliance. One of the best domestic cars of the era—indeed, one of the best cars from anywhere at the time—came from the humblest origins possible, and that was the 1983-1989 Pontiac 6000 STE.

Pontiac 6000: Rising From the Ashes of the Phoenix

The 6000 was Pontiac’s version of GM’s new-for-1982 A-body, a car that in today’s vernacular could be called a reboot of that rolling disaster known as the X-car (Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and—of course—the Pontiac Phoenix). The A-body sedan was styled as the Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, and Pontiac 6000. All four were straight-laced front-wheel-drive alternatives to GM’s traditionally-designed rear-drive intermediates.

As a group, the A-cars were good and decent public servants, roomy, well-equipped, and not awful to drive. But it was the Pontiac that showed the most promise, thanks to its cleaner styling and better-tuned chassis, particularly when equipped with option Y99, the sport-tuned suspension. Though saddled with the super-slow 2.5-liter Iron Duke engine, a Y99-equipped Pontiac 6000 took second place in our sister publication MotorTrend’s 1983 Car of the Year contest, just behind the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and ahead of the Firebird and all of the other A-bodies. MotorTrend’s mustachioed minions saw great potential in the Pontiac 6000.

Pontiac 6000 STE: The Euro-Style Sport Sedan

That potential was realized with the 1983 Pontiac 6000 STE. Three GM divisions offered up some sort of “Euro-style” A-body for 1983: The Buick Century T-Type, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ES, and the Pontiac 6000 STE, which stood for Special Touring Edition (Chevrolet’s Celebrity Eurosport would come a year later), but the Pontiac 6000 STE was the only one that seemed serious about taking on the European competition.

The 6000 STE was powered by a high output version the 6000’s optional Chevrolet-sourced 2.8 liter V-6—though in this case high-output meant an 18-horsepower bump to 130 hp, while retaining the 112-hp engine’s two-barrel carburetor and three-speed automatic. This engine was notable for its 60-degree angle between the cylinder banks, which is optimal for a smooth-running V-6. (Many V-6 engines of the era were derived from V-8s and kept their 90-degree angle.) Other mechanical upgrades included a lower final-drive gearing, quicker steering, a refined suspension with self-leveling rear shocks, and Goodyear Eagle GT tires. A six-lamp grille, blacked-out chrome, wrap-around tail lights, and two-tone paint differentiated it from lesser 6000s.

Inside, a nifty Driver Information Center warned of burned-out bulbs, low fluid levels, and upcoming scheduled maintenance, and the turn signal stalk even had a flash-to-pass feature, common in European cars but unheard of in a GM product. Priced at $13,572—five grand more than a basic Pontiac 6000—the STE came lavishly equipped, with leather upholstery and a sunroof as the only options.

Pontiac 6000 STE vs. Germany

MotorTrend wasted no time in pitting a 6000STE against its worldwide competition: The Audi 5000, the Toyota Cressida, and the BMW 528e. The Pontiac 6000 STE didn’t stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, but it did hold its own, and that was no small accomplishment—remember that the A-body on which the 6000 was based was designed not as a sportster but as a humble bread-and-butter family sedan. David E. Davis, founder of Automobile, wrote, “The Pontiac 6000 STE stands head and shoulders above every other Detroit sedan, including its fellow General Motors front-drive A-cars.” At the time he was still editing Car & Driver, which put the 6000 STE on its 10Best list for 1983, 1984, and 1985.

Pontiac continued to improve the 6000 STE: A digital dashboard (including the originally omitted tachometer) and rear disc brakes for 1984 and multi-port fuel injection for ’85. In 1987, the three-speed automatic gave way to a four-speed automatic with overdrive, and a five-speed manual was offered as a no-cost option.

In ’86, MotorTrend pitted the 6000 STE against the world once more. The BMW 528e came out on top for its near-perfect driving dynamics, followed by a stellar new Japanese competitor, the Acura Legend. It was the 6000 STE’s dated ergonomics and overboosted steering that kept it out of the lead, but it still handily beat the Audi 5000S. “One of the few automotive bargains around,” was MotorTrend’s conclusion. “For the buyer who wants a taste of the Euro-sedan market but can’t afford one built across the big pond, the STE is a great deal.”

Pontiac 6000 STE Goes AWD

In 1989, the Pontiac 6000 STE became the first General Motors passenger car to offer an optional all-wheel-drive system. It employed a 140-hp 3.1-liter version of the 60-degree V-6, a three-speed automatic transmission, and an electro-mechanical center differential that could be locked with a switch on the dashboard. The bespoke independent rear suspension featured a differential borrowed from the GMT400 pickup truck and a transverse composite single-leaf spring from the new-for-’88 GM10-based Pontiac Grand Prix (which, incidentally, was MotorTrend’s 1988 Car of the Year). For 1989, the Pontiac 6000 STE’s last year, the all-wheel-drive system became standard, and Pontiac capped production at just 1,300 units.

Pontiac introduced a four-door version of the Grand Prix for 1990, and the STE moniker jumped ship to the newer car. When we think about it, it’s rather amazing that the 6000 STE lasted as long as it did. By the close of the 1980s, Pontiac was getting great results from its rock-n-roll Ride Pontiac Ride TV ads and its showrooms were stocked with a host of newer, slicker-looking cars: The Grand Am, which brought Pontiac excitement to Everyman; the Grand Prix, which was available with a 220-hp McLaren-massaged turbocharged engine; the slick second-gen Fiero; ever-improving Trans Ams; and the Bonneville, offered with the hot SSE touring package. Despite a slick new roofline with a rounded rear window, the 1989 6000 STE looked boxy and dated, a faint reminder of more desperate days at General Motors.

A Winner Until the Very End

And yet it was still competitive. In July of 1989, about the time the last 6000 STEs would have been rolling off the line, MotorTrend wrote, “The new [6000 STE AWD] is the most skillful sedan Pontiac’s ever built—indeed, the car is potentially the most important sedan of any stripe built by GM in the modern era. It offers great handling without sacrificing ride quality, most of the cues and equipment expected of a fine touring sedan from any manufacturer, Germans included, and a pleasantly conservative exterior appearance that supports its subtle mission.”

The mid-1980s is seen as the time when Detroit pulled itself out of the Malaise Era with a vengeance and produced some of its best and most innovative cars to date, and that makes the Pontiac 6000 STE all the more amazing. Here is a car born of Detroit’s darkest hour that became one of the shining lights of the automotive world, and remained a beacon right through one of the automotive industry’s most innovative and transformative decades. The Malaise Era was bad—but as the Pontiac 6000 STE shows us, it wasn’t all bad.

1983 Pontiac 6000 STE Specifications

PRICE $13,572 (when new)
ENGINE 2.8L OHV 12-valve V-6/130 hp @ 5,400 rpm, 145 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
L x W x H 188.2 x 68.2 x 54.0 in
WHEELBASE 104.9 in
WEIGHT 2,878 lb
0-60 MPH 10.2 sec
TOP SPEED 120 mph (est)

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