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Junkyard Gem: 1989 Pontiac 6000 STE AWD

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During the middle to late 1980s, General Motors made a big push to grab back some of the sales swiped by makers of European luxury machinery during the previous decade. Around the top of the prestige pyramid, there was the Turin/Hamtramck-built Cadillac Allanté taking aim at the Mercedes-Benz 560SEC and the super high-tech Buick Reatta trying to seduce away BMW and Jaguar shoppers; even the Riviera offered a futuristic touchscreen computer sorely lacking in anything out of Stuttgart or Bavaria. The General had a plan to take on the smaller German sporty sedans, too, and Pontiac of the “We Build Excitement” era offered a midsize sedan packed with modern hardware at a great price: the 6000 STE. Here’s one of the rarest 6000 STEs of them all, an all-wheel-drive-equipped ’89 found in a Denver-area yard last week.

Any 6000 STE is extremely hard to find today; when I wrote about a front-wheel-drive 1987 6000 STE back in 2018, desperate owners of these cars filled my inbox with requests — sometimes demands —  for parts that continue to this day. Many of them pleaded with me to help them find an all-wheel-drive version, and now I have managed to find one at Colorado Auto & Parts in Englewood, just south of Denver (in fact, the same yard at which I shot the ’87). You may recall CAP as the old-school yard whose owners built the amazing airplane-engined 1939 Plymouth pickup a few years back. 

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The all-wheel-drive system on the 6000 STE was introduced for the 1988 model year, and it became standard equipment on the 1989 STE. At this time, the automotive industry had taken note of the success of the idiot-proof all-wheel-drive systems offered by AMC and Audi/Volkswagen; Toyota began selling Americans all-wheel-drive Camrys, Celicas, and Corollas, while Ford offered the Tempo and Topaz with optional AWD and Subaru was just beginning to make the switch from manually-selected four-wheel-drive to genuine all-wheel-drive around that time (it took a few more years for everyone to standardize on the 4WD/AWD terminology we use today, though).

The 6000 STE AWD was intended to compete with such all-wheel-drive-equipped sedans as the Audi 80 ($23,610), Audi 90 ($28,840), and BMW 325iX ($30,750); its $22,599 price tag (about $50,700 in 2021 dollars) certainly made it seem like a bargain compared to those cars.

In addition to the all-wheel-drive system, 1989 6000 STE owners got a digital instrument panel and more switches and buttons than the Space Shuttle. Steering wheels covered with controls are ho-hum today, but this sort of thing was Mars Base stuff in the 1980s.

You couldn’t get a factory CD player in this car (that came a bit later, though Lincoln would sell you a CD-equipped car in 1989), but the Delco cassette deck that you got as standard equipment was serious gear in 1989. So many controls!

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The 135-horsepower, 3.1-liter V6 in this car made it more powerful than the 130-horse Audi 80 and 90, but the BMW 325iX and its 168-horsepower straight-six could walk away from the 6000 STE. 

All three of those German cars could be had with a five-speed manual transmission, too, while the 6000 STE had a three-speed automatic as standard equipment and a four-speed automatic as a $200 option. This car has the three-speed slushbox.

The 6000 belonged to the A-Body family, best-known for the Chevrolet Celebrity and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. While the 6000 STE certainly looked much sportier than its Celebrity sibling (and had four-wheel-disc brakes, a nicer interior, and a better suspension to boot), the 1989 Celebrity sedan’s starting price of $11,495 — just a hair over half the cost of the 6000 STE — made for some double-takes among shoppers at Pontiac dealers.

This car doesn’t have any Minnesota-style body rust-through that I could spot, but the paint and interior have been thoroughly nuked by decades of the fierce sunshine we get here in Colorado. Even though you’d have an easier time finding a real GTO Judge than a 6000 STE AWD these days, the latter car just isn’t worth enough to merit a serious restoration.

This ad is for the earlier front-wheel-drive version, but you get the idea.

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