High style, low price.by Joyce A. Tucker
No General Motors group is more focused than Pontiac. The Excitement Division has been coming out with new designs well conceived to maintain the clear product image that has sustained it over the past decade.
With the Sunfire, Pontiac targets young, on-the-go drivers who want styling that's above and beyond econobox and a window sticker that is not. And we think they hit the bullseye.
Four models of the Sunfire are available: the $12,559 SE Coupe, the $12,699 SE Sedan, the $14,219 GT Coupe and the $19,399 SE Convertible.
The two-door models -- the SE Coupe, the GT Coupe and the SE Convertible -- are sportier than the four-door SE Sedan, but the sedan is, of course, more practical. It offers more room in the back seat and a bigger trunk than the other models.
The Sunfire SE Sedan takes the stylistic high road, particularly when compared with cars like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Nissan Sentra. The front end begins with the familiar Pontiac twin nostrils, but is dominated by the Sunfire's bright-eyed headlights. The front fascia was inspired by the Firebird and quickly distinguishes the Sunfire among other cars in its class.
The moderately raked windshield is at the leading edge of a surprisingly large greenhouse, with generous glass area and few obstructions to outward visibility.
At the rear, a relatively short deck lid conceals slightly more than 13 cubic feet of trunk space, easily accessed with a low lift-over height.
Compared to the Chevrolet Cavalier, which shares the same platform, powertrains and parallel models, the Pontiac Sunfire looks sportier, but dynamic traits of corresponding Sunfire/Cavalier models are similar.
Under the hood, Pontiac provides a choice of two powerplants and three transmissions. Standard in the SE coupe, sedan and convertible is a 2.2-liter overhead-valve four-cylinder engine that generates 120 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque. A Sunfire with the 2.2-liter engine and a five-speed transmission gets 32 mpg on the highway.
Although it's not the highest-tech by the standards for this class, this engine has served GM well, and provides good throttle response at lower speeds. Its down side is relatively tepid performance at higher speeds, accompanied by some noise intrusion.
Standard in the GT Coupe and optional in the rest of the model lineup is GM's 2.4-liter twin-cam four, with increased horsepower and torque. It provides better -- and quieter -- performance across the board, and is a much better choice for buyers who want an automatic transmission.
Transmission choices include a five-speed manual, and a pair of automatics, one with three speeds, one with four. The five-speed gearbox is precise and fun to use, and a big improvement on the previous manual transmission.
The four-speed automatic is available for all models and offers much better gearing than the three-speed automatic. A traction control system is available, but only with the four-speed automatic.
Standard tires are P195/70 all-season radials on 14-inch steel wheels. Our tester had the optional P195/65R touring tires on 15-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
Like the other Sunfire models, the basic SE Sedan comes with dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, a theft deterrent system, rear child seat comfort guides, battery rundown protection and a trunk lamp.
The PASSlock theft deterrent system shuts the Sunfire off after a few moments if the car is started with anything other than the encoded key. A single key is used for ignition and all locks, and a remote keyless entry system is available as an option.
All Sunfires are equipped with daytime running lights, which means the headlights will be on at reduced power whenever the ignition is on and the handbrake is released or the automatic transmission is shifted out of park. The normal headlights can be switched on manually or by using Pontiac's Twilight Sentinel system, which turns the lights on and off automatically as it senses the amount of available light.
Our tester was equipped with the 2.4-liter twin-cam engine and three-speed automatic. It offered unobtrusive cruising but we'd recommend either the manual transmission or four-speed automatic.
The Inside Story
Like all Pontiacs, the Sunfire's sporty exterior theme is carried through inside. GM has been upsizing its gauges and controls, and that's reflected here in big primary instruments -- a speedometer and tachometer -- plus large rotary knobs for the climate controls and bigger-than-average buttons for the audio system. We applaud this trend; it makes gauges easier to read at a glance, and secondary controls easy to operate when the car is moving.
Auxiliary audio controls on the wheel hub help in this respect, too.
With almost as much rear seat room as a Ford Contour, the Sunfire and Cavalier are exceptionally spacious for cars in this size class. Chrysler's Neons hold a small edge, but not by much.
We found the front bucket to be average in terms of comfort, with a fair range of adjustability and modest lateral support. The rear seat is a full-folding bench, with room for two, three in a pinch.
Child-safety rear door locks are standard. So are rear ventilation ducts.
The trunk is bigger than the Neon's, with a low lift-over and expandability via the rear seat fold-down feature. The glove box is almost an auxiliary trunk, with enough space for a 12-pack of sodas. Remove the ashtray from the front console and it becomes a cup holder.
Ride & Drive
Even with a three-speed automatic, we enjoyed the performance of the Sunfire's upgrade 2.4-liter twin-cam engine. It revs freely, pumps up plenty of torque and even though it's not as quiet as, say, a Honda four-cylinder, it's an improvement over the 2.3-liter Quad 4 from which it evolved.
With this engine, the Sunfire comes to play with more horsepower than a Honda Civic and more torque than a Dodge Neon Sport. It raises the Sunfire's performance from the realm of acceptable to spirited.
The suspension is composed of MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in the rear. It's not as sophisticated as many setups in this class, but gets the job done.
We found the Sunfire's handling to be average in quick maneuvers, stable at higher speeds and thoroughly predictable. Ride quality is very good for a car in this class, and firm enough to make the car fun to drive.
This pleasant combination is largely attributable to GM's newfound emphasis on increasing body rigidity, which also improves durability and noise isolation.
GM has also made adjustments to the Sunfire's power rack-and-pinion steering that improve precision, on-center steering feel and quickness (fewer turns from lock to lock).
Like most GM cars, the Sunfire and Cavalier disc/drum braking system includes an anti-lock feature. However, it's not as sophisticated as the systems found on more expensive cars, and overall braking performance is average.
With a base price of $12,559 the Sunfire SE Sedan offers a good value in the competitive compact sedan market.
It's roomy, comfortable and reasonably well equipped. And if it lacks the technical refinement of a Honda Civic or the audacious get-up-and-go of a Neon, it's loaded with style.
That's a winning combination.
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