Fun-to-drive starts with what you see.

by Michelle Krebs

Few recent General Motors introductions have been as well-received as the new Pontiac Sunfire and Chevy Cavalier.

Completely restyled and re-engineered for the 1995 model year, the two new cars marked the end of a 13-year run for their predecessors. Because of its good sales record, Chevy decided to stick with the Cavalier name. Pontiac, however, decided to drop the Sunbird name in favor of Sunfire. The Sunbird wasn't a strong player, and product planners felt the more aggressive styling of the new car, with its strong hints of Firebird, deserved a name that would reinforce the family ties.

The Sunfire and Cavalier are available as coupes, sedans and convertibles. The Sunfire model lineup consists of the SE coupe (base price $11,504), SE sedan ($11,674), SE convertible ($17,734) and GT coupe ($13,214), which comes with a performance engine and boy-racer appearance. Similarly, the Cavalier lineup includes a pair of two-doors (the base coupe and snazzy Z24), two sedans (base and LS) and the LS convertible.

For 1996, both the Sunfire and Cavalier have GM's 2.4-liter Twin Cam four-cylinder as the optional engine (standard in Sunfire GT and Cavalier Z24), which replaces the previous 2.3-liter Quad 4 engine. It's the same engine, with more displacement and a pair of balance shafts to smooth out vibrations.

In addition, a four-speed automatic transmission with traction control now is available on all models, and all have standard daytime running lights as well as GM's PASSlock anti-theft system. Remote keyless entry and steering wheel radio controls are available on all models for 1996 as well, and a number of refinements also were made to the ride and steering.

However, the most significant change for 1996 is availability. In 1995, GM's Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant, which makes the Sunfire and Cavalier coupes and sedans, was plagued with startup production problems that limited availability of the cars. Those problems apparently are behind the plant, and the supply of Sunfire and Cavalier models in dealer showrooms should be vastly improved for 1996.

Walkaround

One look tells you that the Sunfire design owes a great deal to the Firebird, from the dual ports in the front to the lighted "P-O-N-T-I-A-C" on the rear deck. Similarly, there's also a strong family resemblance between the Cavalier and its bigger, more powerful brother, the Camaro, though we think the Sunfire is the more attractive of the two. When it comes to design, Pontiac gets to have all the fun at GM.

The Sunfire has plenty of style and pizzazz. Everywhere we drove, people gave thumbs up to the Sunfire's look.

In terms of size, the sedan is considered a compact, the coupe a subcompact, according to Environmental Protection Agency interior volume ratings. Though its overall length is shorter, the Sunfire is two inches wider and has three more inches of wheelbase than its predecessor, which makes for a roomier interior and better ride quality.

Another goal for Pontiac designers was to make the sedan version as sporty-looking as the coupe so that buyers -- particularly those with young families -- could enjoy the practicality of a four-door without sacrificing much in the styling department. We'd say they hit the mark and then some.

The Sunfire faces some formidable competition in its class from the likes of the Honda Civic, Dodge/Plymouth Neon, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla and Celica and Nissan Sentra and 200SX. But in style, at least, it measures up admirably.

The Inside Story

The Sunfire provides a spacious, attractive and functional interior. While raw interior volume numbers favor the Chrysler Neons and the Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer, the Sunfire is certainly roomier than the old Sunbird, and there's plenty of space up front. Tall passengers in the rear seat, found that their heads grazed the ceiling, but rear seat space is in short supply in any small coupe. Sedan versions do a better job in terms of rear seat roominess, and this too is improved compared to the previous car.

The flowing lines of the new dashboard design are much cleaner than in the Sunbird, whose dash looked like a jigsaw puzzle with its many piece. Materals, too, have been upgraded. Plastics appear softer and more muted, with a matte finish.

Our only reservation was with the seats. Some test drivers thought they could use thicker foam in the bottom cushions and a little more lower back support.

There's another irritating trait of Sunbird and Cavalier coupe seats. Under hard braking, an unoccupied front passenger seatback flops forward. We've seen this in a number of other GM coupe seats, including those in the Firebird and Camaro, and we wish GM would correct it.

A fold-down seat in the rear is standard and greatly expands the usable space in the Sunfire. With the rear seat folded down, skis or surfboards can be carried in the Sunfire with the trunk lid closed.

Storage is plentiful throughout the car. The glovebox sets new records for roominess with enough space to accommodate a 12-pack of soda and an ice pack to keep it cold. The center console armrest features a deep storage bin suitable for tape cassettes and cupholders. The parking brake is mounted alongside the armrest. When the front console ashtray is removed, the space becomes an additional cupholder for front-seat passengers. The ashtray can be installed in a rear cupholder or thrown out altogether.

Map pockets in the door panels, however, are almost useless. They're positioned so far back on the door that they're difficult for front-seat passengers to reach when the doors are closed.

Generally speaking, the new soft-touch surfaces of the secondary controls lend a nice feeling of quality to the instrument panel. However, a few elements could be refined. The directional controls for the vents, for example, are so small they are hard to grip. Yet, the armrests on the door are fat, making them hard to grip to close the door.

But the overall appearance of the interior is far more contemporary and classier than the previous car.

Safety equipment is gets two thumbs up. The Sunfire is equipped with dual airbags, and anti-lock brakes are standard. There are also comfort guides on the seat belts to make them more easily adjustable for small children, a nice touch for families. Child-safety rear door locks are standard on sedan models.

Ride & Drive

All but the performance editions of the Sunfire and Cavalier come standard with a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission. A three-speed automatic, which was in our test car, and a four-speed automatic (with the 2.4-liter engine) are optional.

The 2.2-liter engine labors when it's mated to the three-speed automatic. A five-speed manual is the best choice for good performance and a sportier feel.

The base engine is rated at 120 hp. That's a little tepid compared to Chrysler's base Neon, rated at 132 hp, and the Neon Highline coupe at 150 hp. Still, the Sunfire's horsepower output is higher than the 1996 Ford Escort LX and the Saturn SC1 coupe, and its low-rpm torque is strong, and it provides a decent blend of acceleration and fuel economy.

Our only complaint with the engine in our SE coupe was a little too much noise at higher rpm.

If performance is a priority, the 2.4-liter twincam four-cylinder engine standard in the GT and optional in SE models is a much better choice. The 150-hp engine is paired with a five-speed manual transmission as standard in the GT; a four-speed automatic is optional.

The Sunfire's ride is characteristic of Pontiacs, firm but not stiff. The steering, a little too light and slow to respond when first introduced, is much improved for 1996.

Final Word

The Sunfire represents a significant improvement over the car it replaces, and in fact, has been significantly improved since its 1995 introduction. With a base price of $11,504, the Sunfire "as well as the Cavalier" represents a good value for those who want Firebird flash on a small car budget.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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