Low price, stylish body.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $14,175
As Tested (MSRP) $18,970
Pontiac's Sunfire offers wild styling with good fuel economy and a low price of entry. The Sunfire is easy to drive and fun to drive quickly, particularly with the available 150-horsepower twin-cam engine.
Two body styles are available: four-door sedan and two-door coupe. Coupes are available in SE and GT trim. The sedan comes only in SE trim.
The coupes are more fun, but the SE Sedan offers more practicality with a roomier back seat and a larger trunk.
Retail prices: SE Sedan ($14,430); SE Coupe ($14,175); GT Coupe ($16,295).
Two four-cylinder engines are available, a 115-horsepower 2.2-liter and a sporty 150-horsepower 2.4-liter twin-cam. The Twin Cam comes standard on the GT Coupe; it can be added to SE models for $450, but requires purchase of the 1SC Option Group ($1865 for SE Coupes, $1905 for SE Sedans).
Three-speed and four-speed automatics are available along with a five-speed manual gearbox from Getrag.
Last year's convertible model has been discontinued.
Pontiac revised the styling of the 2000 Sunfire, so changes to the 2001 model are minimal. Integral fog lamps are standard on the GT coupe and give it a sportier appearance. Rounded turn signals integrated into the front fascia are used on the SE models. Side ribs and rocker panel moldings on the SE models add some surface excitement for a more aggressive look. The rear fascia with rounded backup lamps is similar to those on the Grand Am, and reinforces the Pontiac brand. A rear decklid spoiler is now standard on all Sunfire models.
Overall, the Pontiac Sunfire offers a sportier look than the mechanically similar Chevy Cavalier.
Sunfire's sporty exterior theme is continued inside the cabin. The instrument panel has an attractive appearance, and includes a digital LCD odometer and trip odometer, a tachometer and a coolant temperature gauge.
The floor console provides great functionality and includes a padded armrest. Other interior features include two forward-mounted cupholders, a concealed coin holder, and extra storage space for CDs, cassettes and other items.
A leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and parking brake handle are standard on GT models. Radio and HVAC controls are angled toward the driver. The steering wheel can be equipped with convenient stereo controls that reduce the driver's need to take his or her eyes off the road. The cloth on the SE's seats and door trim provide a vibrant appearance.
Lots of glass and effective mirrors provide good visibility; you only see a little bit of the sharply slanted hood. Most drivers and passengers should find plenty of interior room. Getting in and out of the Sunfire coupe is easier than many other coupes.
Sunfire's relatively short deck lid conceals slightly more than 12 cubic feet of trunk space, easily accessed with a low lift-over height.
The PASSlock theft deterrent system that comes on all Sunfire models shuts the car off after a few moments if it 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 optional.
All Sunfires are equipped with daytime running lights. Whenever the ignition is on and the handbrake is released or the automatic transmission is shifted out of park, the headlights will be on at reduced power. The normal headlights can be switched on manually or by using Pontiac's Twilight Sentinel system, turning the lights on and off automatically as it senses the amount of available light.
The Sunfire is offered with a fine line of sound systems. The entry-level stereo now includes an AM/FM radio and cassette deck. A retained accessory feature allows the radio to remain powered for 10 minutes after the power is switched off or until the driver's door is opened.
A 200-watt Monsoon premium audio system is optional. Using six speakers, the system is tuned specifically for the Sunfire's acoustical environment and is capable of completely drenching its occupants with sound. Crisp bass response and clear high frequencies make for great sound. It's a bargain at $195.
The Sunfire is easy to drive and fun to drive quickly. It hangs on confidently in fast corners and stays poised and predictable. It is balanced well, exhibiting surprisingly little understeer for a front-wheel-drive car. The GT seems at its best in transient, or slalom-type, maneuvers. You can really throw it around. Our only quibble with its handling is the unassisted steering that is a little slow.
The chassis and suspension and steering combine to produce an exceptional blend of ride and handling, and the car projects a secure feeling of stability and solidity. The suspension is composed of MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in the rear. It's not as sophisticated as the suspensions in some of the other cars in this class, but it gets the job done. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gives the Sunfire quick steering response and good on-center feel. At the same time, the Sunfire's body rigidity provides a ride that's firm and confident at higher speeds. And it's quiet. Standard on the GT Coupe are P205/55 performance tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels.
With the 2.4-liter 16-valve Twin Cam engine, the GT Coupe provides comparable power to a Honda Civic or Dodge Neon. It raises the Sunfire's performance from the realm of acceptable to spirited. It earns an EPA rating of 22/33 mpg city/highway.
What the smaller engine has to offer is economy: It comes standard on the SE models. When combined with the standard five-speed transmission, the 2.2-liter engine gets an EPA-rated 23 mpg in the city and 33 mph on the highway, just slightly better than the more sophisticated twin-cam engine.
Transmission choices include a 5-speed manual, a 3-speed automatic and a 4-speed automatic. Built by renowned German transmission manufacturer Getrag, the 5-speed manual gearbox features decent shift feel and a synchronized reverse gear for easier engagement. A cable shift linkage aids shifting, while a reverse lockout mechanism makes for a good safety feature. The Getrag five-speed is standard on the coupe and sedan. The 4-speed automatic is available for all models and offers much better gearing than the base 3-speed automatic.
Sunfire comes with disc brakes in front, drum brakes in the rear. An anti-lock braking system (ABS) is standard. The Sunfire's brake components are designed to optimize wheel slip control, reduce noise, improve pedal feel and contribute to reduced weight. However, it is not as sophisticated as the braking systems found on more expensive cars, and overall braking performance is average.
Pontiac Sunfire offers buyers sporty, expressive styling and performance in an affordably priced, American-built car. Sunfire models appeal to a wide range of car enthusiasts, from economy sport sedan buyers to those interested in more intimate coupes.
Its low entry price makes the Sunfire GT Coupe a good value in the competitive coupe market.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.