NASCAR fans rejoice!
by Jim McCraw
Base Price (MSRP) $19,570
As Tested (MSRP) $24,153
Shaped in the wind tunnel for minimal drag and maximum stability, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was designed to win NASCAR Winston Cup races. It would be no exaggeration to say Chevrolet and Monte Carlo have dominated NASCAR racing since the "Modern Era" began in 1972. Since its reintroduction to NASCAR's high-banked ovals in 1995, the Monte Carlo has won four consecutive Winston Cup Series Driver's Championships as well as Manufacturer's Cup Championships in '95, '96 and '98. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the late and lamented Dale Earnhardt, and a long list of other Monte Carlo drivers have become household names in recent years as the sport has exploded in popularity.
While the Monte Carlo at the dealerships doesn't have the top end of a tube-frame Winston Cup car, the SS model does provide spirited performance. And its wild styling does attract attention. Just don't expect people to line up for your autograph until you've won the Daytona 500.
Two trim levels are offered: LS ($19,570) is powered by a 3.4-liter V6; SS ($22,400) uses a more powerful 3.8-liter V6, plus upgraded wheels, tires, and suspension. Both come only with a four-speed automatic transmission.
SS packs more standard equipment, but Chevrolet has narrowed the distance between the two models a bit for 2001. Electronic traction control is now standard on both models. A driver's side-impact air bag and OnStar communications, both standard on SS, are offered optionally on LS. There's even a Sport Appearance Package for the LS, with five-spoke aluminum wheels and a rear spoiler.
At the same time, Chevrolet has added a High Sport Appearance Package for the SS, with unique wheels, spoiler, and ground effects, plus stainless steel exhaust tips.
As slick as it is aerodynamically, from an esthetic standpoint the Monte Carlo looks as if it were designed by a committee. Individual elements are quite attractive, but we're not quite satisfied with how they hang together as a whole. It's probably just how the final product came out when the engineers and designers emerged from the last wind-tunnel session.
It may also be because this latest Monte Carlo tries to integrate elements from the model's past with an overall shape that's like nothing else on the road. Some will love it. But the droopy nose, the flat flanks, the bump in the deck lid and the radical roofline may not appeal to everyone.
What you can't see is just as important to the integrity of the Monte Carlo and, in that respect, we have to give Chevrolet high marks. Compared to pre-2000 Monte Carlos, this one has been strengthened in the roof, doors, and floor pan. An aluminum front cradle isolates the engine, transmission, steering, and suspension from the main structure of the car. The interior features a cast magnesium beam, called a MagBeam, that fits behind the instrument panel to further increase chassis rigidity and provide a stiff mounting for the dashboard systems. As a result, the latest Monte Carlo is much quieter than any previous generation. Increased chassis stiffness also makes the car less prone to squeaks and rattles over time.
Overall, the interior is a nice design with a sporty flavor that reminds us of Corvettes and Camaros.
One of the best things about Chevrolet design in recent years is the uniformly functional instrument layout that has been wrought throughout the product line, from the Corvette to the Silverado pickup. With black backgrounds, white markings and red needles, the look is not only racy in flavor, but also easy to read and scan, with the major and minor gauges placed on slightly different planes to add visual interest.
Another really nice touch inside the new Monte Carlo is its cockpit-style dashboard/console that houses those new gauges and controls. It separates the driver completely from the front passenger and provides fingertip access to every system in the array. It's a nicely styled package, and it works.
Monte Carlo comes with bucket seats, and we found them quite comfortable for around-town driving. Their shape makes it easy to get in and out of the car. Front-seat passengers appreciate the shotgun-side power seat option. Both seats are easy to adjust, and there's plenty of range for short and tall drivers. The ignition switch is conveniently located right on the dash, well to the right of the steering wheel; this makes it easy to quickly get in the car and get going, or quickly get out of the car after shutting it off. The tall center console is a bit intrusive for drivers who like to shift the automatic transmission manually, however, and the shifter itself looks dated.
The stereo is easy to operate, but it doesn't take a lot of volume before the amplifier starts clipping.
The trunk is large, but the opening is small, making it difficult to load big boxes.
The SS version of the new Monte Carlo features a thoroughly proven V6 that delivers 200 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque. It may not hold a candle to some of the old V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive Monte Carlos, but it's more than enough to break the tires loose on this new front-wheel-drive model. Punch the throttle and there's instant power and lots of it.
GM's popular 3800 engine is probably the most highly developed overhead-valve V6 in the world. With all the refinements that have been baked into it over the years, in terms of valvetrain friction, bottom-end strength and friction, and electronic engine management and fuel injection, this is about as good as it gets for an overhead-valve V6. Couple this engine to GM's excellent four-speed automatic, add all-speed traction control, and you've got yourself a really solid power unit that offers fun as well as decent fuel economy.
The 3400 V6, on the other hand, is a solid unit, but this car isn't quite the same with the smaller engine. In fact, it seems to miss the point entirely. If you're after practicality, maybe you should look at the Impala.
But the SS model's Sport suspension works with fat P225/60R16 Goodyear Eagle RSA tires to provide really surprising levels of grip. As a tradeoff for the bite they yield, the tires are a little noisy. The steering is over-assisted in a lot of situations and does not provide as much feedback from the front tires as we would like, but it is tight and accurate. The Monte Carlo has the widest front and rear track in its segment. (The track is the distance between the left right wheels.) Coupled with the tires and suspension, this makes for a platform that is good fun to drive through the backwoods as well as on the boulevard or Interstate. In short, the Monte Carlo is stable and responsive.
If you're gonna run with the fast guys, you'd better have good brakes. Larger, more powerful antilock brakes were fitted to this new Monte Carlo and they are up to the job. They have the largest calipers and rotors in the class, and we punished them mightily on one of our favorite stretches of twisty road, without a whisper of fade or grabbiness.
This latest Monte Carlo is the most attractive yet, to a wind tunnel that is. It's offbeat styling may not appeal to everyone. The current model does represent a major step forward in terms of strength, stiffness, weight, and suspension performance.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.