New Car/Review

1997 PONTIAC SUNFIRE SE COUPE

by Tom Hagin

Pontiac

SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide


SPECIFICATIONS

Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 13,495
Price As Tested                                    $ 15,245
Engine Type                            2.2 Liter I4 w/SPFI*
Engine Size                                 134 cid/2189 cc
Horsepower                                   120 @ 5200 RPM
Torque (lb-ft)                               130 @ 4000 RPM
Wheelbase/Width/Length                  104.1"/68.4"/181.9"
Transmission                          Three-speed automatic
Curb Weight                                     2640 pounds
Fuel Capacity                                  15.2 gallons
Tires  (F/R)                                     P195/70R14
Brakes (F/R)                          Disc (ABS)/drum (ABS)
Drive Train                  Front-engine/front-wheel-drive
Vehicle Type                        Five-passenger/two-door
Domestic Content                                        N/A
Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                               N/A

PERFORMANCE

EPA Economy, miles per gallon
   city/highway/average                            24/31/28
0-60 MPH                                        9.5 seconds
1/4 Mile (E.T.)                       18 seconds @ 84.5 mph
Top-speed                                           110 mph
     * Sequential port fuel injection

When Pontiac's chunky but successful Sunbird compact was performing its last tour of duty back in 1994, it was ready for a giant leap forward. And when we first saw its successor, the Sunfire, we knew that a giant step had been taken with its radical restyling.

When we looked closer and saw such standards as anti-lock brakes, dual airbags, rear seat heater ducts and a glove box that will hold a twelve-pack of soda, all for around $11,500, we came away impressed. This week we test an SE coupe, trimmed lightly with options.

OUTSIDE - With its pinched-in, curvaceous corners, Sunfire offers one of the most charming exterior shapes in its class. The headlamps and twin valance nostrils flow smoothly into the surrounding sheet metal, while the roof line rolls backward and terminates at the stubby trunk lid and optional rear spoiler. There is a definite Pontiac family "Look" to this new Sunfire. It bears more than a slight resemblance to others in the clan and there is even a faint hint of the Pontiac hot-rod coupe, the Firebird. Our testers affirmed, however, that its illuminated "Pontiac" moniker across the rear should be left back at the styling studios.

INSIDE - Sunfire's cockpit is efficiently packaged, and offers a respectable 87.8 cubic feet of space. Its driver area gives plenty of head and leg room, but some of our testers said the seat was too low and too close to the steering wheel. Some smaller drivers may have trouble seeing over the hood, as the driver's seat cannot be adjusted for height. The seating is firm and supportive, and covered in durable cloth upholstery, while the simplistic control layout is well-designed and very easy to operate. The rear seating area of our coupe tester is cramped, and with three across in back, the two outer passengers rubbed their heads against the curved roof line. Standard features are numerous on Sunfire. Air conditioning, a tilt steering column, a rear window defroster and an AM/FM/CD system were all part of a special "California" no-cost package, while cruise control was an option on our test car.

ON THE ROAD - Sunfire uses an inline four cylinder engine that gives 120 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque. Optional power comes from a twin-cam version that produces a healthy 150 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque. Previous versions of these engines were criticized for being loud and harsh, but structural changes and plenty of acoustical insulation have quieted the raucous engine and smoothed vibrations dramatically. Even with the base engine, power is adequate from a stop and it cruises effortlessly at freeway speeds. A five-speed manual transmission is standard fare, though our test model was equipped with and optional three-speed automatic, definitely not our choice. If shiftless driving is desired, we suggest spending a few extra dollars for the four-speed automatic, which is electronically-controlled and features a lockup torque converter.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - Sunfire SE is supported up front by a set of struts and control arms paired with an anti-roll bar and coil springs, while the rear uses a simple twist-beam axle with trailing arms, coils springs and an anti-roll bar. The system does a commendable job of subduing wheel motions from an inexpensive package. As a compact, it exhibits that "zippiness" so prevalent in small cars, and is a joy to maneuver the Sunfire through city traffic. Handling prowess could be better, however, and a set of "stickier" aftermarket tires would be a big help. It handles respectably in normal driving, but plows heavily in high-speed turns. The Sunfire GT model, with its stiffer suspension, should handle better in corners. Braking is handled by front discs and rear drums, with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) standard on all models. Our 60-0 mph stops of 139 feet were a bit longer than we would have liked but brake fade was well controlled.

SAFETY - Dual airbags, ABS, daytime headlamps and side-impact beams are standard.

OPTIONS - The three-speed automatic is $550, but adding $231 more for the four-speed automatic is worth it. Cruise control adds $235.

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