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SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

1996 Pontiac Sunfire SE Sedan

Pontiac is the division of General Motors that specializes in sporty, performance-oriented cars. Its advertising slogan is "Driving Excitement", and it does make some very exciting cars such as the Firebird. Pontiac's compact, entry-level car is the Sunfire. Can a small domestic car provide "driving excitement"? In the case of the 1996 Sunfire, the answer is yes. Introduced in 1995, it replaced the aged Sunbird. The Sunfire line has significant new features for the 1996 model year that improve its performance and value.

Outside, the 1996 Sunfire is little changed from the 1995 model. The big improvements are where they should be for performance - under the hood. The 2.2-liter overhead valve 4- cylinder engine is still the base power unit, but the 2.3 liter Quad 4 engine has been replaced by the new, smoother, and much more civilized 2.4-liter "Twin Cam" powerplant. The 4-speed 4T40E automatic transmission, available only with the Quad 4 last year, can now be had with the base 2.2-liter engine as well as the Twin Cam. All cars so equipped have an enhanced traction control system.

The 1996 Sunfire is sold in sedan, coupe, and convertible form. The SE trim level is standard. In addition, the a performance- oriented GT coupe is available. I recently spent a busy week with an SE sedan with the Twin Cam engine and 4-speed automatic. It was an enjoyable, economical car that combined practicality with fun and flair.

APPEARANCE: The Sunfire is pure Pontiac outside. Inspired heavily by the Sunfire Speedster concept car that made the auto show circuit a few years ago, there is little doubt as to the manufacturer of this car. From the twin teardrop nostrils and inset headlights to the rounded tail with pointed oval taillights, the Sunfire is very much the Firebird's little brother. It brings typically audacious Pontiac style to a class of cars not usually noted for appearance. The sedan has a more formal roofline than the coupe. My test car had sporty-looking alloy wheels.

COMFORT: The Sunfire sedan is subcompact outside, but classified as a compact based on interior space. The interior is as highly styled as the exterior, but function is not sacrificed to fashion. The front seats are sporty-looking and provide good support for spirited driving. The rear bench seat folds down for extra cargo capacity and has a folding armrest/console. The inside door panels are sculpted not only for good looks but for extra room. There is a large glove box, plenty of useful storage spaces in the doors and console, and a convenient overhead compartment for small items like sunglasses. The molded, flowing instrument panel combines contemporary style with function. Gauges and warning lights are simple and to the point. Options often unavailable in small cars are offered to allow the Sunbird to be custom-tailored to many needs. My test car had the usual power door locks, mirrors, and windows, and air conditioning. Less usual is this class were the leather-wrapped tilt-adjustable steering wheel, remote keyless entry, and sound system with steering wheel-mounted controls.

SAFETY: The 1996 Pontiac Sunfire has a comprehensive array of standard safety features including safety cage construction, side- guard door beams, daytime running lights, the PASSlock anti-theft system, antilock brakes, dual air bags, and height-adjustable front shoulder belts. Sedans have child-resistant rear door locks. Sunfires with the 4-speed automatic transmission have traction control.

ROADABILITY: The 1996 Pontiac Sunfire SE sedan is a pleasant traveling companion. The suspension tuning has been refined this year for improved ride and handling characteristics. Both the MacPherson front and tubular axle rear suspension have coil springs with concentric shock absorbers. The ride is smooth and supple, not economy-car harsh. The steering is faster this year, contributing to good handling characteristics. The Sunfire isn't quite a sports sedan, but it is an economical small family car that is plenty of fun to drive.

PERFORMANCE: The new 16-valve, dual overhead cam 2.4 liter "Twin Cam" engine is replaces the old Quad 4 in the Sunfire's engine bay this year. It is far more refined than its ancestor, and offers better torque characteristics, improved fuel efficiency, and quieter running. It gives the Sunfire plenty of zip. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard. My test car had the optional electronically- controlled 4-speed 4T40E automatic transmission. The low-speed torque of the Twin Cam engine makes the smooth, quick-shifting 4T40E a good choice for everyday driving.

CONCLUSIONS: The 1996 Pontiac Sunfire combines style and performance in a comprehensively equipped package.

SPECIFICATIONS
1996 Pontiac Sunfire SE Sedan
Base Price               $ 11,674
Price As Tested          $ 16,436
Engine Type              dual overhead camshaft 16 valve inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size              2.4 liters / 146 cu. in.
Horsepower               150 @ 6000
Torque (lb-ft)           155 @ 4400
Transmission             4-speed electronically-controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length       104.1 in. / 181.7 in.
Curb Weight              2723 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    18
Fuel Capacity            15.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded regular
Tires                    P195/65R15 B. F. Goodrich Touring T/A
Brakes, front/rear       ventilated disc / drum
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut /
                         tubular axle with coil springs
Drivetrain               front engine, front-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
city / highway / observed           22/32/27
0 to 60 mph                         9.1 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                     16.4 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)            0.32 

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