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New Car Review


by Tom Hagin


Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 19,495
Price As Tested                                    $ 21,155
Engine Type               DOHC 4-valve 2.4 Liter I4 w/SPFI*
Engine Size                                 146 cid/2392 cc
Horsepower                                   150 @ 5600 RPM
Torque (lb-ft)                               155 @ 4400 RPM
Wheelbase/Width/Length                  104.1"/67.4"/181.9"
Transmission                              Five-speed manual
Curb Weight                                     2912 pounds
Fuel Capacity                                  15.2 gallons
Tires  (F/R)                                     P195/65R15
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


EPA Economy, miles per gallon
   city/highway/average                            24/34/27
0-60 MPH                                        9.5 seconds
1/4 Mile (E.T.)                       17.5 seconds @ 80 mph
Top speed                                           105 mph
     * Sequential port fuel injection

The Pontiac Sunfire has quietly entered its fourth year of production. It's a favorite of cost-conscious commuters, and the rental car companies have embraced its racy design and frugal operating costs.

In SE trim, the Sunfire is available as a coupe, a sedan and a convertible. A sporty GT coupe is also in the lineup. In preparation for the upcoming summer, this week we test the convertible.

OUTSIDE - The Sunfire's flashy looks seem directly targeted to the Generation-X buyer. Its muscular haunches and arched roof line are shared with other General Motors vehicles, as are its exposed headlamps, twin air scoops and stubby trunklid. The top, now available in a new Taupe color for 1998, unlocks with a single latch at the center of the windshield header, then automatically drops into a well behind the rear seat. Should something untoward happen, such as a dead battery, a manual override is also provided. The boot cover is comprised of two rigid side pieces that store in the trunk, and a vinyl center section that stows behind the rear seatback, all of which cover the unit as it rests in the well. Our test vehicle's alloy wheels were part of an options group.

INSIDE - The interior is rounded, compact, and very functional. The controls and switches are well designed, well placed, and easy to use. The front bucket seats are comfortable and well bolstered, though tailored more for the small-of-frame, while the rear seat can handle two adults, but tightly. The mammoth glovebox is lockable, and large enough to swallow a 12-pack of soda and enough ice to keep it cold. The center console houses a cupholder and a pair of window switches, but there are none to operate the rear windows. Raising the rear quarter windows with the top down from the front seat would conveniently reduce wind buffeting at freeway speeds. The Sunfire convertible comes with many standard features such as cruise control, air conditioning, rear window defogger, tilt steering, variable speed intermittent wipers and all are included in the base price. Options include keyless entry, CD player, power windows, mirrors and door locks and steering wheel audio controls.

ON THE ROAD - Our test car carried an optional 2.4 liter, twin cam, 16-valve engine which produces 150 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque. While early Sunfire models equipped with this engine suffered from excessive noise, vibration and harshness, the newest version is much smoother. It was updated a few years back with the addition of a set of auxiliary counter-rotating balance shafts that dramatically tamed the big four cylinder engine's inherent shaking. With this optional engine, power is abundant, especially off-the-line. It quickly launches to 60 mph, and hustles along quietly at freeway speeds. Transmission choices include a three-or-four speed automatic, or the five-speed manual which was in our test model. While the five-speed Sunfire version is fun to drive, a convertible is meant to "cruise," so the standard four-speed automatic would be best suited to the life style of this car.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - Underneath the Sunfire is a front MacPherson strut suspension and a trailing arm/twist beam rear axle. Both ends ride on coil springs, and anti-roll bars have been fitted. The suspension's calibrations are tuned tautly, so while it handles twisty roads with ease, bumps and jolts are noticeably sent into the cabin. It doesn't understeer in turns like many front-wheel-drive cars, but instead, there is ample response to driver input. Rack-and-pinion steering is power- assisted, and while a bit numb on-center, it is quick and communicative. A traction control system which limits engine power and forces the transmission to upshift to control wheelspin in bad weather, is standard. Braking chores are handled by front disc and rear drum brakes, along with a standard four-wheel anti-lock braking system.

SAFETY - Dual reduced-power airbags, daytime running headlamps, side-impact beams and four-wheel ABS are standard.

OPTIONS - Five-speed manual: $810; California emissions: $170; options group 1SB: (security package, steering wheel audio controls, aluminum wheels, custom trim, power windows, door locks and mirrors): $1800.