If you want a cool car without spending a lot of cash, hop into the Sunfire.
The subcompact coupe from Pontiac is one of those sporty models designed to look more expensive than it is. It also carries a nice load of standard equipment and affordable options. In marketing parlance, that translates to “value.”
The downside of the Sunfire and its ilk is performance that falls short of appearances.
With the base four-cylinder engine, you get a less-than-breathtaking 115 horses pulling the coupe’s 2,606 pounds. Step up to the GT trim, and the horsepower jumps to 150, which is a big improvement but still fairly tame.
What really gets most people interested in this car is probably its appearance, followed by its price. For people who just like the price and the standard equipment but don’t need the sporty facade, check out the Chevrolet Cavalier, a General Motors platform mate.
In the 2000 models, Pontiac updated the Sunfire’s design inside and out with new front fascias, integral fog lamps, rounded turn signals, a couple of new paint schemes (spruce green metallic and ultrasilver metallic) and color-keyed body-side moldings.
The revised instrument panel features an analog speedometer, digital odometer, tachometer and fuel gauge. Also new are the armrest mounted in the floor console, new cup holders and improved storage space for CDs, tapes, gimcracks and gewgaws.
What I especially appreciate about General Motors’ ergonomic team is the fact that they still install real knobs on the stereo so that you can tune in a radio station or turn up the volume without pulling off the road and accessing your magnifying glass. Those dinky switches on most automotive radios really drive me batty. And the GM knobs have a nice, rubbery feel that adds to your feeling of control.
You can buy the coupe or sedan version of the Sunfire at prices around $14,500. The GT coupe with the stronger engine is priced at $16,720, and that covers a lot of attractive standard equipment: air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, front air bags, anti-theft system, rear-window defogger, heat vents for rear passengers, AM-FM stereo with compact disc player, tilt steering wheel, battery-rundown protection, sport interior and rear spoiler.
You can add a sunroof for $555 and a popular option package for $2,135 that includes automatic transmission; cruise control; trunk net; reading lamps; remote keyless entry; power windows, locks and mirrors; and a Monsoon 200-watt, eight-speaker premium stereo.
The total bill with destination charge on the review car came to $19,495.
The GT coupe comes with 16-inch aluminum wheels as standard equipment, while the base SE trim uses 14-inchers.
Despite its subcompact classification, the Sunfire feels surprisingly roomy up front. The bucket seats are not the best in the world but are serviceable for a commuter car designed for occasional road trips.
The back seats are a different story, too cramped for most adults. For a small family with small children, the back seat should be adequate, however. The trunk offers plenty of room for road-trip luggage.
Sunfires are front-drive cars that sit on 104.1-inch wheelbases with 63 percent of the car’s weight in the front half (with the exception of the convertible). The GT trim features a sportier suspension with a stiffer anti-roll bars and tubular control arms in the rear, a twist-beam axle and rack-and-pinion steering.
The brakes are vented discs in front and drums in the back.
Over the road, the Sunfire GT is subpar compared with something such as the Volkswagen Golf. The handling is not as precise as I would like, and noise from the engine and road intrudes into the passenger compartment.
Some of those distractions come from the car being built from such lightweight materials, which translates to decent fuel economy. The 150-horsepower engine burns regular unleaded at the rate of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway for an estimated annual fuel bill of $720. Think about that as we watch fuel prices climb this winter.
Among the Sunfire’s competition are the Honda Civic, which costs about $700 more, and the Dodge Neon, which offers less horsepower and a lower price. The Nissan Sentra also competes, with a price range between $12,000 and $15,000. The new Ford Focus also may cast a shadow on some of the Sunfire’s market. Reliability may be a disadvantage for the Sunfire against the Civic. Consumer Reports magazine rates the Sunfire’s reliability as below average, while the Civic wins above-average marks.