One of the ironies of the automotive world is that, often, the fastest cars are not the most fun. A Lexus ES300 will easily beat a Hyundai Tiburon, but the Tiburon is more exciting to drive. Likewise, the Pontiac Sunfire is more fun than its specs would indicate - and more comfortable than one would think, given the age of its basic platform.
The Sunfire is a close relative of the venerable Chevrolet Cavalier, with substantially different styling - so different, in fact, that when they are placed next to each other, they are only similar from the side.
The Sunfire's 2.2 dual-cam engine is very responsive, even when coupled with an automatic transmission (we did not test the base single-cam engine). It is often hard to tell how responsive a small car will be based solely on horsepower, because many factors come into play - the strength of the transmission, its willingness to downshift, torque levels, and where the power band is. In the Sunfire, all these factors are well balanced for good economy with good acceleration and high responsiveness (in other words, you can accelerate quickly from pretty much any speed). It's not just a zero-to-sixty sprinter that needs to be kept over 6,000 rpm get going.
Handling is sporty, not excellent, but giving a comfortable feel around turns. It begs to be tossed around. Again, there are cars that do better around the skidpad, but don't feel as nimble. Torque steer can be noticeable on takeoff. Ride is well balanced with handling, and small pavement irregularities are nicely smoothed out. In short, you can feel the road, but you won't be bothered by it. It's neither a Lexus nor a Prowler.
Despite a low starting price, the Sunfire comes with standard GM electronic wizardry, including power memory, speed-sensitive radio volume, battery rundown protection, and automatic interior lights. It also has daytime running lights, but GM seems to have cut the power to make them less annoying to other drivers.
The interior is surprisingly tasteful for a car aimed at younger buyers. The instrument panel is clear and easy to read, despite red night lighting (which is missing from some controls). Controls are sometimes a little odd, including GM's corporate cruise control, mounted on the turn signal stalk. There is an unconventional headlight control on the turn signal stalk as well, and the traction control shutoff is on a switch next to the interior light dimmer, while the cigarette lighter is unusually close to the steering column. The horn is hard to activate, and it would also be nice if the cruise control had an indicator to tell drivers when it is on.
We liked the moonroof controls - one press lifted the panel to the vent position, another opened it completely. Closing it again requires a sustained press of the close button, presumably for safety's sake.
Both stereo and climate control systems are sensibly designed and marked, though the climate controls are a bit old-fashioned. The stereo on our test vehicle was packed with features and had excellent sound, especially for this price class, with good stereo definition, strong bass, and the ability to turn that bass down when listening to talk radio.
The center console had one large uncovered opening, and a smaller covered bin. Our test vehicle also had lights built into the mirror, in addition to a dome light over the back seats. The only major interior drawback was wind noise, which was high, though not annoyingly so, at highway speeds. We also had a number of trim rattles in our test vehicle which may have been related to a single dashboard piece underneath the windshield.
Following a trend started by the Chrysler Cirrus, there is no dedicated ashtray, only a cupholder insert which, to be fair, works just as well. The cupholders themselves are fairly small. There are two main cupholders plus one removable holder in the center console, too far back for the driver to safely reach. Opening the center console all the way yields two small cupholders for the rear passengers.
Our test vehicle was a coupe, and as such as afflicted with the usual problems - huge doors and moderately difficult rear seat access. Neither was worse than in other coupes. Seat belts could be rearranged to clear a path to the rear, and both front seats tilted forward easily. Rear seat space is fairly sparse in the coupe.
As with many modern vehicles, you are supposed to open the Sunfire with the remote key fob - unlocking the door with the key can set off the alarm.
The trunk is decently sized, and can be enlarged by folding down the rear seats. Unfortunately, both rear seats must be folded down at once, though most cars now come with a 30/20 split.
While the premium Sunfire SE coupe starts at a reasonable $14,540, including power steering and brakes, our test vehicle listed for $17,395, including destination charge. Major options were the sun and sound package, which throws in an automatic transmission with sportier tires, a very good six-speaker sound system (with superior stereo imaging thanks to cleverly placed tweaters), and a sunroof. So it's really a sun, sound, transmission, and wheel package. Cruise control, reading lamps, trunk net, and intermittent wipers add $340, the alarm and power locks add $370, and power windows and mirrors are another $380. Probably well worth the price is the optional dual-cam engine at $250.
The Sunfire is an interesting mixture, the entry-level car of a moderately premium brand. Some of its parts are definitely premium grade - the responsive powertrain, ride/handling mix, and clear instrument panel with built in tachometer - while others are economy-car grade. Likewise, there is an interesting mix of vintage and modern components, a sign of the platform's age. In total, the package certainly works, but if you believe the list price, it's relatively pricey for a small car, even a competent, sporty small car that's more fun than many more expensive, higher performers. (For the untrained driver, we'd even say it's more fun than the Camaro or Mustang, since it's harder to get into trouble, and easier to see in all directions.) If you can deal with two more doors, take a look at the Dodge Neon, which is considerably larger and cheaper, and finally has a four-speed automatic as well. The stylish and practical PT Cruiser is in the same price range as a loaded Sunfire, too. You can also consider a Celica or Civic coupe...but we'll take the Sunfire over those options.
The Pontiac Sunfire is a surprisingly fun little car, and you can even feel patriotic buying it - it's an American design, built in Ohio, which is easy on gasoline. That'll keep the logical part of your brain feeling good while the emotional part is speeding up on the curves.
The Sunfire and Neon are very different. The original Neon was much sportier than the current, more-refined model. The current Neon is (as the original was, come to think of it) substantially larger than the Sunfire, and can compete with mid-size cars on interior space. Neon handling is simi liar to that of the Sunfire, while the Neon's engine, lumbered with either a three-speed or an inefficient four-speed automatic, doesn't seem as responsive as that of the Pontiac. Given a five-speed, the Sunfire still, subjectively, seems to have an edge.
For those looking at sportiness as a major criterion, the Sunfire wins - a strange twist given the original Neon's dominance. For those looking at comfort, the Neon takes the lead, with better ergonomics and a larger interior. Let's not forget price and warranty - the Neon S starts at about $10,000! and Chrysler is, at least through December 31, 2001, offering a far better warranty.
On the other hand, the Neon is a dead end in terms of patriotism. Owned by a German company, Chrysler will not be continuing the Neon past this generation, and the next version will be designed in Japan, from engine to wheels, while profits will be diverted to foreign (if you're American) investors - like as not into Mercedes product development. General Motors is still American, and money spent on a Sunfire will most likely be put to work in North America.
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