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1995 Pontiac Sunfire

You'd think a complete makeover of the most popular car line in the country for the past five years would be fraught with danger.In the case of Chevy Cavalier and its Pontiac sibling Sunbird, the challenge wasn't so hard.

You’d think a complete makeover of the most popular car line in the country for the past five years would be fraught with danger.

In the case of Chevy Cavalier and its Pontiac sibling Sunbird, the challenge wasn’t so hard. Few people bought the old J-cars because they were terrific cars; they bought them because they

were cheap.

Or, as General Motors’ marketing people prefer to put it, “They represented good value”.

It wasn’t tough for GM to build a better car; they just had to make sure it didn’t get too much more expensive.

Based on three different exposures to the new J-cars, I believe they’ve accomplished both goals.

My latest goround was with a Pontiac Sunfire coupe — the “Sunbird” name has been dropped.

The styling is fresh and modern without being too trendy. If your memory’s good, you may recall photos of the Pontiac Sunfire roadster concept car at last year’s Detroit auto show. That’s

the new Sunfire. Pretty, expressive, lots of family resemblance to other Pontiacs. Nice job.

(No production convertible yet, by the way, but it’ll be here by the time convertible weather arrives.)

Interior styling is also attractive. Clever too, with lots of rounded organic shapes designed so they don’t have to fit together. When deep curves meet, the seams are often hidden; even if the parts don’t mate perfectly, you can’t tell.

Interior materials have taken a giant leap forward from previous low-budget GM fare. The hard plastics especially are now nicely textured and richlooking. Switches work with slickness and precision.

My test car interior was RED. We don’t have a typeface big, bold or garish enough to describe how RED this interior is. Seats, dash, door panels aggressioninducing RED. Made me want

to slam my fist into a wall.

Is this some 45-year-old product planner’s idea of what young people want? Free market research clinic, folks: my kids didn’t like it.

Color aside, the interior works well. Rear seat headroom is restricted the price you pay for a coupe — but isn’t impossible. If it’s a big concern, choose the sedan.

The seats have lots of support everywhere, especially for thighs — a common failure in low-budget cars. The tweedy-textured cloth is both comfortable and grippy.

One thing that bugs me about most domestic two-doors is the inertia seatback release system. The front seatbacks are free to flop forward, locking only under braking. The theory: it’s easy to fold the seat forward for rearseat access. But it also means when you lean on the passenger seat when peering behind to back up, the seatback collapses forward and you tumble into the

rear seat. Why not a easy-to-flick latch? Try a VW Golf for inspiration.

Two stubby steering column stalks work lights (left side) and wipers (right side) in the best international tradition, although the leftside stalk is a little too high for believers in the quarter-to-three steering-wheel hand position.

Round heating-ventilation-air conditioning controls below the big-buttoned radio are examples of how it should be done. A HandiPak of Kleenex fits into the underside of the console lid.

Glovebox? This one swallows hockey gloves.

A metallic ashtray is held in place by a magnet; pop it out and the recess becomes a cup holder, with a cutout for a mug handle. Not quite deep enough to keep my thermal coffee mug from

falling over though don’t ask, I got it cleaned up pretty well; they’ll never notice.

Interior lights dim gradually when the doors are closed. GM calls it “theatre dimming” — unheard of in this class. There’s even a dead pedal of sorts to brace your left foot against. Lots of real-world nice touches here.

And to answer your first question last: dual air bags are standard.

The powertrain package is carryover. The 2.2 litre four-cylinder engine dates back to, oh, maybe something David Buick worked on in 1903. When Jeff the Photo and I collected this car and fired up the engine, he grumped sarcastically, “Boy, that’s a high-tech sounding piece.” Indeed, the pushrod mill is honky and gruff — mostly induction roar — and it gets louder on hard acceleration.

Performance is hardly dragstrip stuff, but Sunfire gets out of its own way reasonably well, aided by good low-end torque.

The antique three-speed automatic transmission with lockup torque converter — most imports have a four-speed — shifts very smoothly. Overall gearing results in just under 3000 r.p.m. at

100 km/h, not the lowest revs in the field. Nonetheless, highway cruising is quiet I found myself in photo radar danger constantly.

Fuel economy is also surprising: better than the standard fivespeed manual in Transport Canada’s city cycle. GM does old-fashioned powertrain technology — GMers call it “appropriate

technology” better than anybody.

Suspension is similar to before: MacStruts up front, twist-beam axle at the rear. This was one area where this car didn’t impress as much as previous examples. Despite the designation of “softride suspension”, it felt much harder than other Cav-Fires I’ve driven, especially on city potholes.

Handling is very good, with decent steering feel, flat cornering, and benign response no matter what you do at the wheel. You can’t really expect a great deal of driving entertainment value in a compact family sedan, but both Lady Leadfoot and I quite enjoyed driving this car.

Incidentally, one of our rare-so-far winter storms coincided with my Sunfire test. The grip provided by the factory-issue allseason tires is very good in snow.

Brakes are discfront, drumrear, with antilock control. Yes, it’s GM’s lowcost ABS VI system, with a relatively low cycle frequency, but it’s clearly better than none. Full marks to GM for making this standard, when competitive cars heck, some imports costing twice as much charge extra.

Canadian Chevy and Pontiac dealers have received about as many Jcars in total from the Ramos Arizpe factory in Mexico as U.S. dealers have from Lordstown, Ohio. Turns out the more highly automated U.S. plant has had more trouble finessing the parts to fit right than the more highly manual Mexican operation. Ramos Arizpe has traditionally been at or near the top of GM’s quality rankings, so fear not a Mexican Cavalier or Sunfire.

That said, the doors on my test car rattled in their frames on sharp bumps, and a bit of wind noise leaked around the driver’s door. There’s also considerable road noise. Our sources in

Mexico say they’re working on a better sound package for the rear wheel wells.

In sum, the new Sunfire is a considerably better car than the top-seller it replaces. Has GM kept it affordable?

Yes and no. Initial pricing was very aggressive, but like all domestics, GM has taken advantage of yen pressure on their imported competitors to crank their prices up too.

A base but very livable coupe lists just under $13,000, the sedan is $500 extra. (Cavaliers are a few hundred cheaper across the board.) My air/conequipped tester was just under $16,000,

and you’d write a cheque for well more than $18,000 by the time you covered all the taxes.

It depends on what you compare it to. You’d have to accept a much smaller, less powerful car (Geo Metro, Hyundai Accent) to get dual bags and ABS at a similar price. A Chrysler Neon isn’t any cheaper, nor is any comparable Japanese brand. Even similarly sized, much pricier and less-well equipped Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique don’t look very good value against

Cavalier and Sunfire.

Mike Speranzini, GM Canada’s Jcar market planning manager, feels hopeful bordering on confident that Cavalier and Sunfire can maintain their sales leadership, even with a couple of slow

months during the rampup of production.

If they don’t make it for 1995, I’ll bet they’ll be right there when they have a full model year to work with.

Pontiac Sunfire Coupe

MODELS AND PRICES

Coupe $12,945; sedan $13,345

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

Base: anti-lock brakes; dual air bags; adjustable shoulderbelt anchors; dual sideview mirrors, leftside remote adjustable; fixed-interval wipers; AM-FM stereo 4-speaker sound system;

reclining front bucket seats; console with armrest and cup holders; tachometer; theatre-dimming interior lights; covered visor vanity mirrors and map straps; lights-on warning buzzer; floor mats; folding rear seat back; power steering; 160,000 km platinum-tipped spark plugs

ENGINE

2.2 litre OHV inline four, multi-point fuel injection, 120 h.p. at 5200 r.p.m., 130 poundfeet of torque at 4000 r.p.m., regular (87 octane) fuel

TRANSMISSION

5-speed manual, front-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer’s figures: WB — 2644 mm; L — 4580 mm; W 1712 mm; H — 1351 mm; front headroom — 955 mm; rear headroom — 904 mm; trunk capacity — 0.37 cubic metre / 13.2 cubic feet; fuel tank — 57.6 litres; weight — 1215 kg.

PRICE AS TESTED

Coupe: $15,230 (excluding extra charges, taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

1SB package, including AM-FM stereo cassette sound system, remote trunk lid release, tilt steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers — $520; CFC-free air conditioning — $980;

three-speed automatic transmission — $620; crosslace wheel covers — $165

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight, predelivery inspection: $595; federal air conditioning excise tax — $100; Ontario “fuel conservation” tax — $75.

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags — std.; anti-lock brakes — std; meets 1997 U.S. side-impact standards? — no; theft-deterrent system — no; height-adjustable shoulder belts — std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

3-speed auto: city 9.9 L/100 km; highway 6.9 L/100 km; estimated maximum range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 835 km

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler and tail pipe — $193; front fender — $230; taillight lens — $146

WARRANTY

Entire car — 3 years, 60,000 km (no deductible, no transfer fee); rust-through — 6 years, 160,000 km; roadside assistance — 3 years, 60,000 km

COMPETITION

Chevrolet Cavalier: same car, less flash, less cost; Dodge/Plymouth Neon: pretty, sporty, noisy, not as solid; Ford Escort: wide model range, but aging fast; Toyota Tercel: beautifully built, but smaller, pricy, no ABS.

RATING

Bold face denotes Kenzie’s rating.1-4: yeah, it’s a car; 5-6: it’s got price going for it; 7-8: good value; 9: great value; 10: where do I sign?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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