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1998 Pontiac Sunfire

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

This was supposed to be the first week of summer, right? I

hope it turns out better than our spring did.

(Ed. note: Spring? What spring?)

Well, there's a thunderstorm going on as I write this.

Still, hope — how shall I put this — springs eternal. As does

the hope that you can actually afford to buy a car you can enjoy

when (if?) we ever get some decent weather.

So a call was placed to General Motors. "How about a Cavalier

convertible?" That sounds like cheap fun for the summertime.

"Would a bright white Pontiac Sunfire do?" You bet.

The Sunfire is currently the second bestselling car in Canada

(Cavalier is number one). These siblings offer style, room,

decent performance and excellent value, with Sunfire adding a

shade more 'tude than the Chevy.

Bodies for both brands are built as convertibles at GM's

assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio then shipped to the Lansing

(Michigan) Craft Centre, where additional reinforcements are

welded into the under-body and the top and final trim bits are

fitted.

This plant, the former home of the Buick Reatta, is now run by

GENASYS, a joint venture of General Motors and ASC Inc.,

previously known as American Sunroof, which also engineered the

top.

The top mechanism is simplicity itself — pull a handle on the

windshield header to unlock two clamps and activate an electric

motor which collapses the top behind the rear seat, taking the

rear quarter windows with it.

While this obviously takes up some room, the rear seat and

trunk are both still usable.

You can fit two semi-rigid panels over the stacked top for a

neater appearance if you wish; since I could never trust the

weather for more than ten minutes, I didn't bother.

Erecting the top is reverse procedure, but relatching the

handle requires a fair degree of pressure. You can go up or down

with the car moving, although both the owner's manual and I

suggest you don't.

Top up, there are the usual blind spots to the rear quarters,

but properly-adjusted side-view mirrors compensate. The rear

window is glass and has a electric defroster, so this isn't

exclusively a fairweather car.

Top-down air flow at speed is pleasantly benign. With the

windows up, it's nearly as snug as a closed car. This is a

convertible with little pain for the al fresco gain — at least

for frontseat riders.

Deleting the steel roof from any car means structural rigidity

akin to a wet Kleenex box, but well-placed chassis bracing can

work wonders.

The Sunfire is no Mercedes Benz SL in rigidity, but neither

does it cost a hundred grand. If you can't feel the body shake,

you'll surely notice the rearview mirror vibrating.

The flexing is more evident with the top up, with all that

canvas fluttering about. Given the haste with which GM procured

my test car — it had less than 500 km on it — it's easy to

forgive the slight wind noise around the seal between the front

and rear windows on the left side. A slight adjustment will cure

this, I'm sure. Otherwise, the car was well-finished and

rattle-free.

In the old days, a willowy body structure contributed to a

smooth ride. It may not be part of the plan for the Sunfire

convertible, but every passenger immediately remarked on the

ride quality of the car.

This is the best-riding current-generation Cavalier/Sunfire

I've been in. Continuous development may also have played a

part.

Flexiflyer bodies aren't usually the best for handling,

however. The Sunfire is hardly a canyon runner, nor does it

pretend to be. The steering is a shade heavy at parking-lot

speeds, but fine everywhere else.

The front seats are firm and nicely upholstered, but

shapeless, offering little lateral support. My test car had an

option package that included much-appreciated manual lumbar

adjustment for the driver.

The convertible is trimmed in what Pontiac calls its base SE

level. But it gains the AM/FM stereo cassette, air conditioning,

cruise control and goofy trunklid spoiler, mounted at the base

of the rear window, that come on GT models.

Ragtop Sunfires also borrow the GT's 2.4-litre twin-cam

16-valve four-cylinder engine. This is son-of-Quad 4, an

Oldsmobile-developed mill from the mid-'80s which was initially

characterized by terrific performance and terrific fuel economy,

but also terrific noise, vibration and general unpleasantness.

I'm pleased to say GM has finally tamed this beast. Twin

balance shafts and continuous finetuning have made it a

decently smooth runner, while its 150 horsepower and 155 lb.ft.

of torque (at 4,400 r.p.m.) continue to deliver excellent

acceleration.

GM also continues to make the best-shifting automatics in the

business, especially at this price level. The Windsor-built

4T40E four-speed electronic overdrive transaxle operates

virtually seamlessly, and the ratios appear well-matched to the

engine's torque curve.

I was happy to see a shift quadrant in the instrument panel,

duplicating that on the floor-mounted console, especially since

it's easy to pull the lever directly back into third, rather

than Drive.

The Sunfire convertible, then, is a nice little summer car.

Not a Mazda Miata replacement, to be sure, but a pretty,

smooth-riding, comfortable, acceptably quick and practical

boulevardier.

Then I looked at the price: 28 grand! For a Sunfire? Taxes

extra? Yikes.

That's a base of $24,720, plus roughly a grand each for the

automatic, a power windows/mirrors/locks/remote keyless entry

package, and a handful of wheel, radio and interior upgrades. A

well-equipped automobile, sure, but affordable?

The week prior to driving the Sunfire, my value standards were

recalibrated by bopping around in a 1997 Corvette. How do they

do all that for under $50k? Sure, the two cars aren't

competitors. But the Sunfire isn't half the car the 'Vette is,

yet it's more than half the money. Part of it must be that

Sunfire assembly involves two factories.

What are Sunfire's competitors? Its price puts it right up

against Chrysler's Sebring convertible, which, in my mind

anyway, is a more stylish, more substantial and certainly larger

car. It's also not far off the sportier Ford Mustang ragtop, or

the ultimate image leader in the field, the Volkswagen Golf

Cabriolet.

Or, if leaving all but one friend and most of your luggage

behind is not a concern, the aforementioned Miata.

But unless you're prepared to suffer the ride and handling

deprivations of a minisport ute like the Pontiac Sunrunner/Geo

Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick triplets, which start around $17,000,

this is about as close you're going to get to a low-buck

motorized sunburn. Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this

report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by

the automaker.

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