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