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The Pontiac Sunfire is an agile compact coupe that's enjoyable to drive.
Changes improve the Sunfire for 2003. Revised front and rear styling freshens its appearance. GM's 2.2-liter Ecotec engine offers quieter operation, improved efficiency, and substantially more power than last year's base engine. Interior revisions improve comfort and convenience. Optional side airbags and the OnStar telematics system enhance safety. A retuned sports suspension offers quicker responses.
In spite of updates for 2003, it lacks the refinement of some of the latest models from the competition. Its base price looks attractive, but options will likely be needed to add desirable safety and convenience features.
The Pontiac Sunfire is easy and fun to drive.
The Ecotec 2.2-liter engine offers responsive performance, particularly when paired with the five-speed manual transmission. This newly developed four-cylinder engine generates 140 horsepower at 5600 rpm, giving the Sunfire enough power for confident passing and merging into busy highway traffic. While some engines tend to be peaky, providing maximum power only in a very narrow rpm range, the Ecotec has a broad torque curve and that enhances the engine's driveability. The new Ecotec engine is fuel efficient, EPA-rated at 24 mpg City and 33 Highway with the five-speed transmission, and 23/32 mpg with the four-speed automatic.
The five-speed manual transmission, built by renowned German gearbox maker Getrag, offers pleasant shifting and we enjoyed it. The optional four-speed automatic transmission works well around town, keeping the engine in its best operating range at lower speeds.
The Sunfire handles well. It hangs on confidently in fast corners and stays poised and predictable. It is balanced well, exhibiting surprisingly little understeer for a front-wheel-drive car. You can really throw it around. Ride and handling have been improved for 2003 by stiffening the structure of the car, and re-tuning the suspension for a sportier, more controlled ride. The chassis did feel more rigid, more secure when driving quickly down a rough back roads. The revised suspension dampened road vibration reasonably well. Hitting a series of bumps didn't generate the aftershocks associated with older domestic compact cars. You feel the bumps, but it seems more controlled than it did in the pre-2003 models. The chassis and suspension and steering combine to produce a good blend of ride and handling, and the car projects a secure feeling of stability and solidity. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gives the Sunfire quick steering response. The suspension comprises MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in the rear. It's not as sophisticated as the suspensions in some of the other cars in this class, but it gets the job done.
Bigger rear drum brakes and more rear brake bias are designed to improve braking performance. The brake pedal feels nice and firm and the brakes are responsive. ABS is optional, but we recommend it. Slam on the brakes and the ABS steps in, bringing the Sunfire to an undramatic stop. ABS can be a real ally in an emergency maneuver because it allows the driver to steer the car in a panic braking situation. Just remember to keep hard pedal pressure on the brakes and don't forget to steer.
Pontiac Sunfire offers sporty, expressive styling and decent performance in an affordably priced coupe. Revisions to this year's model improve refinement and add convenience. Sunfire is getting long in the tooth, however, so look for deals.