Something comes over us when we're in a Chevy Monte Carlo. It's hard not to fantasize we're rocketing down the front straight at Talladega with 42 stock cars glued to the rear bumper. Or maybe we're going through the inner loop at Watkins Glen, bounding off the curbs as we go through the big chicane. The Monte Carlo has that bad boy look and feel.
No matter what you think of the styling, you'll quickly form a bond with the Monte Carlo. It's just so easy to get along with this car. It's roomy and comfortable and easy to operate. It's fast and fun to drive. It's stable at high speeds for long runs down the interstate and it's great fun on back roads, the same kind of roads that form the roots of stock car racing.
The Monte Carlo also offers a lot of value, with strong performance for the dollar. You see, the Monte's mission is two-fold. Since its debut in 1970, it's been a high-value personal luxury coupe, a car that delivers a lot of visual importance for relatively small monthly payments. But for most of those years, the Monte Carlo has also been Chevrolet's standard-bearer in stock car racing. Keeping ahead of the competition has required constant aerodynamic refinement. So there's a reason the Monte Carlo looks like it does: the Winston Cup rule book. The rules of Winston Cup racing demand the cars we see flying around the high banks are similar to those sitting in the showrooms. The result is an attention-grabbing shape like no other on the road, a shape born in the wind tunnels.
It's a surprisingly practical shape as well. Despite its race-track breeding, the Monte Carlo offers more interior volume that any other car in its class (with the exception of other GM vehicles). Its front-drive chassis is tuned for a comfortable ride and competent handling. An SS model, the only Monte Carlo to buy, provides a potent 3.8-liter V6 to complement its racy good looks. Of course, the Monte Carlo at the local dealership does not have the tube-frame chassis or rear-wheel drive of a NASCAR machine. But the SS does deliver spirited performance, along with a chance to feel connected to a winning tradition.
Nothing else looks like a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Chevrolet says Monte Carlo buyers usually cite styling as a major influence on their purchasing decision. The Monte's sharply creased quarters and thick rear roof pillars represent a design heritage 33 years old. At the same time, the 2003 model is as modern as the latest computer simulation, refined in the wind tunnel for maximum stability with minimal drag.
The Monte Carlo is a slick car aerodynamically and, as we said, it looks like nothing else on the road. The folks who own them love them. To us, however, it looks as if it were designed by a committee. Individual elements are attractive, but we're not quite satisfied with how they hang together as a whole. We aren't attracted to its droopy nose and flat flanks, nor to the bump in the deck lid and the radical roofline.
But what you can't see is just as important to the integrity of the Monte Carlo. In that respect, we have to give Chevrolet high marks. Compared to pre-2000 Monte Carlos, the current model has been strengthened in the roof, doors, and floor pan. An extruded aluminum front cradle isolates the engine, transmission, steering, and suspension from the main structure of the car. A cast magnesium beam, (Chevrolet calls it a MagBeam) fits behind the instrument panel to further increase chassis rigidity, and to provide stiff mounting points for the dashboard systems. As a result, the latest Monte Carlo is much quieter than any previous generation. Increased chassis stiffness also makes the car less prone to developing squeaks and rattles over time.
The Chevy Monte Carlo's interior is a nice design with a sporty flavor that reminds us of the Corvette and Camaro. The seats in our SS came in optional black leather ($625), which we really liked. The bucket seats are quite comfortable for around-town driving. Their shape makes it easy to get in and out of the car. Both seats are easy to adjust, and there's plenty of range for short and tall drivers, though headroom was lacking for a 6-foot, 3-inch driver who sat in the car. We liked the optional power driver's seat ($325). The Comfort Seating Package ($445) comes with dual seat heaters and adds a power front passenger's seat.
This is an easy car to operate. Turning on the headlights feels like a step back in time: Just pull the big knob on the left. The steering wheel in the SS features well-designed audio and cruise controls. The cruise control works well, though you may have to look at it initially to position your thumb. The cockpit-style dashboard separates the driver completely from the front passenger and provides fingertip access to every system in the array. It's a nicely styled package, and it works. The ignition switch is conveniently located on the dash, well to the right of the steering wheel. This makes it easy to quickly get in the car and get going, or quickly get out of the car after shutting it off.
The instruments are straightforward, well-laid-out and easy to read. Chevrolet now uses the same uniformly functional instrument layout throughout the product line, from the Corvette to the Silverado pickup. With black backgrounds, white markings and red needles, these gauges not only look racy but are also easy to read and scan. Major and minor gauges are placed on slightly different planes to add visual interest. The tall center console is a bit intrusive for drivers who like to shift the automatic transmission manually, however, and the T-handle shifter looks dated.
The optional side-impact airbag ($350) is a good idea, but it's only available for the driver's side.
The trunk is large, but the opening is relatively small, making it difficult to load big boxes.
The Monte Carlo SS handles well on back roads and it goes when you punch it. The suspension instilled a strong sense of control on the back roads of Virginia. Steering is tight and responsive, though we'd like a little more feedback. The ride is smooth, yet we felt well connected to the road. This is a nice car for cruising, whether motoring down the boulevard or charging across the state. It's stable at high speeds on interstates and in long, sweeping turns.
The optional Sport Suspension works with the SS model's fat P225/60R16 Goodyear Eagle RSA tires to provide surprisingly high levels of grip. The tires are a little noisy, but that's a tradeoff we willingly accept for their bite. The Monte Carlo has the widest front and rear track in its segment. (The track is the distance between the left and right tires.)
Engine and transmission are responsive as well. The Monte Carlo SS features GM's thoroughly proven 3800 V6, which delivers 200 horsepower and 225 pounds-feet of torque. That may sound puny compared to, say, a 7.4-liter Monte Carlo SS from 1970, but it's more than enough to break the tires loose on this front-wheel-drive car. Punch the throttle and there's instant power and lots of it. It's probably the most highly developed overhead-valve V6 in the world. GM has baked in plenty of refinement since the late 1970s, reducing valve-train and bearing friction, bolstering bottom-end strength, and tweaking the electronic engine management and fuel injection. For a pushrod V6, this is about as good as it gets. Couple this engine to GM's excellent four-speed automatic transmission, add all-speed traction control, and you've got yourself a really solid drive train that offers fun as well as decent fuel economy.
The 3400 V6 is an adequate performer, but the Monte Carlo isn't quite the same with this smaller engine. In fact, it seems to miss the point entirely. If it's economy you're after, maybe you should look at the Chevy Impala, which is based on the same platform.
If you're going to run with the fast guys, you'd better have good brakes. Fortunately, the Monte Carlo boasts the largest brake calipers and disc-brake rotors in its class. We punished them mightily on one of our favorite stretches of twisty road, without a hint of fade or grabbing. Four-wheel disc brakes come standard on all Monte Carlos. ABS comes standard on the SS, which helps the driver maintain steering control of the car in an emergency stopping situation.
The Chevrolet Monte Carlo is a fast, competent, and comfortable cruiser on interstate runs and good fun on back roads. The Monte Carlo SS offers spirited acceleration, decent handling, and good brakes. This is a car shaped in a wind-tunnel that the purpose of getting around Indianapolis Motor Speedway as quickly as possible. We strongly recommend the SS and like the optional leather interior.
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2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$4,900 | 121,290 mi
2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$14,500 | 80,327 mi
2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$14,790 | 54,223 mi
2004 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$6,950 | 129,326 mi
2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$6,000 | 85,844 mi
2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$7,950 | 114,746 mi
2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$8,988 | 75,888 mi
1997 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$3,995 | 51,805 mi
1995 Chevrolet Monte Carlo$5,995 | 97,351 mi