Our new 1995 Pontiac Sunfire had barely tooled into the downtown parking lot when two Generation X guys ran across the street to get a closer look. These young men, precisely the target audience for the Sunfire, were bowled over by the vehicle's look.
The amount of attention a new car draws is a good barometer for how well the designers did their job. It appears Pontiac designers were right on target with the Sunfire, a car clearly inspired by its stablemate, the Firebird.
The Sunfire replaces the 13-year-old Sunbird. Pontiac officials felt the car was so different from its predecessor that it deserved a new name. The Sunfire's cousin from Chevrolet, the Cavalier, has also been dramatically redesigned for 1995, but Chevrolet opted to retain the name.
For now, the Sunfire is available only as the SE sedan and the SE coupe. In mid-1995, Pontiac will add an SE convertible and GT coupe to the lineup. The GT coupe will be outfitted in Pontiac's characteristic racer look with dual exhausts, spoiler, black roof treatment and a revised 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve Quad 4 engine.
Our test car, an SE coupe that goes for $13,550, came with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and door locks, and an effective 3-speed automatic transmission.
The design concept behind the Sunfire was to provide the same fun-to-drive feel and signature styling as Pontiac's larger cars, but in a small, affordable package. (According to EPA ratings, the sedan is considered a compact, the coupe and convertible are subcompacts.)
Another mission Pontiac designers had was to make the sedan as sporty looking as the coupe so that buyers - particularly young families - could enjoy the advantage of 4-door utility without sacrificing exciting coupe styling. Pontiac officials are convinced they have succeeded on this count and have bet that the sedan will attract a larger audience than it had as the Sunbird, when it was far outsold by the coupe.
The sleek, rounded aerodynamic exterior features dual breakaway outside mirrors, standard tinted glass and sharp bodyside moldings. And the Sunfire is available in nine colors, among them Bright Red and Bright Aqua Metallic.
The Sunfire SE coupe and sedan come standard with a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine paired with a 5-speed manual transmission. The engine is rated at 120 hp, which compares well with the base Plymouth Neon powerplant, rated at 132 hp. And the sunfire's horsepower output is higher than the Ford Escort LX's, rated at 88 hp, and the Saturn SC1 coupe's, at 100 hp.
However, the Sunfire is more than just looks and performance. The car's body features a steel safety cage that surrounds the passenger compartment, energy-absorbing metal rails that frame the engine and trunk compartments, and side-impact door beams.
Inside, the Sunfire provides a spacious and attractive interior. Although the Neon and Escort both offer more cubic feet of interior space, the Sunfire seems surprisingly roomy and comfortable.
Pontiac designers have greatly reduced the number of pieces used on the dashboard in contrast to the often ill-fitting jigsaw look of many General Motors models. Still, the patchwork appearance lingers on the console that encases the gear shifter, giving it a busy appearance.
The materials used on the dashboard are a marked improvement over other GM models as well, with plastics appearing soft and muted. The interior is attractively broken up by insets in the door that match the fabric of the seats.
The Sunfire could use thicker foam in the bottom cushion of the driver's seat. But rear-seat passengers on our test drive reported that for short trips, seating was quite adequate in regards to comfort and legroom for a small car. A fold-down seat in the rear is standard and greatly expands the usable cargo space in this vehicle. With the rear seatback folded down, skis or surfboards can be carried in the Sunfire with the trunk lid closed.
We did discover one obvious flaw with the seats. Upon quick braking, the passenger seatback, when unoccupied, flopped forward. (Incidentally, the same situation occurred on our recent test drive of a Pontiac Grand Am.)
Storage is plentiful in the Sunfire. The trophy-size glove box sets new records for roominess, with enough space to accommodate a 12-pack of cola and a bag of ice to keep it cold. However, when we tried to close said glove box it took three tries - it's not as sturdy as it is big.
The center console armrest features a deep storage bin suitable for cassettes; the parking brake is mounted next to this handy standard feature.
When the ashtray is removed from the front console, the leftover space becomes a cupholder for the front-seat passenger. The ashtray can then be installed in a rear cupholder or removed altogether.
Pockets in the door, however, are useless because they are positioned so far back that they are difficult for front-seat passengers to reach when the doors are closed.
We think a few tactile elements of the Sunfire could be refined. The directional controls for the vents, for example, are incredibly small, making them hard to grip.
To the other extreme, the armrests on the doors are fat, making them hard to grip when closing the doors. Also, the plastic strap mechanism to pull the seat forward is too thin and dainty, and the door levers are small and wimpy. Both, like the aforementioned glove box, give the impression they will break easily.
As for safety equipment, the Sunfire is equipped with standard dual airbags and 4-wheel anti-lock brakes. For families, the Sunfire comes with comfort guides on the safety belts to adjust them better for children. Childproof rear door locks are also standard on the sedan.
The 4-cylinder engine in our SE coupe test car emitted more noise than we thought even a Pontiac should have, and we usually like the distinctive rumble of Pontiac engines.
Also, the optional 3-speed automatic transmission was imprecise. The markings to indicate which drive level you are in don't match up with what gear you are using. We often found ourselves in second rather than the intended third. The 5-speed manual would be preferable for a sportier feel, and Pontiac assured us that an early test model of the 5-speed shifter we drove, which was annoyingly notchy and vague, is in the process of being refined.
The ride is characteristic of Pontiacs: firm but not stiff. The steering, also being improved according to GM, is too light for a Pontiac. Our test car was slow to respond to the variety of standard maneuvers we put it through.
In the spring, our wishes for more horsepower and improved transmissions will come true. The Sunfire GT coupe will be available with a revised 2.3-liter 16-valve DOHC Quad 4 engine. The 150-hp engine can be paired with a standard 5-speed manual or an optional 4-speed 4T40-E automatic transmission that features an integrated powertrain control module for more precise shifting.
The Pontiac Sunfire represents a significant improvement over the Sunbird it replaces. The ride and handling are vastly superior and the styling is flashier. But it needs refinement. The current automatic transmission is less than ideal, seating is a bit uncomfortable and some of the interior elements are not exactly sturdy.
In looks, it's a baby Firebird for a fraction of the price. But for now, it only has a fraction of the Firebird's performance.