The cars we loved.
In what soon amounted the final hurrah for Pontiac’s version of the J car, the ’95-’99 was the Sunfire was a fresh restart, replacing the Sunbird as Pontiac’s compact car. Looking like a smaller version of the Firebird, it started out attractive and gradually became overstyled with more than its share of ribs, fins and ducts. The de-evolution of style would start as early as the 1997 model, making the earliest Sunfire GT models even more attractive as the name wrapped up in 2005.
While it had none of the Firebird’s raw power, it’s 2.3 liter DOHC four made a respectable 150 hp. Like the bigger F body, the Sunfire, even in its base trim had more than its share of style next to cars like the Dodge Neon or Hyundai Elantra.
For starters, it was available as a sedan, coupe and attractive convertible. It offered a reasonable compliant ride, although it used an old school beam style suspension not unlike the very first J Cars more than a decade before.
The Sunfire also offered reasonable performance, especially when equipped with its less than Honda-like 5 speed manual transmission. As old as the J-car platform was, GM managed to only make minor refinements to fit and finish while keeping the price of entry low. The Cavalier was not much different, but the Sunfire (especially in GT guise), offered more style than its Chevy equivalent.
Speaking of GT, it was offered in coupe and convertible forms and had a neat (fake) quad tip exhaust. 16 inch wheels and a Trans-Am like front end with nicely integrated fog lamps completed the look. Even SE versions with its smaller wheels and single exhaust shared the GT’s basic swoopy lines. Non GT’ models in addition to having fewer Trans-Am styling cues, used a 120 hp SOHC version of the 2.2. Equipped with either engine, the Sunfire posted respectable mpg figures in the low to mid 30s on the highway.
The weak point for nearly all GM cars of this period were interior materials. The seats in particular could have a cheap all in piece look, made more depressing by the lack of detail or texture. A single shade of grey was not uncommon for the vast majority of Sunfires on the road, assuming they were SE models or lower.
This was more or less an issue with stripped down models as the GT often featured two-tone color combinations inside. To their credit, Pontiac managed to make a simple layout look more sporty than the Cavalier’s thanks to spaceship inspired controls with big switches and nobs. While such oversized ergonomics made the HVAC and radio controls easy to use, it also gave the Sunfire’s dash a kind of Fischer Price look. Nevertheless, it was well laid out and the gauges were big and easy to read.
Unlike many convertibles, the Sunfire managed to have enough room for passengers, luggage and a easily folding top. This combination made the Sunfire a value favorite for owners and travelers needing to rent a compact with good gas mileage, but without the penalty of driving a potentially unsafe import econobox.
Like the Cavalier, the Sunfire came with front disc and rear drums on all models, while they were augmented with ABS. The J-Cars were the first on the market in the U.S. to offer ABS on a low-cost car. That kind of added value made the Sunfire very popular, especially in the Mid-Western states where they would outsell comparable imports.
The J-Cars were falling behind in technical refinement, even to cars like the often spotty Dodge Neon. Unlike the Neon or Saturn S-Series, the Sunfire offered a good value by virtue of having style and versatility where the others did not. With the passing of Toyota’s Paseo, the Sunfire (and Cavalier) nearly had the small low cost convertible market to themselves. It’s no wonder they were so popular, even as the Cavalier outsold the Sunfire nearly 3 to 1.