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Good looks, zippy powertrain (Twin Cam), comfortable interior, standard ABS, standard traction control with automatic transmission, good value
Weight, buzzy powertrain (2.2-liter), excessive body roll.
SE convertible gets a higher level of standard equipment, including an automatic transmission. Coupes get a new front seatbelt guide loop, and a new Sports Interior trim debuts called Patina/Redondo cloth.
Pontiac has a winner here. The Sunfire is poised to take on the Neon, Cavalier, Escort and assorted import compacts by offering excellent value, sporty styling, and reasonable performance in one well-rounded package. For 1997, Sunfire is available in coupe, sedan and convertible body styles.
Dual airbags and ABS are standard equipment on the Sunfire. Base models are powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that was carried over from the old Sunbird. GT models get a twin-cam motor good for 150 horsepower. The twin-cam is optional on the SE, and we highly recommend it, particularly mated to a five-speed transmission. However, one benefit of the four-speed automatic is the standard traction control system that comes with it.
Equipped with the twin-cam and a five-speed manual transmission, the Sunfire is downright speedy; about as quick as the Neon Sport Coupe. The automatic raises acceleration times by about one second in the dash to 60 mph. Options on the Sunfire include sharp alloy wheels, a power sunroof, and a variety of sound systems, among others. Equip an SE Coupe to the gills and suddenly the Sunfire isn't such a value at $18,000. Creative fiddling with the options sheet should result in a well-equipped sport coupe priced around $15,000.
Pontiac has concentrated on the convertible model for 1997. A four-speed automatic is standard, though buyers can opt for a manual transmission when stepping up to the twin-cam engine. Controlled-cycle wipers, rear window defogger, and cruise control all move from the options list to the standard equipment list of the SE Convertible. All Sunfires meet 1997 side-impact standards (surprise), and coupe models have a new front seatbelt guide loop. Three new colors debut, and the optional sports interior can be trimmed in Patina/Redondo cloth. Color or pattern, Scully?
Last year, we drove a Sunfire SE Convertible for a week, and only had complaints about excessive body roll, an ineffective climate control system when the top was down and the windows were up, and very weak stereo speakers. Otherwise, our twin-cam five-speed test car was a hoot, prompting a friend with a 1991 Mustang LX 5.0 automatic to quip "I better get some different gears in this thing. I can't have Sunfires keeping up with me." Best of all, our well-equipped test car came in under $20,000.
We think the Sunfire has what it takes to succeed in the crowded compact marketplace. If anything, the Sunfire makes a strong argument against purchasing its slightly larger stablemate, the Grand Am. If a sporty coupe, sedan or convertible is on your shopping list, check into the Sunfire.
Laura's old car was costing her a small fortune every month for gas and repairs. She didn't even want to drive her kids to the park any more. But buying a new Kia Soul changed all that.