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Bells and whistles are nice, but for some car shoppers, the primary need is for cheap, basic transportation. With these frugal buyers in mind, Pontiac launched its budget-priced Sunfire in the mid-'90s.
Budget cars of recent years have undergone an evolution of sorts. Many models have shattered our ideas of what to expect in this segment, offering a level of overall quality that belies their low price tags. The Pontiac Sunfire, unfortunately, wasn't one of them. Build quality was unimpressive and interior materials made no attempt to disguise this Pontiac's econobox status. Safety was an issue; the Sunfire performed poorly in side-impact and frontal-offset crash tests. Also, the fact that Pontiac opted not to give the car any substantial revisions in its many years on the market didn't do the Sunfire any favors. By the time it was retired in 2005, the car was riding on a severely dated platform, lagging well behind its newer competition.
But the Pontiac Sunfire did shine in a couple of respects. More recent models offered a lively engine. Feature content on newer models was also noteworthy, with luxury-themed amenities like OnStar and a sunroof offered as options. It was also one of the most affordable ways to get into a convertible.
Still, these strong points aren't enough to earn the Pontiac Sunfire a recommendation. Though it's inexpensive, used-car shoppers are advised to ignore this siren call and consider more desirable small sedans and coupes instead.
Most Recent Pontiac Sunfire
The Pontiac Sunfire was available in one generation, built from 1995-2005. Upon its introduction, this Pontiac was available as a coupe, sedan and convertible.
Initially, sedans and convertibles came in one trim level, the SE. Coupes, however, were available in both base SE and GT trims. In 1999, the convertible's sole trim level had its name changed to GT; a couple of years later (in 2001), the convertible was dropped from the lineup. The Sunfire's lineup was further streamlined in 2003 with the elimination of the sedan, leaving the coupe as the sole offering. That year, the Sunfire coupe was only available in base trim, but in 2004, an even more inexpensive Special Value trim was added to the lineup.
When the Pontiac Sunfire was introduced in 1995, two engines were available. Base models were powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder capable of 120 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque. GT models got a more muscular 2.3-liter inline-4 good for 145 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. The following year, the 2.3-liter was replaced with a more powerful 2.4-liter that promised 150 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque. In 2003, both engines were dropped from the lineup and a more fuel-efficient 2.4-liter "Ecotec" four-cylinder good for 140 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque became the sole available engine. Buyers had three transmissions to choose from: a three-speed automatic (which was dropped from the lineup in 2002), a four-speed automatic and a five-speed manual (standard on most Sunfires).
Though the Sunfire saw no redesigns, it did see a few tweaks and upgrades over the years. The standard features list on early Sunfires was sparse, with little more than cloth seats and an AM/FM radio; on the plus side, ABS was standard. Options included air-conditioning and a power moonroof. In 1996, traction control, remote keyless entry and auxiliary steering-wheel-mounted audio controls were added to the options list. The following year, convertible Sunfires saw upgrades in standard equipment, with an automatic transmission being added to that roster. In 1998, safety got a boost, thanks to the addition of second-generation airbags to the standard features list; a new sound system was also added to the options list.
Further revisions in 2000 added new front and rear fascias and a new five-speed manual transmission; a premium Monsoon audio system was also added to the options list. In 2003, the Sunfire got another refresh, with an upgraded sport suspension and new front and rear fascias. ABS was no longer standard on base models, though it was available as an option. Satellite radio, side airbags and OnStar became available as options.
The Sunfire won't win any awards for cabin design. Materials quality is subpar, build quality is lacking and the overall aesthetic falls short when it comes to style. Furthermore, its seats don't offer much by way of comfort. Still, later models do offer impressive options like OnStar and satellite radio.
In editorial reviews, the Pontiac Sunfire scored decent marks for overall handling, though its manual shifter drew some fire for being somewhat imprecise. The Ecotec engine was also praised for its power and smooth delivery.
We'd recommend avoiding this vehicle, but if you've got your heart set on one, choose a 2003, 2004 or 2005 model to enjoy a Sunfire with the Ecotec, the model's best available engine.