Almost Sports Cars

Almost Sports Cars: Pontiac Sunfire

If you thought the Aztek was the lowest Pontiac could go during its final years then you'd be wrong. The Sunfire was far, far worse.

People say that the Aztek summed up everything that was wrong with Pontiac in its last days, but this isn’t necessarily so. We remember the Aztek as being exceptionally bad, a major flop, but that means it was the exception, not the rule. The Sunfire, however, was the defining car for Pontiac at the time, rebadged and warmed-over crap. We were supposed to believe that the sportier styling meant it had some of that Pontiac "excitement", but it wasn’t fooling anyone.

The Sunfire debuted in 1995, a period when Pontiac didn’t offer a single car which didn’t share a platform with another GM product. This was obvious with some vehicles more than others, and some actually offered some features which couldn’t be found on their platform-mates. But then there was the Sunfire. This was officially an all-new car which was to replace the Sunbird, but in truth, the car was built on the same platform, and was essentially just a new body and slightly (but barely) improved interior. The platform was GM’s J-Body, which had debuted in the form of the 1982 Chevy Cavalier and which GM had been working on since the mid-Seventies.

So by 1995, it was already pretty dated, but this was the problem with GM. It believed that some newish bodywork would convince buyers that it was something different. The Sunfire was basically the same car as the then-current Cavalier. The Sunfire was given sportier styling, and Pontiac worked to push the coupe and convertible versions of the car, rather than the sedan, as this was deemed to be in keeping with the sporty styling. In fact, for the last three years of the Sunfire’s existence, it was sold only as a coupe. It came with a ton of plastic body cladding, and the base engine produced 120 horsepower.

The GT model only brought power up to 150 horsepower, and this trim level wouldn’t even make it to the end of the Sunfire’s production run. As could be expected from such an ancient platform, it performed spectacularly bad in crash tests, getting a "Poor" rating from the IIHS and one star in side impact tests from the NHTSA. But it was one of the cheapest convertibles available at the time, and that genuinely does count for something. The Sunfire would last just one generation, spanning ten years and including two facelifts. It was an unfortunate car to see from the brand which had brought the world the GTO, and arguably ushered in the entire muscle car era.

But this was hardly the first disappointing Pontiac, and amazingly wouldn’t be the last. It has to be said that GM has made tremendous strides in the field of small car building, and it is now thankfully difficult to imagine that this car was available for sale as recently as 2005. It was a car which typified what Bob Lutz famously called "bean counter thinking". This was the belief that what a car was on paper was somehow more important that what it was in person. It had a long(ish) hood and an angled nose, plus a Pontiac badge, which GM had aggressively marketed as exciting, so it must therefore be sporty and exciting.

This type of bad management has often been arrogant, since it seems to assume the customer base is so breathtakingly stupid that they wouldn’t realize what was happening. And maybe it is, but GM’s having to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy suggests that perhaps the problem was simply a case of being completely out of touch with reality. And that's what makes all of the very worst pseudo-sports cars: the belief in your own hype.

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