COAL: 1995 Pontiac Sunfire – I “Married” A Sunfire And Came To Love It, Grudgingly

My first years working at GM I was assigned to work on the much maligned J-car Chevrolet Cavalier.  But by 1990 it was much improved from when it was originally launched.  There was more power, and 8 years of steady improvement had worked out most of the quality gremlins that plagued its early years.  But a car that wasn’t competitive at its introduction was hopelessly outdated as it approached its second decade of production.  

But GM was planning big things for 1995.  I listened to the Kool-Aid from management, that the 1995 refresh was going to be a quantum leap forward and finally be a true Civic / Corolla competitor.  Well, it certainly looked the part, with a sleek new body inspired by the stunning Opel Calibra coupe sold in Europe, and the Pontiac sister car given its own unique mini-Firebird styling.  Inside, a pleasant new interior graced both vehicles, with improved switchgear and upgraded quality of materials.  So the curb appeal was there.  But the driving was not.  Same pushrod 4 cyl engine from 13 years ago.  Same ancient 3 speed automatic transmission.  Same twist axle rear suspension.  Much to my dismay, it drove like the old Cavalier, and nowhere close to the Civic / Corolla competition.  

The Opel Calibra, inspiration for the new Cavalier

But perhaps GM was hoping that its customers would be sold by the styling and not by how it drove.  Which is what my girlfriend thought when she saw the new 1995 Sunfire and decided that was the car for her.  So she bought a white Sunfire SE base model, which thanks to GM Design looked quite good and didn’t scream “cheap.”  This was what she was driving when we first met.  Despite her car choice, my girlfriend became my fiancé so I had made a conscious decision to not only marry her but also marry her car.  That became really evident when after the wedding she declared that she would like to trade vehicles, wanting the perceived security of my GMC Jimmy’s 4wd and its high seating position above traffic.  So that’s how a base 1995 Pontiac Sunfire, a car that would have never entered on my radar of vehicles that I would own, became my car.  

I was familiar with virtually every nut and bolt of the Sunfire, especially under the hood.  And I knew that the old iron block engine was pretty bulletproof but sorely lacking in the refinement or excitement department.  To be sure, it had come a long way from the anemic, sickly 1.8L engine that saddled the original 1982 Cavalier and sister car Cadillac Cimarron.  GM had been sending this engine to the gym year after year, and it had bulked up to 2.2L and much stronger at 120 hp vs the original 88.  But it wasn’t born a gifted athlete like a Honda VTEC, so it had reached the limit of what could be done (legally) with its 70’s era technology.  And the unchanged 3 speed transmission really sucked out what little life the engine had to give.

On the ’95 J, the beauty was skin deep

I knew the engine could take abuse when on a vehicle development trip out west, the base Cavalier that I was driving struggled to keep up with its Quad 4, V6, and turbo-powered stablemates on the high altitude mountain passes.  I had the gas pedal mashed to the floor almost continuously, and there was one long uphill stretch where the wheezing pushrod engine screamed at 6000 rpm for almost 5 minutes continuously.  If it threw a rod or overheated, I had a CB radio in the car to call for help.  But the engine held together and stayed cool, so I at least I felt good about it being indestructible.

I found satisfaction in driving this car like I was angry at it.  When merging on to an expressway, just stomp on the gas pedal and hold on while the pushrod engine moaned in protest and the lazy transmission took its sweet time to shift gears.  For such a sporty looking car, it didn’t like to turn much either.  After I upgraded the tires on the car it was a little better, but the handling was still very uninspiring.  My Sunfire took whatever abuse I could dish out and would start up reliably the next morning and do it again.  Knowing the car’s considerable limitations, Sunfire and I eventually came to an understanding, and we had a long and productive, if unexciting relationship.  It was the first car I ever owned that never had any problems.  Not a single trip back to the dealer for warranty work, and never in the shop except for tires, battery, and oil.  For that, my ‘95 J-car was considered a success.  

The Sunfire held up remarkably well in the 6 years traversing Michigan’s potholed and salt-ridden roads, with hardly a squeak or rattle even in its advanced years.  I had developed a newfound respect for the ’95 J.  Despite 6 years of hard use, it still looked and drove like a new car, and its superb reliability impressed me.  But when kid #2 came along, and faced with the prospect of putting two little ones in car seats in the tight rear confines of this coupe, I knew it was time for a bigger car with 2 additional doors.  So it was with a twinge of sadness when I finally let the Sunfire go.  This sporty (looking) little Firebird wannabe was being replaced by a more rational, sober 4 door sedan, thereby marking a life transition from owning a “personal” car to a “family” car.