(first posted 1/29/2015) I want to make something very clear. From that title, it sounds like I’m criticizing this generation of Chevrolet’s personal luxury coupe for losing the rear-wheel-drive layout and V8s of its predecessor. I’m not, although such changes didn’t exactly earn this generation a storied place in history.
In my opinion, switching to FWD isn’t always a death knell; sometimes, the transition is logical. The G-body Grand Prix was an untouched relic in the Pontiac lineup when the excitement brand replaced it with a slick FWD coupe and sedan. “Why is that acceptable, but this Monte Carlo isn’t?”, you may ask. Simple. Pontiac tried something daring and new, with character. There was smooth, new styling, turbo V6s, Quad 4s and sumptuous bucket seats. Yes, there were base 2.8 sedans with bench seats, but many G-body coupes were plebeian V6s with wire wheel covers.
This Chevy is different, though. In between its launch and the G-Body Monte’s demise, there was a coupe version of the Chevrolet Lumina. It featured available Z34 trim with the new 3.4 LQ1 V6, as well as a pretty wild body kit. It stood out.
Look at the hideous interior, and what do you see? A Lumina. I’m often quite a defender of GM vehicles, but this generation of Lumina and Monte Carlo really receive my ire.
The Lumina seemed to represent GM giving up on tackling the Camry, Accord and Taurus. Look at what the other domestics were releasing at the time. Chrysler’s LH had daring styling. Ford’s 1996 Taurus had a lot of time and money invested in its quality; the mission statement had quite simply been, “Beat Camry”. The 1995 Lumina, though, was an unambitious redesign with any hint of sportiness (Euro and Z34 trims, manual transmissions) or uniqueness (interior design) removed.
The Monte Carlo was a similarly conservative entry. Tastes had changed; aero was the new normal, but Chevrolet didn’t try to incorporate heritage cues with this new design language, bar a slightly formal C-pillar treatment. There were no more ‘hips’, and not even unique front and rear fasciae from the Lumina.
Even GM’s other brands had done a better job of differentiating their coupes from the sedans: Witness the menacing Grand Prix GTP coupe and the unique Regal coupe. Throughout its history, the Monte Carlo badge had always been affixed to a coupe on Chevy’s mid-size platform, but one that always looked very different from its siblings. It was just a bit more special. The ’95 Monte was inoffensive and hardly unattractive, but visually was so closely linked to the Lumina that it may as well have just been called the Lumina Coupe.
Value for money was the order of the day for Chevy’s new-for-1995 midsizers. The Lumina started at $15k, the Monte Carlo just under $17k. Chevrolet was trying to wrest sales leadership from Ford; forget polish or excitement, these Chevrolets were about bang for your buck. GM was now competing on value, and an extensive feature list was evidence of this. Fortunately, this kit included four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, as well as dual airbags.
The Monte Carlo was dynamically adequate, but less sporty than even some of its fellow W-bodies. Neutral handling and a smooth ride were positive attributes, but these cars weren’t terribly exciting to drive, thanks to numb steering and a fair amount of body roll even in the Z34.
The Lumina’s 3.4-liter V6 was carried over in the Monte Carlo Z34, but it was scarcely more powerful; it pumped out the same 215hp and 220ft-lbs as when it was introduced in the inaugural Lumina. It was a pretty high-revving engine, perhaps at the expense of reliability, and it was pleasantly gutsy. The 3.4 had impressed upon its arrival a few years prior, but even within the GM stable things were moving on: 1997 would see the launch of a supercharged 3.8 V6, pumping out an impressive 240hp and 280 ft-lbs, in the Grand Prix and Buick Regal. This generation of Monte would never see it.
The Lumina Z34’s Getrag manual transmission was also nowhere to be found. By 1998, the spunky 3.4 would be replaced by the more sedate (but more reliable) 3800 Series II; 15hp would be sacrificed for 5 ft-lbs of torque gained.
Base (LS) Montes came with the ubiquitous 3.1 V6 with 160hp and 185ft-lbs. A bench seat was standard, as was a softer suspension tune. No sales breakdown by model is available, but this generation sold a consistent 70,000 units (or thereabouts) every year. In contrast, the Lumina coupe had only ever sold in the 30-40k range, and plunged to 10k units for a shortened 1994 model year.
If you wanted to see a domestic coupe that managed to respect its heritage and be competitive, you need look no further than the Ford Thunderbird. Motor Trend agreed. In comparing the Monte with the by then six-year-old T-Bird Super Coupe, the latter emerged the victor. The Monte did undercut the Ford by a not-insignificant $4k, but their test vehicle suffered from multiple quality issues. The T-Bird was much quicker than even the rev-happy Z34, thanks to its supercharged V6, and was overall more fun-to-drive and better built.
I think what I like most about GM is that even when what they’re producing isn’t any better than average, it’s generally at least something interesting, and something that hasn’t been copied from elsewhere. Aztek. Dustbusters. V8 W-bodies. Malibu Maxx. SSR. Citation X-11. Crossover Sport Vans. If nothing else, they’re entertaining to read about. These Monte Carlos, though, were a cynical and lazy exercise. Alas, they were just competent enough and sufficiently well-priced to sell consistently. For the next generation, Chevrolet would try a little harder though: a supercharged V6 and later, a V8. Furthermore, heritage styling cues would return and, whether employed successfully or not, helped make for an interesting car. The 1995-99 Monte Carlo wasn’t.
Note: I spotted the featured Monte Carlo in Manhattan’s Financial District. Admittedly, it was a bit nerve-wracking to photograph because I didn’t want those armed guards to think I was scoping out the Reserve building. I believe this color is
Purple Pearl Auburn Nightmist metallic, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It almost makes me want this Monte. Almost.