Thunderbird, dead as a dodo. Eldorado, from gold to scrap metal. Riviera, washed away. Lincoln Mark, assassinated. By 2006, the personal luxury coupe – the flavour of the decade in the 1970s – was almost dead. There was just one survivor: the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, soon to join its two-door brethren in the automotive graveyard.
By the broadest definition, a personal luxury coupe was a coupe sized similarly to a corresponding sedan line – often based on the same platform – but which offered coupe style with no sporting pretences. Even by that generous definition, the Monte Carlo could scarcely be considered a personal luxury coupe by the 2000s.
After a brief hibernation, the Monte Carlo nameplate had been dusted off in 1995 on a direct replacement for the Lumina coupe. And it may as well have been called the Lumina coupe – the cars were mechanically identical and looked the same, inside and out. The Monte Carlo had always looked markedly different from the mid-size sedan from which it was derived and yet that differentiation was gone for the ’95.
That differentiation had returned for the redesigned 2000 model. Designers seemed to be harkening back to the Monte’s first and most successful decade. There were distinctive sculpted sides, badges with cursive script, and vertical taillights, much like the first three generations of Monte. The droopy headlights were certainly unique, as were the aforementioned and rather blobby taillights which were notable for their use of clear plastic lenses à la the Toyota Supra. The Monte’s styling wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but at least it looked different from its sedan counterpart, the new 2000 Impala, with which it shared the W-Body platform.
For the first time since 1988, the SS nameplate reappeared on the Monte Carlo. Those hoping for a V8 engine were disappointed as the SS name was used on Montes powered by GM’s ubiquitous 3.8 V6 (200 hp, 225 ft-lbs). Lesser Montes wore the LS nameplate and used GM’s 3.4 V6 (180 hp, 205 ft-lbs). Both engines were acceptably powerful for the mid/full-sized two-door segment but calling the 3.8 Monte an “SS” was perplexing considering the Monte Carlo’s NASCAR involvement and the availability of a more powerful supercharged 3.8 elsewhere in the GM lineup. Furthermore, the SS produced the same horsepower and just 11 more pound-feet of torque than a Toyota Camry Solara V6. This was no muscle car, even if the launch advertising felt very early 1970s muscle due to its use of the Tasmanian Devil.
Of course, most Monte Carlos over the years had been relatively sedate, luxury-oriented coupes with adequately powerful V6 or V8 engines. Chevrolet also had the more sport-oriented Camaro in its lineup, at least until 2002. But the Monte Carlo’s NASCAR involvement meant Chevrolet doubled down on its positioning of the Monte Carlo as a sporty coupe when its powertrains were anything but. This led to numerous special editions like the 2002 Dale Earnhardt Signature Edition (aka the “Intimidator”), as well as other limited-run models named after NASCAR drivers.
Set aside its quirky styling and the Monte Carlo was just another run-of-the-mill early 2000s W-Body with all the benefits and drawbacks that came with that association. The interior had the typical, drab, plastic ambience of most GM products of the era, although it was unique from the Impala’s, surprisingly spacious for a coupe, and had a nicely driver-oriented center stack. Handling was tidy, the engines were sufficiently powerful and fuel-efficient, and the ride was composed, even in the firmer-suspended SS models. It felt like an Impala coupe and all the Tasmanian Devil commercials and NASCAR tie-ins couldn’t disguise that fact. And while even the Camry Solara was available with a stick, the Monte Carlo’s sole transmission was a four-speed automatic.
Sales were initially down from the previous generation. While that may seem a symptom of a declining market for coupes, the Monte Carlo actually bucked the trend and sold fairly consistently around the 60-70,000 annual unit range. Honda and Toyota – which sold the rival Accord coupe and Camry Solara, respectively – chose not to report sales of their coupes vis-à-vis the related sedans. Although Chrysler and Dodge unified their mid-size coupes’ names with their sedans’ in 2000, they still reported sales separately most years. The Sebring coupe mustered around 10,000 units annually, while the Stratus coupe sold around 20,000 units. Even the Pontiac Grand Prix coupe was shaded by both its sedan counterpart and the Monte Carlo, accounting for just 15% of Grand Prix sales in 2001.
So, the Monte Carlo managed to make hay in a market turning ever further away from coupes. It even managed to outlast the vaunted Camaro, discontinued in 2002. The belated addition of a supercharged 3.8 V6 in 2004 – producing 240 hp and 280 ft-lbs – should have helped keep the Monte moving, right? Wrong. Perhaps because of its advancing age, the Monte Carlo’s sales collapsed in 2005 to 33,562, following a smaller dip in 2004.
It was time for a makeover. In 2006, Chevrolet provided one and it proved to be a mixed bag. On one hand, the Monte Carlo had its first V8 engine in almost 20 years. On the other, the Monte Carlo now wore identical frontend styling to the also refreshed Impala. While the Impala had an all-new and much more elegant interior, the Monte Carlo kept its old one, Chevrolet merely adding the new corporate radio unit and some new switchgear.
At least things were fresher under the hood. The SS was once again V8-powered, using GM’s new FWD version of the 5.3 small-block LS4 V8. With 303 hp and 323 ft-lbs, the SS was satisfyingly rapid and even posted good fuel economy numbers thanks to its Displacement on Demand system. That V8, however, proved to be too much power for the Monte’s ageing chassis and torque steer was marked, while transmission reliability has proved iffy. Like the Impala SS, the Monte Carlo SS lacked the extensive suspension tweaks afforded to the mechanically-related and LS4-powered Pontiac Grand Prix GXP. But hey, there was a V8 Monte again.
Between 2006 and 2007, the V8 SS accounted for around 33% of sales. The remainder were of the LS, LT and LTZ coupes. These lesser Montes used GM’s new “High Value” pushrod V6s, an evolution of the old 3.4 V6 and utilizing variable cam timing. The LS and LT used a 3.5 version with 211 hp and 214 ft-lbs, while the LTZ’s V6 displaced 3.9 liters and produced 242 hp and 242 ft-lbs. The LTZ proved short-lived, axed after just one year and robbing the Monte lineup of the 3.9.
The rest of the Monte lineup wasn’t far behind it. After just two model years, the revised Monte Carlo was discontinued. Sales had incrementally increased in 2006 but then collapsed by 60% in 2007 and GM cited the impressive new 2008 Malibu as being yet another threat to the ongoing performance of the Monte.
Shortly before its axing, GM’s Bob Lutz – head of Global Product Development – had spoken to reporters about the company’s ambitious plans for a whole raft of vehicles on the Holden VE Commodore’s Zeta platform. Besides the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac G8, Lutz spoke of upcoming Buick and Cadillac flagship sedans on the platform, a resurrected Pontiac GTO and Chevrolet El Camino, as well as Zeta replacements for the Impala and Monte Carlo. It all sounded like a GM enthusiast’s wet dream but GM’s perilous financial situation managed to kill all of those projects except for the Camaro and short-lived G8.
While that cavalcade of Zeta variants would have improved economies of scale for the platform, the notion of a Zeta Monte Carlo existing alongside a Zeta Camaro seemed like a poor business decision, if a really freaking cool one. Sure, such a Monte would have likely offered a plusher ride and more cabin space than the Camaro, but could Chevrolet have sustained two similarly-sized, similarly-priced coupes in a crossover-crazy market?
The Monte Carlo nameplate is unlikely to return anytime soon, unless Chevrolet develops a shapely four-door coupe or five-door, Audi A7-style liftback. And while it finally received some horsepower again towards the end, it’s hard to say the Monte went out on a high note. That’s not to deride the car, however. The 2000-06 Monte was a competent if unexciting car. Was it a personal luxury coupe? Its drab interior and laughable “sporty” positioning suggest ‘no’, but its unique styling says ‘yes’. And if it was, it was truly the last of its breed.
2000-05 Monte photographed in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NY in 2017.
2006-07 Montes photographed in Long Island City, Queens, NY in 2014 and by the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 2012.