1991 Pontiac Sunbird

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$3,999
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By 

Orlando Sentinel

This is the second time in a year that I have slid behind the wheel of a Pontiac Sunbird. And it's the second time I've come away with the feeling that this car is one heck of a bargain.

In October I test drove a V-6 Sunbird convertible with an automatic transmission. This week's test car is an LE coupe with the same 3.1-liter V-6, but instead of the three-speed automatic, it sported a five-speed manual transmission.

With Pontiac's trademark snarling exhaust sound, mag wheels, a slick-shifting gearbox, excellent handling, snappy acceleration and a full gauge package, the sporty Sunbird LE offers a lot of fun, performance and even a bit of luxury for the price.

A loaded Sunbird LE will cost you about $12,000. A Toyota Tercel, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protege or Ford Escort are all in that price range - but with those models you get a four-cylinder engine.

The Sunbird is priced so affordably because Pontiac took a look at the way most people ordered the car, grouped the most popular options in several packages and then discounted them. It is cheaper to manufacture cars all the same way than it is to build several models equipped differently.

Maybe that's why the Sunbird has turned out to be such a big winner for Pontiac in the last two years.

Pontiac introduced the Sunbird in 1982, and sales seemed to peak in 1988. Then last year Pontiac reworked the price and now the car is poised to set sales records. The convertible already has - four times as many ragtops were sold last year as in 1988. The coupe also is coming on strong. So far, more than 750,000 Sunbirds have been sold.

Even though the Sunbird is considered a subcompact car and gets about 30 miles per gallon on the highway, it can't be considered an econobox by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, think of it as the Firebird's little brother.

ENGINE, PERFORMANCE

GM's 140-horsepower, 3.1-liter V-6 packs a lot of punch and loads of torque. Pontiac says the Sunbird with the optional V-6 will do 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds.

I didn't drive the Sunbird LE under Florida's sunny skies. I drove it in 20-degree weather, in snowstorms and on icy highways in Detroit.

Last year's test of the Sunbird ragtop was in Orlando, so I've tested this engine in some pretty extreme temperatures. From the freezing weather in Michigan to 90-degree Florida heat, the 3.1-liter engine never missed a beat. In fact, it started instantly and ran perfectly in both cars.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, city driving should yield 19 miles per gallon, and highway driving should return 28 mpg. I got slightly less than that, but my driving, whenever possible, was ''spirited.''

Under hard acceleration, there is little torque steer. Having driven both standard and automatic versions, I'd opt for the five-speed. The clutch is smooth and easy.

STEERING, HANDLING

You might think that test driving under ar ctic conditions may not be relevant to Florida. But I learned something that transcends the geographical and climate differences of Florida and Michigan. The Sunbird sticks to the road, steers and handles predictably and safely even when the pavement becomes slick.

That's worth remembering during the dog days of summer when it rains every afternoon and the oil on the highway comes to the surface. There's little difference between that and an icy highway.

As with the convertible, the LE coupe features a rather soft suspension system. The result is a ride that absorbs most inconsistencies in the road without rattling the fillings out of your teeth. However, there is a bit too much bounce and body roll.

The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is tight and precise. Fit, finish, controls

From its set of comfortable, cloth-covered bucket seats to the numerous creature comfort items, the Sunbird LE is well-equipped for a car in its price range.

The test car featured power windows, door locks and mirrors, rear window defroster, cruise control, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo cassette player, a tilt steering wheel and intermittent wipers.

The Sunbird's power door locks need some work. In both the LE and the convertible models, the locks failed to work on a number of occasions.

Overall, the Sunbird is bolted together nicely. I heard no strange noises, experienced no leaks or rattles.

The heater takes little time to warm up. The gauges are nicely laid out in front of the driver. The seats are comfortable and provide decent support on long drives.

If you take a good, hard look at all the cars in its class, you will have a difficult time finding a vehicle that offers the performance, sportiness and standard equipment of the Sunbird LE. Dollar for dollar, the V-6 Sunbird is one of the best buys among the dozens of small cars available.


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