ON THE FIRST day, I discovered its zippiness, and that was good. On the second day, I found its interior comfort, and that was good. On the third day, I celebrated its handling, and that was good too.And, yeah, the remainder of the week was joy -- for me and the 1995 Pontiac Sunfire SE coupe. We toured Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, of course. But in search of diversity, we also rolled through Maryland, winding up at Assateague on the Eastern Shore. 'Twas a wondrous romp -- a spirited drive through beautiful landscapes painted by the colors of early spring. Were I free of obligations, I would've kept going -- driving and stopping wherever I felt like ending the journey. I'd stick to the beauty of America -- the grandeur of its open spaces, valleys and mountain ranges, the serenity of its lakes and bayous. I'd take that little Sunfire or its companion, the Chevrolet Cavalier, and see it all. We'd light up the road with the thrill of discovery. Background: The compact, front-wheel-drive Sunfire is more than a replacement for the Pontiac Sunbird. It's a whole new attitude. The old Sunbird felt like it was cobbled together, an assemblage devoid of consistency in interior and exterior design. The Sunfire is extraordinarily different. From the soft slant of its front end to the haughtiness of its upraised rear, it's all about fun. Ditto its interior, with its oval instrument panel backlit in red. Like its predecessor Sunbird, the Sunfire shares mechanicals and underpinnings with the Cavalier. But unlike the Sunbird, the Sunfire survives the shared heritage with its own personality. The 1995 Cavalier, for example, just looks and feels like a nice economy car. But the Sunfire is sassy. It wears the tight jeans in the family. Both the Cavalier and the Sunfire run with a base 2.2-liter, inline four-cylinder engine rated 120 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Max torque is set at 130 horsepower at 4,000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A three-speed automatic is optional. Frankly, both cars run better with the five-speed manual. The three-speed automatic is a bit of a slug. The Sunfire is available as the tested base two-door SE coupe; a base four-door SE sedan; an SE convertible; and a sporty GT coupe. The Cavalier also comes as a base coupe or sedan, an upgraded LS sedan and a Z24 coupe. Both the Sunfire GT coupe and Cavalier Z24 coupe run with 2.3-liter, double-overhead cam, 150-horsepower engine. Since GM didn't begin revving up production on those hot-to-trot models until late April, GT and Z24 buyers probably will have to wait a month or so for delivery. Dual front air bags are standard on all 1995 Sunfire and Cavalier cars, as are power four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Complaints: Both the 1995 Sunfire and Cavalier fall short of meeting 1997 federal side-impact crash protection standards, which does not necessarily mean you will die or be critica lly injured in a crash. But several Sunfire/Cavalier competitors meet those standards. GM should've done more here. The Sunfire's sassy rear hauls less cargo than the Cavalier's more sedate backside -- 12.4 cubic feet for the Sunfire, compared with 13.2 cubic feet for the Cavalier. Praise: Both the new Sunfire and Cavalier are a hoot on the road, really fun to drive -- so much fun, in fact, they're downright surprising, especially when equipped with the five-speed manual transmission. Head-turning quotient: Cavalier: "Care for a soda?" Sunfire: "Your place or mine?" Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good ride and excellent handling in both cars. Decent acceleration, estimated 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds, when equipped with the five-speed gearbox and base 2.2-liter inline four. Excellent braking. Mileage: With base engine and transmission, an estimated 28 miles per gallon in both the Sunfire and Cavalier (both with 15.2-gallon tanks, estimate 410-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), running mostly highway with one to two occupants and light cargo. Sound system: In both models -- four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, GM/Delco. Very good. Price: Base price on the tested Sunfire SE coupe is $11,074. Dealer invoice on base model is $10,243. Price as tested is $14,259, including $2,700 in options and a $485 destination charge. Base price on the tested Cavalier LS sedan is $12,465. Dealer invoice is $11,530. Price as tested is $14,461, including $1,511 in options and a $485 destination charge. Purse-strings note: The Sunfire and Cavalier are competitive, compact cars. Compare with Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique, Chrysler Cirrus/Dodge Stratus, Subaru Legacy, Nissan's Sentra and Altima, Toyota Camry four-cylinder coupe and sedan, Volkswagen Golf III, Saturn sedan and coupe, Hyundai Accent and four-cylinder Honda Accords.
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