Before letting the '96 models slip away, we tested the Pontiac Sunfire SE and Trans Am convertibles, which offered stark contrast to one another.Sunfire is an economy car with a top that goes down rather easily and smoothly when you grab a handle in the center of the windshield top and give it a light pull. The attraction of the Sunfire is open-top motoring in a cute small car that obtains 22 m.p.g. city/32 m.p.g. highway mileage with its 2.4-liter, 150-h.p., 4-cylinder engine (a 2.2-liter, 120-h.p., 4 is standard)--$395--teamed with 4-speed automatic--$245--with traction assist (a 3-speed automatic is standard with no traction assist offered). All the advantages of a convertible, all the benefits of an economy car. A big plus is that the Sunfire has a pair of side rear windows where many of its rivals have the wraparound convertible top. The windows mean you have excellent side vision, whereas a wraparound top would mean a giant blind spot. One gripe: Sometimes when an automaker takes off the top, the car suffers structural rigidity, and the Sunfire tended to squeak when the body flexed. Saturn officials long have maintained that one reason it never added a convertible is that it couldn't come up with a vehicle as solid and squeak-free as it wanted. After driving the Sunfire convertible, you get the feeling Saturn is wise to hold off on a convertible until it adds the larger Opel midsize platform to its lineup in the 1999 model year . Notable Sunfire standard equipment included two air bags, ABS and daytime running lamps. Base price: $17,734. With the desired option grouping consisting of rear window defogger, AM/FM stereo with cassette player and clock, intermittent wipers, dual sport power mirrors, power locks, power windows, steering wheel radio controls, remote keyless entry and cruise control (the only item in the package not all that desirable) at $1,519 plus the engine/transmission upgrade and $495 for freight, you're just over $20,000. The Trans Am convertible, on the other hand, is a performance car in which the top goes down very easily when you press the button below the instrument panel. The attraction is open-top motoring in a car powered by a 5.7-liter, 285-h.p., V-8, shod with 16-inch performance tires so it steps quickly but not gingerly while providing rather solid footing. The 5.7-liter, V-8 delivers 17 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway, providing you spend more time cruising lazily with the top down rather than driving energetically, top up or down. The Trans Am drop top, however, doesn't feature rear side windows, but rather wraps around for that blind spot. And, like Sunfire, there's noise as the body flexes. Notable standard equipment includes two air bags and ABS along with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, dual power sport mirror s, fog lamps, rear window defogger, AM/FM stereo with cassette and clock. Base price: $27,364. With optional 4-speed automatic (6-speed manual standard) at $790, compact disc changer at $595, and leather seats at $829 (including a seat with articulating headrest that would be much more appreciated if it was more comfortable than articulated), plus $505 for freight, you'll come very close to $30,000. Before you run out to get the "last" of the '96 Sunfire or Trans Am convertibles, note that for '97 the Sunfire SE adds 4-speed automatic with traction assist as standard, along with rear-window defogger and cruise control, and the '97 Trans Am offers Ram Air induction for a boost to 305 h.p. from 285.
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