EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

Chevrolet is the General Motors division to watch in 1995.

For years, Chevy has been sputtering in the marketplace with out-of-date, out-of-sync vehicles.

But 1995 is the year much of that is expected to change. Chevy is overhauling nearly its entire lineup.

There will be a new Geo Metro, Cavalier and Blazer sport-utility. And this summer Chevy brought out two 1995 models – the redesigned Lumina sedan and the Monte Carlo sports coupe – a bit early.

The Monte Carlo replaced the Lumina coupe.

I think Chevy’s decision to bring back the Monte Carlo nameplate is more than just a blatant attempt to tug at the heartstrings of loyal Chevy fans, many of whom have wandered over to Ford, Chrysler and the imports.

The 1995 Monte Carlo – especially this week’s Z34 test car ? brings into the 1990s the style and performance of previous Monte Carlos.

Chevy last offered a Monte Carlo in 1988. The original Monte Carlo, a 1970 model that appeared in the fall of 1969, was a fast, classy and pseudo-luxurious sports coupe. So is the 1995 version, but with a twist: This new model is a high-tech machine that can handle a curve better than any old Monte Carlo.

PERFORMANCE

Two versions of the Monte Carlo are available. There is the tame but respectable LS model that is outfitted with a fuel-efficient 160-horsepower 3.1-liter V-6. And there is the Z34, the model engineered for performance-oriented drivers. The Monte Carlo Z34 has GM’s underrated 3.4-liter Twin Dual Cam V-6, a 210-horsepower engine that delivers excellent all-round performance and good fuel economy.

Both the LS and the Z34 come with computer-controlled four-speed automatics. A manual gearbox is no longer available in the Lumina/Monte Carlo line.

Traditional Monte Carlo fans might wonder how Chevy could resurrect its most famous performance coupe without including a V-8. One drive in the Z34 likely will silence most critics.

The 210-horsepower Twin Dual Cam V-6 delivers smooth and abundant power – but in a ’90s kind of way.

Older Monte Carlos could burn rubber of a set of rear tires, but when driven fast they would struggle around a corner. Acceleration, not handling, was the forte of the old Monte Carlo.

Today’s front-wheel-drive Monte Carlo will still leave a little rubber on the pavement. But unlike the old car, it hangs tight in corners like a European sports sedan. Credit the improvement to a stiff body and a better suspension system.

Four black exhaust pipes under the rear bumper emit a hearty, sporty growl.

Chevy engineers have tuned the Z34 to be very responsive from a stop. So even though the car doesn’t have a V-8, its 24-valve V-6 delivers excellent acceleration. Zero to 60 mph comes up in a respectable 7.8 seconds – not bad for a 3,450 pound car priced at under 20 grand.

Driven aggressively and with the air conditioner running, the Monte sipped the cheapest grade of unleaded fuel at the miserly rate of 18 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway.

This is one car you can drive hard and not be forced to pay a high price at the gas pump.

HANDLING

When it comes to turning, stopping and braking, the Monte Carlo doesn’t set the standard for cars in its class.

Instead, it’s a very balanced and solid machine that does all of these things well – and that’s enough to make the Monte Carlo stand out.

I’m impressed with the Monte Carlo’s stiff and sturdy body structure. When Chevy engineers tore apart the old Lumina coupe to look for ways to improve handling, they realized that they could achieve their goal mostly by building a super-rigid body structure. They achieved that by installing a series of cross-members – metal braces that run the width of the car. There also is brace under the dash.

The stiff body lets the four-wheel independent suspension system absorb the energy generated by bumps without causing the rest of the cart flex. Also, it helps keep the body straight in hard corners.

I found the Monte’s ride to be semi-soft, but very sporty. The power rack-and-pinion steering is excellent. Response is crisp and sharp; the car can turn a complete circle in 39 feet.

Even though disc brakes on the rear would improve braking performance, it’s hard to find fault with the Z34’s power-assisted front disc/rear drum set up. The brakes are strong and the anti-lock system allows you to get maximum stopping power without skidding.

FIT AND FINISH

Mechanically, there has been nothing seriously wrong with Chevy’s cars in the past few years. Chevy’s problem was that many of its vehicles weren’t as comfortable or user friendly as other vehicles.

The new cars and trucks Chevy has out or on the way address these problems.

The interior in the Monte Carlo is far and away the best one Chevrolet has ever designed.

Like the suspension system, the interior doesn’t set the standard for other cars in its class, but it does everything well. And that’s enough to make it stand out.

The seats and the dash are the two parts of the Monte Carlo that will be virtually unrecognizable to anyone who looked at last year’s Lumina coupe.

Our test car came equipped with a firm and comfortable set of cloth-covered bucket seats – Chevy’s best.

During a previous test drive earlier this year, I wrote that I couldn’t get comfortable in these seats. Other journalists also said the lower portion of the seats felt a bit thin.

Chevy listened and added more padding. The result borders on excellence. The seats hold you nicely in place when you’re in a curve, and there’s plenty of lower back support. You can sit in the seats for hours without experiencing fatigue.

In the rear, the bench seat also is comfortable. Average-sized rear passengers can travel comfortably because foot, leg and head room is bountiful for a coupe.

A center console, housing a floor shifter, sits between the buckets and houses two cupholders and a storage compartment.

The dash is a pleasing piece of work. The analog gauges are planted in a rounded dash, and all controls are brightly labeled and within easy reach.

For instance, the air conditioner has three rotary knobs that are easily adjusted. This is nothing new, but it is easy to use and it works well.

Our test car also came with a new model of Delco radio. The AM/FM stereo has buttons that are larger and better labeled than last year’s model. Also, it offers more functions and provides a richer sound.

The headlight switch, also rotary type, is located a bit too close to the rheostat, the device that controls the brightness of the dash lights. I noticed that when I switched off the lights that my hand would brush against the rheostat and turn off the dash lights.

Speaking of lights, the switches for the windows and electric door locks are lighted, a nice touch for a Chevrolet.

The Monte Carlo Z34 comes with a long list of standard equipment, including a tilt wheel, full gauge package, power seats, windows, door locks and mirrors, rear window defroster and cruise control.

With a price of under $20,000, the new Monte Carlo Z34 rings up as one heck of a bargain. And it’s a Chevy that you would be proud to own. It’s been a long time since you could say that about any Chevy other than a Camaro or a Corvette.

Truett’s tip: The all new Monte Carlo Z34 from Chevrolet is a sharp-looking, value-packed sports coupe with a comfortable interior and excellent road manners.

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