The Pontiac Sunfire is an agile compact coupe that's enjoyable to drive.
Changes improve the Sunfire for 2003. Revised front and rear styling freshens its appearance. GM's 2.2-liter Ecotec engine offers quieter operation, improved efficiency, and substantially more power than last year's base engine. Interior revisions improve comfort and convenience. Optional side airbags and the OnStar telematics system enhance safety. A retuned sports suspension offers quicker responses.
In spite of updates for 2003, it lacks the refinement of some of the latest models from the competition. Its base price looks attractive, but options will likely be needed to add desirable safety and convenience features.
SE coupe ($14,910)
The Pontiac Sunfire was last restyled for the 2000 model year and changes since then have been minimal. The current model looks dated and the Sunfire has been redesigned for the 2003 model year.
Sunfire's exterior changes for 2003 begin up front where the cat-eye headlamps and new integrated turn signals extend further into the hood. The hood was redesigned for a more aggressive appearance. Integrated fog lamps, the dual-port grille, and aerodynamic extensions are designed to give the Sunfire's a sporty character.
In back are redesigned taillamps and a new body-colored applique. the back-up lights have been moved from the rear fascia and integrated with the license plate for a cleaner look. The rear spoiler, which comes standard, is designed to further the Sunfire's sports appeal.
New wheel covers for the standard 15-inch steel wheels are available in a painted finish. Optional aluminum wheels are available in 15- and 16-inch sizes.
New fabric freshens the interior of the 2003 Pontiac Sunfire with a bold design available in graphite (gray) or taupe. The new fabric looks durable.
Most drivers and passengers should find plenty of interior room. Getting in and out of the Sunfire is easier than it is in many other coupes. Once in, lots of glass and effective mirrors provide good visibility. The driver sees only a little bit of the sharply slanted hood.
Side-impact airbags are optional for 2003. Mounted on the front seats, they are designed to protect the thorax area of the front passengers. OnStar is also optional. OnStar operators will send safety crews to the rescue if an airbag deploys and they can't get a response. They can pinpoint the location of your car if it's stolen or unlock the doors remotely if you lock them inside. OnStar operators can help if you get lost or locate the nearest Mexican restaurant and make reservations for you. Subscribers can use the system to make hands-free cellular telephone calls. Other safety features include three-point seatbelts for all five seating positions.
The instrument panel is redesigned for 2003. New round air outlets can be rotated 360 degrees. The Sunfire's instrument panel is attractive and includes a digital LCD odometer and trip odometer, a tachometer and a coolant temperature gauge. The floor console provides great functionality and includes a padded armrest. Other interior features include two forward-mounted cupholders, a concealed coin holder, and extra storage space for CDs, cassettes and other items.
2003 models get a new steering wheel and it's comfortable with indentions for holding it at 10 and 2 o'clock. Radio and air-conditioning controls are angled toward the driver, the latter revised for 2003 for easier operation.
XM satellite radio is optional for 2003, which features 100 coast-to-coast channels. No need to switch from your favorite station while driving cross country. The 24-hour news broadcasts are available along with dedicated sports channels.
A variety of audio systems is available, including a 200-watt, eight-speaker Monsoon system designed for the Sunfire's interior acoustics. The eight-channel amplified system features active crossovers to direct low, midrange, and high frequencies to the appropriate speakers. Crisp bass response and clear high frequencies make for great sound.
Sunfire's relatively short deck lid conceals slightly more than 12 cubic feet of trunk space, easily accessed with a low lift-over height. The rear seats in 2003 models are split 60/40 and fold down for versatility and increased cargo capacity.
The PASSlock theft deterrent system that comes on all Sunfire models shuts the car off after a few moments if it is started with anything other than the encoded key. A single key is used for ignition and all locks, and a remote keyless entry system is optional. All Sunfires are equipped with daytime running lights. Whenever the ignition is on and the handbrake is released or the automatic transmission is shifted out of park, the headlights will be on at reduced power.
The Pontiac Sunfire is easy and fun to drive.
The Ecotec 2.2-liter engine offers responsive performance, particularly when paired with the five-speed manual transmission. This newly developed four-cylinder engine generates 140 horsepower at 5600 rpm, giving the Sunfire enough power for confident passing and merging into busy highway traffic. While some engines tend to be peaky, providing maximum power only in a very narrow rpm range, the Ecotec has a broad torque curve and that enhances the engine's driveability. The new Ecotec engine is fuel efficient, EPA-rated at 24 mpg City and 33 Highway with the five-speed transmission, and 23/32 mpg with the four-speed automatic.
The five-speed manual transmission, built by renowned German gearbox maker Getrag, offers pleasant shifting and we enjoyed it. The optional four-speed automatic transmission works well around town, keeping the engine in its best operating range at lower speeds.
The Sunfire handles well. It hangs on confidently in fast corners and stays poised and predictable. It is balanced well, exhibiting surprisingly little understeer for a front-wheel-drive car. You can really throw it around. Ride and handling have been improved for 2003 by stiffening the structure of the car, and re-tuning the suspension for a sportier, more controlled ride. The chassis did feel more rigid, more secure when driving quickly down a rough back roads. The revised suspension dampened road vibration reasonably well. Hitting a series of bumps didn't generate the aftershocks associated with older domestic compact cars. You feel the bumps, but it seems more controlled than it did in the pre-2003 models. The chassis and suspension and steering combine to produce a good blend of ride and handling, and the car projects a secure feeling of stability and solidity. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gives the Sunfire quick steering response. The suspension comprises MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in the rear. It's not as sophisticated as the suspensions in some of the other cars in this class, but it gets the job done.
Bigger rear drum brakes and more rear brake bias are designed to improve braking performance. The brake pedal feels nice and firm and the brakes are responsive. ABS is optional, but we recommend it. Slam on the brakes and the ABS steps in, bringing the Sunfire to an undramatic stop. ABS can be a real ally in an emergency maneuver because it allows the driver to steer the car in a panic braking situation. Just remember to keep hard pedal pressure on the brakes and don't forget to steer.
Pontiac Sunfire offers sporty, expressive styling and decent performance in an affordably priced coupe. Revisions to this year's model improve refinement and add convenience. Sunfire is getting long in the tooth, however, so look for deals.