1998 Pontiac Sunfire

By November 10, 1999
1998 Pontiac Sunfire

Pontiac’s Sunfire delivers design excitement and lots of fun per dollar to youthful drivers whether it is ordered as a coupe, sedan, GT or convertible.

For 1998, Sunfire’s base 2.2-liter inline 4-cylinder engine is smoother, quieter and more powerful. And the entire Sunfire line is now offered with next-generation passenger-side airbags.


Sunfire’s awesome foursome includes the SE Coupe (Base Price (MSRP) $12,995), SE Sedan ($12,995), SE Convertible ($19,995), and GT Coupe ($15,995).

The coupes and the convertible offer the most excitement, but the SE Sedan provides more practicality with a roomier back seat and a larger trunk.

With a moderately raked windshield, Sunfire’s coupes offer a surprisingly large greenhouse, with generous glass area and few obstructions to outward visibility. At the rear, a relatively short deck lid conceals slightly more than 12 cubic feet of trunk space, easily accessed with a low lift-over height.

A rear decklid spoiler is now standard on all 1998 Sunfire coupes. Though it wasn’t available on early production models, Sunfire sedans will also sport a new decklid spoiler with an integrated center brake light.

The Sunfire Convertible resembles a miniature Firebird with its fluid curves, sharp, tapered nose, muscular bodyside bulges and stocky tail treatment. Pontiac’s Sunfire looks sportier than Chevy’s Cavalier. Because they share platforms, powertrains and trim levels, these two models offer similar dynamic traits.

Under the hood, Pontiac provides the choice of two powerplants and three transmissions.

Standard in the SE coupe, sedan and convertible is a 2.2-liter overhead-valve inline 4-cylinder engine that generates 115 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. A Sunfire with the 2.2-liter engine and standard five-speed transmission gets an EPA-rated 23 mpg in the city and 33 mph on the highway.

To improve acceleration performance off the line, Pontiac has redesigned the 2.2-liter engine. Changes in the combustion chamber design, a new composite intake manifold, roller rocker arms and a new aluminum cylinder head design, have increased torque from 130 pound-feet at 4000 rpm to 135 pound-feet at 3600 rpm. Horsepower rating for the 2.2-liter engine is 115 at 5000 rpm, down from previous engine of 120 hp at 5200 rpm. Pontiac hopes the improved launch characteristics of the car will help attract younger buyers.

A more powerful 2.4-liter Twin Cam engine pumping 150 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque comes on the Sunfire GT Coupe.

Transmission choices include a 5-speed manual, a 3-speed automatic and a 4-speed automatic. The 5-speed gearbox is precise and fun to use, and a big improvement over the previous manual transmission. The fun factor of the 5-speed manual kicks up a notch with shift linkage improvements that ensure a more precise shift feel.

The 4-speed automatic is available for all models and offers much better gearing than the base 3-speed automatic.

A traction control system is available, but only with the four-speed automatic. Traction control reduces engine power when one of the front wheels begins to spin.

An electronically controlled capacity clutch is now standard on the 4-speed automatic. Transmission improvements complement the 2.2-liter engine for the better launch feel.

Standard on the GT Coupe are P205/55 performance tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

The PASSlock theft deterrent system, equipped on all Sunfire models for 1998, shuts the Sunfire off after a few moments if the car 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 available as an option.

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 normal headlights can be switched on manually or by using Pontiac’s Twilight Sentinel system, turning the lights on and off automatically as it senses the amount of available light.

Interior Features

Sunfire’s sporty exterior theme is continued inside the cabin. The appointments, like the instrumentation, are simple but serviceable. The speedometer and tachometer, are large and centered for easy glancing-day or night.

Assembly quality appears to measure up to Pontiac’s lofty goals for this car, and the attractive interior features some very thoughtful touches.

Get behind the wheel and there’s little hood to see, but lots of glass and good mirrors provide plenty of scenery. For the cockpit feel, radio and HVAC controls are angled toward the driver. The steering wheel can be equipped with convenient stereo controls that reduce the driver’s need to take his or her eyes off the road.

We found the interior to be quite accommodating for driving to and from work or on distant highway trips. Sunfire may be classified as a compact, but it definitely does not cramp the body-no matter what the size. We have found that in many cars where space is limited, the center console tends to rub a raw spot on the driver’s leg. This is not the case in the Sunfire. Often times the armrest sits too low or too high for the driver to actually rest his arm. Here the seat and armrest work in unison to achieve optimum comfort.

Typically with a two-door compact, a back seat is not completely functional. The seat is often too short and resembles that of a ladle, so that even a five-year-old has trouble climbing out. Compared to a Toyota Paseo or a Mitsubishi Eclipse, assistance is not needed from mom to get out of the GT coupe.

There’s some storage, as well as drink holders and reasonably attractive cloth and plastic are used.

Driving Impressions

We spent a week in a Sunfire GT Coupe in the Atlanta area and found it to be an enjoyable car, whether on the area’s busy freeways or winding along county roads.

The Sunfire hangs in there well in fast corners. It is poised and predictable and exhibits surprisingly little understeer for a front-wheel drive car. The GT seems at its best in transient, or slalom-type, maneuvers. You can really throw it around. Our only quibble with its handling is the unassisted steering that is a little slow.

The chassis and suspension and steering combine to produce an exceptional blend of ride and handling, and the car projects a secure feeling of stability and solidity.

The suspension is composed of MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle in the rear. It’s not as sophisticated as many setups in this class, but it gets the job done. A precise feel of on-center steering and quickness are attributed to Sunfire’s power rack-and-pinion steering. Sunfire’s body rigidity provides a ride that’s firm, confidence at higher speeds, and quiet.With the 2.4-liter 16-valve Twin Cam engine, the GT Coupe comes to play with more horsepower than a Honda Civic and more torque than a Dodge Neon Sport. It raises the Sunfire’s performance from the realm of acceptable to spirited.

Like most GM cars, the Sunfire and Cavalier disc/drum braking system includes an antilock feature. However, it’s not as sophisticated as the systems found on more expensive cars, and overall braking performance is average.

Aggressive yet sensible styling and some nice innovations and standard features make the Sunfire confident and competent with the competition.


With a base price of $15,995 the Sunfire GT Coupe offers a good value in the competitive coupe market. Its price is very attractive when measured against the Mitsubishi Eclipse RS, Toyota Celica ST and Nissan 200SX SE-R.

Pontiac Sunfire offers buyers sporty, expressive styling and performance in an affordably priced, American-built car. Sunfire models appeal to a wide range of car enthusiasts, from economy sport sedan buyers to convertible lovers.