1996 Pontiac Sunfire SE Coupe, 2.4L 5-Speed
This is one of GM's cars built on the J-body platform; basically the same car as the Chevrolet Cavalier and the Cadillac Cimarron.
This was my first new car. I was a couple of years out of college, and my stepfather, Charlie, and I went out and looked at all kinds of inexpensive new cars. It was the Age of the Geo, and I did try out a little Metro, it being cheaper than $10k. The elderly sales guy exclaimed, "Can't you feel the power?" as I mashed my foot down on the pedal, desperately seeking any sign of life in the thing. "Oh, yeah!" I replied, as I vowed to myself I would NOT be buying a Geo.
We eventually got to that inevitable point where all the cars start to look the same, and I couldn't decide. None offered a package that was significantly better than the rest. One day as we drove from dealer to dealer, I saw this sporty-looking black car up on a rise in front of a dealer. "What's that!" I exclaimed, certain that I couldn't afford something that looked so cool. Charlie perked up and said, "We should go check it out! You can afford that."
It was the Pontiac Sunfire, and laugh as you may at my enthusiasm for my economy car, in a world of shrinking cars with similar lines, it had style. It stood out from the Corollas and the Civics and all those other cars we'd been looking at. Its only competition in my mind was the oddly-shaped Subaru Impreza wagon, in the running because it could haul stuff but was still small-ish and affordable; I was in a band at the time and the ability to haul my gear was appealing. The tie-breaker was Charlie's words of wisdom: "You're young; go for the fun car while you can!" I did, and have never regretted it. Almost nine years later I still like its lines, and have managed, somehow, to transport most of what I need to with it.
My review of this car:
Positive: I liked the styling when I bought it and still do today, but of course that's personal taste. It hasn't stranded me anywhere except once recently when the gas gauge began reading incorrectly, which happened around 139k miles. I've changed the clutch once, and haven't had any major engine problems or transmission problems to fix. The air filter and spark plugs are in easy places to access so you can change them yourself (not so easy on all cars). It takes 87 octane gas and gets fairly good gas mileage - 23 to 31 mpg. It went over 400 miles on one tank of gas on a road trip once. For a cheap car, the 2.4 liter engine has good torque you can feel when you hit the gas. And the j-body car has a surprisingly large and active fan base, so it's easy to find help or parts on the web.
Negative: Having everything manual has been somewhat of a pain, particularly when I lived in a townhouse and kids kept knocking the passenger side mirror and I only discovered it once I was going down the highway and had to adjust it with an umbrella out the window, but that's not the car's fault. The water pump is in a ridiculous location and costs way too much to get replaced, and mine broke only a couple years into owning it, but just long enough that it wasn't covered by warranty. It really needs a rear window wiper because the slant of the window keeps the rain on it, making rear visibility difficult. I also wish it had adjustable seat belts because they cut across my neck. The interior is cheap plastic and various pieces have broken over the years. The first piece to go was the little plastic cover where the rear seat belt comes out of the wall, which broke only about a month after I got the car. This year has an Isuzu transmission and shifting feels sloppy; it was changed to a Getrag transmission in 2000 which apparently feels tighter. Lastly, the car has a lot of body roll.
Summary: In all, it's been a good car, making it over 140,000 miles and still running fairly smoothly, which flies in the face of most people's predictions about a cheap American car; I guess what they say about regular oil changes is true. Despite the difficulties I've encountered here and there, I don't regret having bought this car, though due to its cheap build, I would have to pause before recommending it. Then again, many cars in its class would likely have similar issues - for instance, the interior of the '96 Civic appeared to be cheap fabric over cardboard.