What I'm Driving At: From Coupe to Nuts

Except for their GM provenance, there was not much similarity to meet the eye when Chevrolet's Monte Carlo Z34 sport coupe arrived at my drive just as I was testing Pontiac's Sunfire SE convertible. The Monte Carlo, to be sure, is basically a two-door version of the six-passenger Lumina midsize sedan. The Sunfire is a ragtop rendition of the GM compact platform known at Chevy as the Cavalier and at Pontiac as Sunfire.The Monte Carlo, with its 107.5-inch wheelbase and 72.5-inch overall width, appears to dwarf the Sunfire (with comparable measurements of 104.1 and 67.4, respectively). Its lumbering curb weight of 3,452 lbs. is a solid 20 percent heftier than the convertible's 2,870 lbs. Both cars feature perky powerplants for '98: The Sunfire's optional twin-cam, 16-valve four-banger makes a noble effort to reach 150 horsepower; the new Z34, on the other hand, eschews last year's optional and disappointing twin-cam design in favor of GM's tried-and-true 3.8-liter pushrod V6, rated at 200-horse. Curiously, these apparent mismatches weren't especially evident in price: The hot-rod Monte Carlo stickered at $22,933, as tested; the soft-top Sunfire cost only $1,100 less at $21,810.Perhaps the most glaring image discrepancy between these two two-doors regards their respective public personae. Sunfires are notoriously pegged as "girlie cars." Indeed, Pontiac's own press materials admit a 77 percent/22 percent split in female/male ownership (the unaccounted 1 percent remaining militantly undecided as to gender, one must presume). Monte Carlos in general, and the duded-up Z34 versions in particular, are not only he-cars; they're champeen he-cars, with laurels aplenty from NASCAR. None other than baby-face Jeff Gordon, that he-man heartthrob of the circle tracks, drove his Monte Carlo to this year's Winston Cup Championship. That's how studly the Monte Carlo is.And then you drive 'em. The five-passenger Monte Carlo is stately; roomy for five; distinguished-looking in its "Dark Jade" metallic paint with butternut leather interior. The sunroof is nice (albeit one of those panel-type jobs that flips up like a roof spoiler instead of retracting, hidden, into a pocket). A cute little tail wing shaped like a fingernail paring, twin exhausts (the proverbial "dools"), and machined 16-inch wheels suggest performance -- in whispered tones. A tweaked suspension rides a little harder, corners a little flatter, and resists a little longer the dive-and-squat tendencies of a front-heavy front-wheel-drive car.But where's the beef? What possible connection can this car have with NASCAR? Is there still a segment of the car-buying public that rationalizes, "Hey, that pretty-boy Jeff Gordon got rich and got a cute chick of a wife driving a Monte Carlo, so I wanna drive one too"? If so, some realignment between truth and advertising is in order.It takes a little math, but certainly no math whiz, to square the face-off between a macho Monte Carlo and a girlie-car Sunfire -- a topless Sunfire at that. Power-to-weight ratios tell all: Every horse under the hood of the Z34 has 19.13 pounds to pull. Underhood the Sunfire, each horsepower's drayage is 17.26 pounds. If you're lookin' for a little spring in your step, it behooves you to shed some L-Bs. Same goes for your car.That's why Pontiac's little Sunfire Convertible is sprightly, not stately. Even with an automatic four-speed transmission, the car hops to attention at every "Giddyap!"; only its traction-control system keeps the front tires consistently hooked up. Despite a 25-percent horsepower disadvantage, the Sunfire meets or betters the Z34 every time, zero-to-60.It's not all speed and kudos with this car, however. It may be a five-seater, but a stoic determination to love thy neighbor is the key to comfort. The convertible top itself is a masterful piece of Rube Goldberg engineering: A little upside-down joystick above the rear-view mirror controls the automatic up-down functions. Pull back on the stick, and the windows retract, the top and its thick velveteen headliner crease and fold, and you've got blue sky in about 45 seconds. Push the stick forward, the top goes up; latching it and raising the front windows are up to you.It's all so nice and tidy, you resent the dreaded cowl-shake all the more. Bereft the structural support of a rigid roof, Pontiac's Sunfire convertible can but wiggle-worm its way through corners. Every road bump instigates a shimmy-shake. It's a car for cruising and for having a good time seeing and being seen. Barnstorming the backroads is some other car's mission.Exterior styling may be a bit ho-hum, but at least it's upbeat and unpretentious. Nevertheless, during my stint with the car, the only thing even remotely girlie about it was the presence of my wife and three daughters snugged down under every available seatbelt. So what if it's the winter holiday season? This daddy-o's motto is, "Have convertible, will travel topless." My kids, of course, think I'm nuts; and they have that red-eyed, wind-chapped look on their faces that tends to elicit sympathy for their point of view. Indeed, for this very reason, they pleaded to take the Monte Carlo on our frosty trips over the river and through the woods when to grandmothers' houses we went.Figures. Monte Carlo, Jeff Gordon, the whole damn lot of those NASCAR guys always get the girls. But it takes a re-e-al man to put his foot down, lay the convertible top back, and show the children, the family, the world that a cool image isn't something you can just take for granted; it's something you have to earn. Br-r-r-r.

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