Detroit automakers have a strong history of building stylish and comfortable boulevard cruisers that have the added bonus of being able to drop the top at the push of a button. The glory years of the domestic automobile industry were replete with convertibles of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the compact Corvair to the enormous Cadillac DeVille, and there was nary an automaker to be found who didn't offer at least once open air car per size range in their lineup. This meant that buyers from diverse economic backgrounds were able to afford the convertible driving experience.
In the 1970s, American car companies dramatically scaled back their convertible production, eliminating entire product lines and generally restricting drop tops to only the largest vehicle models before phasing them out completely. Safety concerns regarding how convertibles would perform in a rollover combined with a general softening of the automotive market in the face of an economic downturn saw automakers focus on their bread and butter sedans, as well as invest in technologies that would help them improve their abysmal fuel economy in the face of a less forgiving energy market.
Convertibles would make a slow return in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade things were starting to look up. Entry-level vehicles once again began to receive convertible treatment in an effort to inject some excitement into a somewhat dull segment of the market. Pontiac in particular explored the options offered by low cost rag tops, with automobiles like the Sunbird becoming popular options amongst the budget conscious crowd. It wasn't long before the company had expanded their line of frugal convertibles, and soon an open version of the powerful Firebird muscle car could be found in Pontiac showrooms as well.
After the dawning of the new millennium, Pontiac undertook a serious effort to improve the desirability of their entire range of vehicles, and part of this included designing and building the company's first two-seat roadster. Dubbed the Solstice, the vehicle would become a ray of hope for the brand and give them an automobile that helped further distance them from in-house competitors like Chevrolet and Buick.
This article takes a look at the three best used convertibles sold by Pontiac. Offering inexpensive fun, V8 power and excellent handling, respectively, these open air motor vehicles represent the most carefree driving experiences to be offered by GM's performance-oriented division.
1998 - 2000 Pontiac Sunfire convertible
Competition is fierce at the lower ends of the automobile market, with compact cars going at it tooth and nail to present buyers with the best possible value proposition. While the majority of shoppers looking for an entry-level car are focused primarily on economy and practicality, there are those who crave a little something extra from their basic transportation. These are the drivers for whom the 1998 - 2000 Pontiac Sunfire convertible was built.
In most ways, the 1998 - 2000 Pontiac Sunfire is very similar to the coupe model which is manufactured alongside it. It receives the more powerful of the two Sunfire engine options as standard equipment, a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that generates 150 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque. This is thanks to the fact that the Sunfire convertible is only sold in GT trim as opposed to the more basic SE that can be found on the coupe and sedan. A 5-speed manual transmission is highly recommended for this car, although an automatic is also available.
The Sunfire is an inexpensive compact car, so it is important not to expect too much from the vehicle's interior. That being said, the convertible's controls and information displays are extremely easy to use and read, with big buttons and grippy knobs abounding. The steering wheel gets leather-wrapped treatment and an optional Monsoon stereo system makes it easier to hear the music over the sound of the wind whipping by. Rear seats are somewhat vestigial, but this is hardly surprising in a small convertible.
The 1998 - 2000 Pontiac Sunfire is a simple vehicle with a simple goal - to put a smile on the face of drivers who might not expect much pleasure out a vehicle sold at this price point. It is difficult to find a less expensive used convertible, and the Sunfire is worth a look from those who desire rag top styling without having to pay a premium.
1998 - 2002 Pontiac Firebird convertible
The extremely aggressive looks of the standard Pontiac Firebird coupe are pleasantly softened with the removal of the vehicle's roof, giving the 1998 - 2002 Pontiac Firebird convertible a slick appearance that is set off well by its gently rising rear wing. The previous generation of the Firebird had to make do with an aftermarket convertible conversion, and Pontiac was not about to make the same mistake twice, this time taking matters into its own hands and ensuring that a drop top Firebird could be purchased right off the company's assembly lines.
Choosing which edition of the 1998 - 2002 Pontiac Firebird convertible to purchase is a bit simpler when compared to the options available in the coupe. The base convertible is motivated by a healthy 200 horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine that uses either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission to shift gears. V8 cars are available exclusively in Trans Am trim, with the 1998 edition starting out at 305 horsepower and rising slightly based on options and the model year. The Trans Am shares its automatic transmission with the base Firebird, but adds an extra forward gear to the manual option. As far as convertibles go, the Trans Am is an extremely quick vehicle, despite being somewhat heavier than its coupe sibling, and drives unused to its power can quickly find themselves filling the cockpit of their car with finely ground particulate rubber.
The passenger compartment of the Firebird convertible did not see the same attention from designers as the swooping exterior, with parts bin engineering evident in most of the vehicle's trim and furnishings. However, despite an overdose of plastic the 1998 - 2002 Firebird's interior feels solid, with no worry of losing any window switches or cigarette lighters when driving at speed with the roof open. Front seats are comfortable for average-size drivers, but the rear quarters are an afterthought at best.
The 1998 - 2002 Pontiac Firebird is the last of the rag top muscle machines from the venerable brand, and it makes an appealing used convertible for fans of V8 power and parking lot smoke shows.
2006 - 2007 Pontiac Solstice
If there is one particular vehicle type that North American automakers routinely ignore, it is the compact roadster. This segment of the market had been without a Detroit-based contender for decades until General Motors notice an opportunity for the remade Pontiac and Saturn divisions to seize the interest of buyers more used to shopping for a Miata or an S2000. Pontiac named their roadster the Solstice and gave it rounded body work that managed to simultaneously link it to the company's styling tradition and also open new and interesting design territory for the automaker.
The 2006 - 2007 Pontiac Solstice might be a little bit heavier than some of its Japanese roadster competition, but it is also a little bit more powerful, thanks to a range of excellent 4-cylinder engines that have received the full attention of GM's technological investment over the past few years. When it debuted, the only version of the vehicle available was powered by a 177 horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, but in 2007 this was joined by a turbocharged 2.0-liter motor that boosts production up to 240 horsepower - and gets better fuel mileage doing it, too. Both cars can be equipped with a 5-speed manual or optional automatic transmission. The Solstice handles unlike any other Pontiac, as its sub-3,000 lb curb weight does it enormous favors when it comes to cornering and braking.
Those familiar with Pontiac will be impressed with how the automaker has been able to alter their use of plastic in the vehicle's interior. While the material is still present in abundance, it is not nearly as overwhelmingly tacky as it has been in the past. The Solstice's high belt line provides a feeling of safety and security, and the automobile seems a lot bigger from behind the wheel than it really is. Cockpit room is cozy but adequate, and trunk space is non-existent. A number of convenience options can be ordered to dress up the vehicle's passenger compartment, including power windows and door locks, leather seats and trim and a series of powerful stereo upgrades.
The 2006 - 2007 Pontiac Solstice is the used convertible that American automobile enthusiasts have been looking for, and it is a lot of fun to drive especially in turbocharged GXP form.