First Glance: Sunbird reborn?
Back in the early days of my driver's license - we're talking late 80s/early 90s - the Pontiac Sunbird (and later Sunfire) was a popular car among my peers. It was cheap to buy, cheap to run, and offered a smidge more style and originality than its mechanical twin, the Chevy Cavalier, particularly in coupe form. It was a pretty crappy car from a handling and build-quality standpoint (but I drove a Dodge Omni back then, so I wasn't exactly one to point fingers).
The Pontiac G5 is essentially the Sunbird coupe reborn, and I mean that in a good way. Like its predecessor, the G5 is easy to drive and inexpensive to own. What's missing is the crap factor. Gone are the strakes and stripes that marked Pontiacs of the Hypercolor tee shirt era. The new Pontiac chic is harkened by styling that is smooth if somewhat anonymous. And for once, anonymity works. I like the subtlety of the twin-kidney grille (link goes to photo) up front. Out back, the monochrome taillights are squared-off versions of those on the Cobalt sedan. They look way better, to my eye, than the big round mis-fitting taillights on the Cobalt coupe (review).
In the Driver's Seat: Heavy on equipment, light on distractions
Inside the G5 differs little from the Cobalt, and that's OK. The gauges are a bit different but the center stack, with its wonderfully simple stereo and A/C controls, is virtually identical. I'm a big fan of distraction-free driving and think it's especially important for new drivers, so this interior really appealed to me.
G5s come in two flavors, Base and GT. At $15,265, the Base is quite the deal: air conditioning, CD/MP3 stereo with input jack, power everything, and remote keyless entry. The $18,590 GT model adds alloy wheels, cruise control, some leather trim bits, and a more powerful engine. On the safety front, antilock brakes are standard and side airbags are optional.
The front seats of the G5 are supportive but a bit hard; perhaps their padding will soften with age. The back seat is not much fun for adults, but I was glad that Pontiac fitted LATCH child-seat anchors at all three seating positions. The trunk is decently sized but the small opening makes it hard to load bulky items. And while I'm picking nits, what's with the cupholders? They're too small to hold big bottles and they block the A/C controls. I expected more from a car designed in the country that gave the world the Big Gulp.
On the Road: All the fun we want, all the economy we need
The GT version gets stiffer suspension tuning than the base car, giving it a more sporty ride and better handling. I drove the G5 back-to-back with the Mazda 3, a car known and loved for its driver appeal. The G5 didn't feel quite as light and nimble on its feet as the Mazda, but it was every bit as well controlled and composed.
Journey's End: Can it compete with the Civic?
The G5's primary competitor -- besides, of course, the Cobalt -- is the Honda Civic coupe. The Civic starts around the same price, gets better gas mileage, and includes side airbags as standard equipment, an important consideration for younger and less-experienced drivers. (Side 'bags are optional on the G5, but how many dealers will order them, especially if they are looking to keep prices down?) And the Civic's interior styling, particularly it's two-level dash, is way more modern than any of its competitors.
Still, I think the G5 can hold its own against the mighty Honda. I found the G5 more enjoyable and involving to drive than the Civic. Considering the demand for Civics, it'll be easier to get a better deal on the Pontiac. And the G5's powertrain (engine, transmission, and bits that make the front wheels go 'round) is covered by a 5 year/100,000 mile warranty. I imagine the G5 will prove to be every bit as popular with young folks today as the Sunbird was back when I was I new driver.