The Pontiac Vibe was brilliant, right? Practical, well-priced, and generally reliable, it was a joy to cover for the last GM Hit or Miss. There’s just one problem — it’s really a Toyota underneath. So, let’s get back on track with something as GM as a Chevrolet with a bigass number three on the side. Yep, it’s the final Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we jump in the pool of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning in an attempt to find a spot where the temperature’s just dandy.
When it was first launched for 1970, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was the peak of American personal luxury. It was long, potent, and poised for the open highway. Over the next 16 model years, the Monte Carlo would continue to be a strong seller in the marketplace, trading on traditional body-on-frame rear-wheel-drive construction and a balance between comfort and muscle. It was Chevrolet’s NASCAR Winston Cup entry, and it carried a distinct vibe of win on Sunday, sell on Monday. By 1987 though, the G-Body platform underneath the Monte Carlo had grown long in the tooth and was due for replacement. After a few years of essentially nothingness, out of the ether came a downsized, front-wheel-drive everyday family coupe. Its name? Lumina.
Alright, so Lumina isn’t the most evocative name in the automotive kingdom, but the Lumina coupe was a reasonably attractive car, especially in Z34 form. More importantly, it was built on GM’s W-Body platform, with advanced technologies like transverse leaf spring rear suspension, unibody construction, and available anti-lock brakes. Okay, so that does make it sound like America was living in the dark ages for a while, but the fuel crisis Malaise hangover was Four Loko-levels of potent. While the Lumina silhouette kept racing in NASCAR and cars kept rolling out of showrooms, something was missing: Brand equity.
In 1994, Chevrolet announced that it was bringing the Monte Carlo name back from the dead for what was effectively the second-generation Lumina coupe. It was a great use of brand equity that sold well enough, but something about it was always missing in my eyes. While the Lumina was angular and rakish, the Monte Carlo that immediately followed was bloated and blobby. The high-output 3.4-liter LQ1 V6 was a rev-happy marvel for the time, but the car as a whole felt largely forgettable, and that’s not what a Monte Carlo should be. For the next round, things were different.
The people in charge of the final Monte Carlo took hefty swigs of Budweiser and issued a directive: Make it look like a goddamn NASCAR. With that directive in mind, Wayne Cherry and his team sculpted a roof, hood, and decklid so cup car-like that the actual race cars used street car sheetmetal, then carved out some Scalloped fenders as a throwback to the Colonnade cars. When the 2000 Monte Carlo rolled onto the auto show floor, it looked like it was ready for ‘Dega.
However, the bits underneath were geared more for bingo than for wheel-to-wheel brawling. Base models came with the 3.4-liter LA1 V6 from a Chevrolet Venture minivan churning up Dexron through a 4T65E four-speed automatic gearbox. Except it wasn’t exactly the same V6 as in the corporate minivan because the Venture was more powerful, making 185 horsepower and 215 lb.-ft. of torque to the Monte Carlo’s 180 horsepower and 210 lb.-ft. Yep. Needless to say, the base model wasn’t quick.
[Editor’s Note: These headlights always reminded me of Kermit the Frog‘s pupils. – JT]
Stepping up to the SS model swapped that weedy 3.4 out for a 3.8-liter naturally aspirated V6 making 200 horsepower and 225 lb.-ft. of torque. That seems alright in a vacuum, but then you learn that Car And Driver was only able to pull a zero-to-60 time of 8.6 seconds out of it. This means that the quickest original version of Chevrolet’s early-aughts racing-look coupe could be out-dragged to 60 mph by *checks notes* a Toyota Echo. Ever seen a badger bully a lion before?
Perhaps Car And Driver’s test car was a dog as other publications managed better figures, but that doesn’t mean that other outlets didn’t want more under the hood. In October 1999, Automobile magazine wrote that “with its legendary name and its strong NASCAR association, the Monte Carlo deserves better.”
While it’s initial straight-line deficit was disheartening, maybe the Monte Carlo made up for it in other ways. Perhaps the relative rigidity of the W-body platform compared to many other mass-market large coupes of the time paid off in handling or something. Nope. As Car And Driver put it during a three-car comparison test with the Dodge Stratus coupe and Ford Mustang GT:
Comfortable? Yes. Roomy? Yes, tops in this group. Solid? No question, arguably the best in this threesome. But sporty? Sorry. This car is as frisky and fun-loving as an Arthur Andersen accountant.
It’s a shame because the old rear-wheel-drive Monte Carlo SS models were willing to indulge in hooliganism. In fact, Car And Driver described the 1985 Monte Carlo SS as a vehicle that “offers its driver a nicely balanced portfolio of acceleration, braking and handling, and NASCAR style.” It’s easy to see why, given how that 1985 model dashed to 60 mph eight-tenths of a second quicker than the front-wheel-drive SS and carried an armpit hair more lateral acceleration on the skidpad. Still, that didn’t stop Chevrolet from building special edition Monte Carlos with explicit ties to NASCAR drivers.
First came the 2002 Dale Earnhardt Signature Edition with its contrasting lip kit, Intimidator badges, and number 3 on each side. As corny as that sounds, it united America in a time of crisis, much like Creed at the 2001 Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving halftime show. Following this up would be no easy task, but the 2003 Jeff Gordon Signature Edition holds a certain appeal of its own, with blue ghost flames saying everything you really need to know about the early 2000s.
The naturally-aspirated 3800’s status as the top engine felt even more insulting when you realize that Pontiac had a supercharged 240-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 in its Grand Prix GTP for years, and that thing was a scorcher. Motor Trend ran zero-to-60 in 6.6 seconds in a 1997 Grand Prix GTP and described it as having “the surplus power of a Titan IV booster.” The supercharged 3800 was a sledgehammer of a V6, but it took its sweet time to arrive in the Monte Carlo. In fact, the supercharged motor wouldn’t show up until 2004, at which point the family-sized speed war had kicked into high gear. If that supercharged motor had rocketry in reserve, the Nissan Altima 3.5 SE was packing a scramjet, vaporizing its front tires in pursuit of a sub-six-second zero-to-60 time.
For 2006, things got weirder and better. The Monte Carlo gained the headlights and hood from the then-new ninth-generation Chevrolet Impala, a new front bumper cover, and new fenders blending everything together. Look, it wasn’t the prettiest facelift of all time, but what laid under the skin was more important.
The weedy 3.4-liter base V6 was replaced by a 3.5-liter unit that took output up to 211 horsepower and 214 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s more horsepower than the naturally-aspirated 3.8-liter V6 made, so a 3.9-liter V6 with 242 horsepower and 242 lb.-ft. of torque was next up in the 2006 lineup. Once again, that’s more horsepower than the old supercharged 3800 V6 made (but less torque) without the complexity of a blower, which meant that GM needed something special as a range-topper. How about a V8?
Yes, six model years into its production run, the final Monte Carlo got its muscle back. The 5.3-liter LS4 V8 in the 2006 SS model pumped out 303 horsepower and 323 lb.-ft. of torque, leaning on a set of W-rated Goodyear tires to dash from zero-to-60 in six seconds flat during Motorweek testing. It also may have been a little too much muscle for the 4T65E-HD gearbox, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Unfortunately, the V8-powered Monte Carlo SS’ lifespan was cut short when Chevrolet pulled the plug on the entire Monte Carlo nameplate after the 2007 model year. After all, Chevrolet had a new coupe coming and this town wasn’t big enough for both a front-wheel-drive Monte Carlo and the Zeta platform fifth-generation Camaro.
As underwhelming as the final Monte Carlo was, I can’t hate it completely. It gave NASCAR parents something to be excited about, a little slice of Dale for their Monday-through-Friday commutes. It also marked the absolute end of the personal luxury coupe, even if there wasn’t anything massively luxurious about the final Monte Carlo. Despite mostly being a sheep in wolf’s clothing, it was a hit, and proof that sometimes people will sacrifice a little bit of practicality for a whole lot of style. Sadly, it’s also a case of Joni Mitchell’s age-old tale: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Looking around at the automotive landscape in 2023, semi-practical mass-market large coupes are basically gone. No more Accord Coupe, no more Camry Solara, definitely no Monte Carlo, and even the Dodge Challenger is living on borrowed time. Oh well, the way the winds of change shift and all that.
(Photo credits: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Mecum, VX1NG – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
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