Home » Wrench More In ’24: 1983 Pontiac Sunbird vs 2002 Chrysler Sebring

Wrench More In ’24: 1983 Pontiac Sunbird vs 2002 Chrysler Sebring

Sbsd 1 2 2024
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Good morning! Welcome to another year of poor automotive choices. If you’ve made a resolution to take up a new hobby, and that hobby is fixing up old cars, then you’re in luck: Today we’re looking at two non-performance-oriented convertibles that both look good but need mechanical work. And neither of them is exactly a “collector’s car,” so it doesn’t really matter if you screw them up further.

On Friday, we ended the year with a bang, and looked at a pair of uncommon exotic dream rides. I’d go to great lengths to get some seat time in either one of them, but if I were to actually own one, I’d steer clear of the one that’s just too pretty for the likes of me. That Lancia is beautiful, and it won your vote hands-down, but I prefer my own cars a little less pristine and precious.

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That Lotus is what the classic car market folks refer to as “driver condition.” It’s a number 3 or 4 on the typically-used classic car grading scale, a running car that won’t win any awards, but goes down the road just fine and has the desired effect on onlookers. And that’s just how I like ’em. My own MGB GT is in similar condition; though its paint may be shinier than that chalky Lotus, it’s still at best a “ten footer” that photographs well – as long as you don’t look under the hood. Cars like these shouldn’t sit around; they should be on the road, being enjoyed. I don’t do that enough with my car, and it’s one of my resolutions: Just drive the damn thing.

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Actually, in a broader sense, that is my only real resolution this year: Do the things I enjoy whenever I can, instead of waiting for the “perfect” opportunity. If the last three or four years of chaos have taught me anything, it’s that you have to squeeze the good stuff into whatever cracks you find, because you never know what the universe is going to throw at you next.

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Finding the time is tough; the great paradox of getting a chance to write about things you love is that it takes time away from actually doing those things. And since I still rely on a daily trip to the salt mines of a normal job for the bulk of my income, time is in even shorter supply. But I’m going to make a conscious effort this year to spend more time with tools or steering wheels in my hands. I’ve got plans. And if the stars align and I can actually pull them off, you’ll hear about them.

But for now, let’s focus on the business at hand, which is evaluating two old broken cars.

1983 Pontiac 2000 Sunbird – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter overhead cam inline 4, three-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

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Odometer reading: 60,000 miles

Operational status: Starts and runs, but engine knocks

I’m tired of hearing the terms “apologist” and “guilty pleasures.” Both smack of elitism, with the implication being that you know certain cars or movies or music or whatever are “bad,” but it’s okay to like them as long as you’re in on the joke. It’s as if people feel the need to justify their place at the cool table by mocking things they actually like, in order to score points with strangers who are all doing the same thing. The madness must stop. We’re too old for that shit. I legitimately like first-generation GM J-bodies like this, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.

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This is actually a pretty rare car, it turns out, one of only 626 of its kind. It’s the first year for the convertible version, and the only year that the “Sunbird” name was only applied to the convertible. The rest of them were simply Pontiac 2000s. It was built by ASC, a California-based company famous for making convertibles from coupes, for all of the “Big Three” US automakers, as well as Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and even Porsche. Unfortunately, chopping the top off a unibody coupe renders it about as structurally stiff as a slice of Wonder Bread, but what’s a little cowl shake among friends? It’s powered by a 1.8 liter overhead cam four with throttle-body fuel injection, fancy enough stuff for 1983 that Pontiac saw fit to add those “OHC/FI” badges to the front fenders.

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Unfortunately, this one is suffering. The seller says it has a bad connecting rod bearing, which is about as serious for a car as a ruptured aorta is for a person. The engine still runs, but it isn’t long for this world in its current state. It will need either a complete “bottom end” overhaul, or more likely, just a replacement. There was a time when any junkyard would have plenty of Sunbirds (or Buick Skyhawks) to donate an engine to the cause, but this car is now forty-one years old, and good engines are going to be tough to find. It might be possible to swap in a “122” overhead-valve engine from a Chevy Cavalier, which are more common. You could go nuts and try to drop in an Ecotec four-cylinder engine from a far more modern Chevy Cobalt, but that would probably be more trouble than it’s worth. Personally, I think overhauling the existing engine, if it’s saveable, would be the most rewarding option.

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Whatever the new owner decides to do to save it, I hope they see fit to keep these glorious gold BBS-style basketweave wheels. They absolutely make the car.

2002 Chrysler Sebring Limited – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.7 liter dual overhead cam V6, four-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Vista, CA

Odometer reading: 93,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives, but fails smog, and “has some challenges”

Some cars seem destined for certain purposes. NA- and NB-generation Mazda Miatas were always meant to become the scruffy track-rats that so many of them are today. Buick LeSabres could have been designed in the parking lot of a buffet restaurant offering “Early Bird Specials.” And the Chrysler Sebring convertible only ever really made sense with a fob from Enterprise or Avis attached to its key. There are some who adore these things, but most of us remember them as not-very-noteworthy rental cars in sunny climates.

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That’s not to say it’s a bad car, by any means. Chrysler brought the convertible bodystyle back to the US market in 1982, and kept refining the formula through two generations of LeBarons and three generations of Sebrings. After some early hiccups, mostly due to hangover from the malaise era, Chrysler convertibles got to be pretty nice. This second-generation Sebring is the fancy Limited model, with all the power stuff you could want, and Chrysler’s oft-maligned 2.7 liter V6 and finally-sorted-out Ultradrive four-speed automatic under the hood.

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The 2.7 is notorious for a number of failures, including oil sludge buildup, oil burning through the PCV valve, and the boneheaded water pump design, which places the pump deep inside the engine, driven by the timing chain, rather than externally-mounted and belt-driven like most engines. A water pump leak, not an uncommon failure on any car, means that coolant will mix with the oil, which can have catastrophic results. This one runs all right, but it won’t pass a smog test, which could be related to any of the above, or something else entirely. There’s no telling how deep the rabbit-hole of repairs needed goes.

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It also has a few other non-engine-related items that need fixing, among them a broken interior door handle and a window that’s off-track. But those are easy puttering-around-on-a-Saturday projects.

Once upon a time, I had to rely on old junky cars for transportation. I didn’t learn to fix things for fun; I learned to fix things so I could get around. More times than I care to remember, I stayed up late, in the cold and the dark, mucking around with some $500 shitbox just so I could get to work in the morning. Those days, thankfully, are behind me – but the thing is, I learned a lot. The absolute best way to learn how to fix cars is to buy a cheap broken car and dive in, and find someone to answer your questions. And if you don’t need to finish it right away, and can let it sit when you encounter an obstacle or a setback, it can be a lot of fun. These two are definitely broken, and fairly cheap. Which one are you going to tear apart and fix?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Stephen Walter Gossin
Stephen Walter Gossin
3 months ago

Sebring all the way! Those blue seats were only offered on the Limited trim from ’01-’03 and are wicked hard to find in that condition!

The same sentiment that Marks expressed below towards the J-Bodies is exactly how I feel about the Gen 2 Sebring. Well said, my friend!

“I legitimately like first-generation GM J-bodies like this, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” -Mark Tucker

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
3 months ago

+1 the Sebring looked great when it came out and still does.

I’m with Mark on the not guilty pleasures thing, but Nelson is a bridge too far.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
3 months ago

I saw this Sunbird ad last weekend and almost sent the seller an email. Back in the day, I drove one of the later V6 Sunbird convertibles with the special edition triple-white package … it was flexy, but fun. We’ll bid on the Pontiac, and pass the Sebring to Stevie G.

Last edited 3 months ago by Geoff Buchholz
Zelda Bumperthumper
Zelda Bumperthumper
3 months ago

I would rather own the Sunbird, but it’s nasty to drive and sourcing a replacement engine is going to be damn difficult. The Sebring is terribly uncool, but you’ll actually be able to enjoy it after fixing it. For what it’s worth I did a short stint in 2002 at a Chrysler/Jeep/Plymouth/Delorean dealer, and the Sebring convertible was genuinely the most enjoyable thing to drive on the lot. Not to be confused with the Sebring sedan, which sucked no matter how much the other sales critters tried to pretend it was merely misunderstood and not irredeemably unlovable.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
3 months ago

I did send the Sunbird to my son, but he just bought a different small two seater, a 2005 Ford Ranger.

Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
3 months ago

The Sunbird GT used the same block and maybe even the same valvetrain but added multiport fuel injection and a turbo charger. Converting it like that would be a fun project if it’s possible. 2 grand is too much for an old Sunbird with a rod knocking, though.

Last edited 3 months ago by Rusty S Trusty
Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
3 months ago

Bandit on a budget for me with those gold wheels. Sucker for gold wheels here.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

A new year and yet old options. I didn’t vote because despite the low starting point these are both projects requiring way too much additional time and effort to end up with a craptacularly poor vehicle. IMHO why do the work for an end product you don’t like?

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

That’s exactly why I don’t have kids!

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
3 months ago

Pontiac. Part of me wants to swap a supercharged 3800 if it’ll fit. If not, there are plenty of other 4 cylinders to drop in.

Last edited 3 months ago by Stephen Reed
Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
3 months ago

Sebring…yeah, I actually liked Waterworld and the band Nelson- After The Rain was a hit when I was growing up

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
3 months ago
Reply to  Freelivin1327

Their guitarist Brett Garsed is jaw-dropping.

Turbotictac
Turbotictac
3 months ago

I’ll take the Sunbird. Because at the end of the day, never having to tell anyone I drive a Sebring is worth driving whatever the alternative happens to be.

VermonsterDad
VermonsterDad
3 months ago

I would buy that pontiac if it wasn’t for 2,982 miles. . .would make a nice project and summer beater though.

Griznant
Griznant
3 months ago

My dad bought the very first J2000 that our local dealer got in late ’81. 1.8L, 5-speed stick, silver hatchback with a sunroof.

For that memory alone I voted for the Sebring.

I’m sure it’s garbage, but I don’t KNOW that it’s garbage. The J2000 was one of the worst cars my family ever owned and I KNOW that’s garbage 100%. The Sebring will at least make me believe it’s not until I learn the hard lesson later.

The fact that the Sunbird’s engine is dying is good in that means that no one will be subjected to that gutless POS 1.8L for much longer. You could always swap in a 3.1L and 5-speed from a later one, but you can never eradicate the early 80s GM build quality.

Isis
Isis
3 months ago
Reply to  Griznant

For real, that Sunbird is such a shitbox that they legitimately replaced it with the Sunfire, which was an absolute cat-turd on the sidewalk in the sun kind of vehicle. No thanks. I’ll take the mysteries deep in the heart of 2.7L crapcan any day over the car that the Sunfire was supposed to be better than.

Oldskool
Oldskool
3 months ago

Chrysler is an automatic HELL NO.

Sunbird looks like a decent deal, as long as it’s as clean underneath as it is on top. The 1.8 was garbage, but it’s shot anyway. I’d swap in a flat top 3.1 MPFI, and it’ll be torquey as hell, sound great, and run for the rest of my life. Also it looks like I’d have plenty of interest to sell off the wheels and recoup some money, since I really don’t like them. I’d put on a set of the stock alloys with 5 sets of slots (that Pontiac used on nearly every small FWD car in the 80s and 90s).

Black Peter
Black Peter
3 months ago
Reply to  Oldskool

Au-to-mat-ic! I get shivers just seeing one after owning one (well, my wife’s car) for about 6 horrible months.

Mocamino
Mocamino
3 months ago

I have bad memories of our 1998 Cirrus due to an engine failure at around 166k miles, just a few months after it was paid off. Admittedly, that failure was at least partially my fault, but the memories remain. I’ll take the anemic Poncho.

JDE
JDE
3 months ago

the 2.7 will never be a good engine, I am not really sure if the huge by large 3.5 will sit in that little bay and the trouble to do so is too much trouble as well. I would rather resurrect the little poncho, maybe even upgrade that to an FI 3.8 if that is possible.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
3 months ago

I didn’t feel like commenting today, but the editorial was so enjoyable I couldn’t just read ‘n leave.

I voted the ‘bird not ’cause it’s reminiscent of my ’79 T/A WS6–far from it. There’s just something about a red convertible that’s like one big smooch dissolving all the reality of rod knock, leaky roofs, wet carpets and all things yet to come.

Sometimes one little top-down run with a friend, or even by yourself is worth the ticket price. I guess it comes down to how you feel about a red convertible in your life.

RustyBritmobile
RustyBritmobile
3 months ago

“Chrysler Sebring convertible only ever really made sense with a fob from Enterprise or Avis attached to its key”

Years ago (maybe ’00) my daughter and I went to the University of Colorado for a pre-college visit some time in early spring. I reserved some sort of cheap thing from Enterprise at the Denver Airport, but when we got there they were all out. The clerk said, ‘try this’ – and handed me the keys to a Sebring convertible. OK – Colorado, early spring, probably freezing cold out, but I took it. Well, miraculously, it was sunny and warm. We put the top down in the airport garage and left it down for the whole trip. From that weekend on, CU was it. She did well – now an MD. All because of a Sebring convertible

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
3 months ago

Great story, and serves as proof why there’s nothing wrong with the rental-car strategy these seemingly pursued.

Most of us don’t own convertibles (esp. these days when the choices are small, figuratively and literally), so getting one as a rental makes for a special experience. Or in your example, a special experience made even better.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

Landed in SF once only to find out the person who was to pick me up and chauffeur me around for the next couple days had a family emergency. Decided to get a last minute rental. It was late in the evening, so not much to choose from. Since I was splitting my time between the valley and downtown, I was just hoping for a simple subcompact. Going from desk to desk, all they could offer me was a Town Car. Finally, after explaining it was just me and a bag, one of the agents said, we can give to an RX7 at the same rate. Deal. I think the rate was low because it was a MT. Those are pretty toxic in US rental lots. It also turned out to be a convertible.

I ended up extending my trip and extra day just to go bomb around in the hills and up the coast.

Justin Short
Justin Short
3 months ago

Having had a Sebring convertible with this particular engine, that I junked for an overheating issue, I’ll take the Pontiac at least it’s fixable

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
3 months ago

I voted for the red one. It even has a roof rack on the trunk for added practicality 😛

Easier to swap in a newer GM engine than it is to work on a shitty transverse V6. The Family II was used in lots of cars, and the newer Ecotec engines are a reworked version of it, so it should be easy enough to swap in a 260 hp 2.0T 😉 Or even the basic 2.2/2.4 Ecotec which would still give you twice as much power as stock.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dogisbadob
Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
3 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

This is the answer: Ecotec. That’s a solid little engine and would work well in this car. I’m afraid the 2.0 Turbo would be too much for that weak-ass frame. The Pontiac may be shitty, but it’s fixable. The Cry-slur is irredeemably shitty.

Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
3 months ago

That Sunbird has a basket case of an engine and was never that great to begin with, but it’s so well-preserved from the photos that there HAS to be an interesting story behind it. Was it Grandma’s car that she bought herself when she finally could get something fun? Was it someone’s midlife crisis that screamed out “I need a convertible but I have little extra money!”? Or did it just have an owner who really, really loved it despite all of its flaws?

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
3 months ago

Having miserably dealt with a v6 Sebring (I want to say I replaced his distributor?), I’ll take the Sunbird if at gunpoint. No offense to any fans, but the only thing I like about it is the wheels. Those are old & tacky enough to be awesome.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
3 months ago

I’ll take the Sunbird. Was given a Sebring convertible of that vintage. The top was wrecked and it kept filing with water. The starter circuit fuse would pop periodically when you tried to start it, but when it ran, it ran well. Told my wife it was my mid-life crisis car and started shopping Members Only jackets. She made an appropriate mix tape for it.

I thought drying it out in my barn for a few months would magically fix it but it would pop a fuse randomly, just when I thought it was better. Kids got a few rides around the block in it. Final trip was to the junkyard <1 mile away. Stopped to chat with the neighbor en route and it started overheating and smoking. I had to cut that conversation short. Good riddance!

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