Boost Coupe: 1990 Pontiac Sunbird GT Turbo

I have fond memories of a high school friend who owned a Sunbird GT convertible, a completely accidental find on the owner’s part. It was a winter car to accompany his Trans Am project, and as a Pontiac enthusiast, a Sunbird GT seemed like the purist’s choice for a winter beater; the soft top, not so much. Too bad he didn’t know about this hardtop coupe for sale here on craigslist for $2,000. Thanks to Barn Finds reader Cole for the find; go here if the ad disappears.

My mind was blown a few months ago when we realized that the Sunbird could be ordered as a GT without the Turbo mill; those cars still had the GT badging but the turbocharged LT3 motor was deleted. Seems to ignore the point of the package, to my mind, but thankfully this example in Colorado has the 165 b.h.p. boosted four-cylinder under the hood. The rear spoiler and fog lamps were hallmarks of a later GT; the concealed headlights were also adapted from exposed units on the earlier cars.

In addition to being a hardtop, this Sunbird GT Turbo is also a 5-speed, a nice improvement over my buddy’s automatic convertible. It’s strange to think these cars didn’t get nearly as much attention as the VW GTI or Acura Integra of the same era; however, while the numbers looked good, the Sunbird couldn’t deliver on the pure driving dynamics of the other hotted-up econoboxes of the day. Still, this one looks quite nice and the interior is holding up well despite 152,000 miles being on the clock.

Under the hood, the painted valve cover and Turbo housing were attempts by Pontiac to make the Turbo models stand out a bit more; in the case of this example, the underhood cosmetics are surprisingly decent. The seller doesn’t elaborate much on condition, other than to say it was never driven hard and the motor is dry with no evident oil leaks. These cars will likely never appreciate much, but they are a nice alternative to a Probe GT or a Fiero if you’re hunting for a sporty domestic coupe.

Comments

  1. elrod

    These engines ran VERY strong for their day. I was dealer tech at the time. Weak points were head gasket leaks, water pumps failures and turbo issues. Later versions solved the turbo problem when they went to a water cooled center bearing. They torque steered HARD. With a 5 speed, these things were a blast to drive. This engine was a diesel in other GM countries. They updated the compression and head for the gas motors. The bottom end of these things is indestructible. The Pontiac with the retractable headlamps is da bomb.

    Like 1
    • SAM61

      Nice find…brings back memories of our “85 Cavalier 2.0 notchback coupe…very reliable (except alternators), ran it up to 130,000 miles. Chevy had the 2.8 6 cylinder as an option…not sure if offered in Buick, Pontiac or Olds version.

      Hard to go wrong for $2,000….good student car or drive cheap for 12-18 months.

  2. Andrew not amember

    Wow one still alive great !

  3. CanuckCarGuy

    These 2.0 turbos actually make a nice swap for the 2.5 Iron Duke in the Fieros, if one was so inclined. Back in the day the uniqueness of owning an Acura, combined with the Integra’s refinement and powertrain smoothness made it hard to ignore.

  4. CCFisher

    Like the Gaelic Banshee wail, the shriek of the turbocharger on these cars foretold death. Death of the head gasket, death of the welded exhaust manifold, death of the turbo bearings….

    Had an ’84 hatchback with the 1.8 turbo and a 4-speed. Quick for its day, but not at all reliable. This one would be a fun cruiser, but I wouldn’t try to make it a driver.

  5. AMCFAN

    Nice find. Too bad that GM didn’t embrace these 4 cylinder turbos and further develop along with the Quad 4 engines. They might have had the upper hand on the tuner car market that was already starting when this car was made. Again out in left field when Honda made the SI

    Several logical reasons why. One certainly is that small cars are not profitable and as stated by the company in 2008 could care less about even building them.

    The next is a Super tuned 4 cyl. econo box putting the hammer on their very own (laughable) 305 powered Camaro Z28 and Firebird Trans Am would be quite embarrassing.

    Like 1
  6. DayDreamBeliever Alan (Michigan)

    Back when these were new, they were campaigned relatively successfully in SCCA autocross. Fun to drive, pretty quick, and with good tires and shocks, handled decently as well.

  7. Classic Steel

    Cheap enough price for nice purchase 👍

    I personally would throw this small sunfish back for s bigger fish but see how someone could want to keep it .

  8. 68custom

    when these run they run strong, but sadly not so reliable.

  9. glenn

    that car here in the orlando area has nothing but negative stigma onit from the casey anthony trial its where the dead baby was

    • DweezilAZ

      That was a Sunfire.

      Like 1
  10. morrisangelo

    Had a black & blue 87 GT turbo convertible. Fun car and a chick magnet back in the day, but my 2.0T grenaded it’s head. Huge cracks between the valves made for some lovely thick white exhaust smoke.

  11. Maestro1 Member

    Good find. Nice car. Potentially a blast.

  12. Llew Keller

    “It’s hard to believe that the Sunbird didn’t attract the attention of the VW GTI or Integra.” Seriously? How about because the Sunbird was a homely Cavalier clone. I’m willing to believe this model was a sleeper, but even the few good GM cars of the era were disguised in a huge sea of mediocre copycat GM crap.
    I rented a Cavalier once. It was so awful – slow, wallowy, and uncomfortable to sit in, that I took it back and willingly paid for an upgrade.

  13. ed9871

    Correct color, but Casey Anthony had a Sunfire.

  14. djkenny

    Soft chassis, cheap plastic interior, just a poor design. A GTI or Integra were 10 folds more refined and well screwed together. But it would be fun to feel that boost, albeit not very reliable, and many parts will be obsolete that are particular to the turbo mill.

    I recall when I needed a new distributor for my 87 turbo Sprint even in 1999. Specific, and only avail reman (ordered 1 it did not work, ordered another.. it worked). Needed a turbo base gasket around that same year. No longer available.

    It was a good car and so fun. But the reality of no longer finding parts for your Driver can get Old. Real FAST.

    Early turbo cars are a No No.

    Where’s that sweet Toyota FX-16 that was featured??? Damn, that is a proper hot hatch. Those and the MK2 GTI in 8v or 16v guise are the best of the best.

  15. Chrisssssssss

    That would be a nice little car. I have a ’90 Red Olds Cutlass Calais International with the Quad4 (180hp version) 5sp. I wonder which car would have been faster?

  16. Miguel

    I like the car but hate the dash.

    In Mexico this car was sold with this body and the Cavalier dash. That was a much better combination. Most, if not all, of them had the V6 rather than any of the four cylinders.

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