It has a racey new look, a catchy new name and a bold new attitude. "It" is Pontiac Motor Div.'s version of the General Motors Corp.'s revamped J platform -- Sunfire.

The new Pontiac J model, called Sunbird in previous interations, takes more than the flame reference from its Firebird big brother in GM's "excitement" stable. Aerodynamic front-end styling gives Sunfire its family resemblance and the car's performance characteristics also point to its genetics.

One of the most impressive things about the new Sunfire and sister Cavalier is a nearly complete lack of idle shake and some very nimble handling. Engineers at Gm's Lansing Automotive Div. accomplish these feats with a new rigid body structure resulting in reduced front-to-rear bending (beaming) and twisting (torsional frequency). The car's coil-over-shock suspension system helps give drivers a race car-esque road feel and affords passengers a reasonably comfortable ride.

Other driver-friendly features of note on our black Sunfire SE Coupe test car include the smooth-shifting manual gearbox, easy-to-read, no-nonsense instrument cluster and a spirited 2.2L OHV 4-cyl. base powerplant that can create a wee bit of torque steer when pushing to the envelope. Pontiac also offers a beefier 150-hp 2.3L Quad 4 in the upscale GT Coupe and as an option in other SE coupe, sedan and convertible models. The base SE comes with 3-speed automatic, but an optional 4-speed is offered.

Sister Chevy Cavalier gets the same engine and transmission choices in coupe, sedan and Z-24 trim levels. Chevy's offering comes in an inch and a half shorter than the Pontiac, and interior treatments appear a bit more spartan in the Cavalier.

A ride in a 3-speed base-engine Cavalier sedan seemed a bit buzzy. But the same trip around the block in the base Sunfire Coupe with 5-speed produced a quiter ride (or maybe the throatier sound from the 5-speed manual was masking some of our basic distaste for 3-speed automatics). Both Cavalier and Sunfire strike a similar stance in 4-door sedan versions, but styling becomes a little more distinctive in coupe models, with both bearing strong hints of their Camaro and Firebird lineage.

Inside, both Sunfire and Cavalier seats offer plenty of support in quick-turn situations and the platform's heater unit is particularly fast-acting. Dash lines are sleek and controls are much more conveniently placed than their predecessors. Even rear-seat passengers (often overlooked in this segment) have amenities, including cup holders and heat and air conditioning ducts.

In all, the 1995 Sunfire and Cavalier are quantum leaps ahead of the originals. Although some pre-production models in circulation show the scars of the rough startup at the Lordstown, OH assembly plant (see WAW -- April '95, p. 23), ours had no fit-and-finish problems other than a twisted safety belt and cassette tape slots in the center console of a vehicle equipped with a CD player.