A brace of Auto Meter gauges,...
A brace of Auto Meter gauges, which monitor speed and rpm in one unit, as well as oil and boost pressure, coolant temperature, and fuel level, replaced the stock gauge cluster.
The world of the developmental mule cars is much like ghost writing for a famous celebrity—you do all the hard lifting and take all the bumps and bruises, only for the star to get all the accolades. Such is the case with this particular Pontiac Sunfire. Its story is one of those where the true qualities of the vehicle are somewhat lost by its rather plebian platform. True, this prototype Sunfire has a lot of boy racer-style wings and graphics, but its true beauty is very much under the skin.
First, a word about the Pontiac Piranha. It was the follow-up concept to the ’99 GTO and Aztek prototypes, and pointed to a new direction in active lifestyle vehicles that GM’s designers were dreaming up. This vehicle combined the athletic nature of a “hot hatch” with the versatility of a small SUV. Like many of the concepts Pontiac built during this period, it could have been a segment-defining product like the ’64 GTO was—if the upper management had the guts to release it. Instead, it was another great idea watered down to nearly unrecognizable levels.
Leather bucket seats with black sides and yellow seating surfaces adorn the interior. The stock steering wheel was replaced with a Piranha steering wheel. Paddle shifters are mounted on the steering column, making for instantaneous gear changes, and the stock console features a block-off plate where the shifter used to be.
The Piranha mule began as a pre-production ’97 Sunfire, and as such, received a VIN with an EX suffix, indicating it was not for sale. It was sent to Pontiac Special Vehicle Engineering, where it was built up under the direction of SVE Manager Tom Goad. The idea was to replicate the mechanical aspects of the Piranha, while being able to drive it around without attracting the attention of spy photographers. A show car and this mule were built.
This Piranha Mule Car started...
This Piranha Mule Car started life as a pre-production ’97 Sunfire, and was treated to a host of mechanical and visual upgrades. It escaped the crusher through the 2008 Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas auction.
Its powertrain was identical to the show car, and featured a supercharged version of the 2.2L GM EcoTech four-cylinder before the now-familiar engine family was released for production. It used an Eaton supercharger and an air-to-liquid intercooler to generate 212 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque.
A modified 4T65E-HD front-drive transaxle, with custom internal pieces developed by GM Racing’s front-drive racing team, was employed. This trans was not available in the Sunfire, so it took fabrication to fit it in the small J-body chassis. It also featured a unique Formula-1–style paddle-shifter system later found in the Grand Prix GTP Comp G package, which was released for the ’04 model year.
Before the engine family was...
Before the engine family was even announced, the supercharged 2.2L EcoTech four-cylinder was installed. It features an Eaton supercharger kit, air-to-liquid intercooler and a K&N air filter. It is connected to a modified 4T65E-HD transaxle.
A TCI electronic transmission...
A TCI electronic transmission control unit allows for custom calibration of shift points, line pressure, and other functions. This unit was used in the NHRA compact drag cars that GM was campaigning at the time.
With an air duct leading to...
With an air duct leading to the air filter, the Ram Air hood is functional, though the filter is not separated from the rest of the engine compartment with an airbox.
Changes under the skin continue with custom front and rear independent suspensions. The stock Sunfire rear suspension is a semi-independent system that uses a torsion beam design, so a true IRS upgrade greatly improved handling. All four corners feature double-adjustable Koni shock absorbers and six-piston Brembo brakes with two-piece cross-drilled rotors. Rolling stock consists of 18-inch Focal aluminum wheels shod with Goodyear Eagle GS F1 rubber.
In order to keep the undersized...
In order to keep the undersized motorcycle battery fresh, a built-in battery charger is used. The AC plug hangs free near the front of the car.
To today’s viewer, the mule car’s exterior looks a little dated, but that’s actually the charm of a prototype car—it’s a snapshot of what was once the cutting edge. Owing to the then-burgeoning import tuner field, the Piranha reflects many of the customizing cues in-vogue at the time. The Sunfire features a dual-snorkel Ram Air hood, large wheel flares and a rear wing that mimics the one used on the later Toyota Supra. A pair of projector-beam headlamps on each side replaced the single fixed production units.
Originally an aqua color, the Sunfire was repainted yellow with large red and matte black graphics. Its engine compartment is also matte black—it’s body-colored on production cars. Dark window tinting rounds out the visual package.