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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Viewing the mule in person, one almost instantly notices the increased width. It’s almost like the body was dropped on a chassis a bit too large for its dimensions—but that’s intentional. The car was built to replicate the chassis dimensions of the concept car, so the track width is kicked out a significant amount.

Unlike many of the mules before it, the Piranha/Sunfire had a new lease on life. Due to product-liability issues, these cars were normally destroyed after their tour of duty was completed, but some became part of the GM Heritage Collection—like this one.

If anything good can be said about the financial woes GM experienced leading up to its bankruptcy and reorganization, it did see many one-of-a-kind vehicles sold off that likely would have been otherwise destroyed. In order to show the federal government that it was working hard to fix its money troubles in the months before the bankruptcy, GM partnered with the Barrett-Jackson auction house to release approximately 150 “non-essential” vehicles from the Heritage Collection at a 2008 Las Vegas auction. This prototype was sold, while the actual Piranha remained with GM.

It was eventually sold to American Classic Motor Cars in Ocala, Florida. Owner Richard Clark bid $10,450 and became the winner of the auction. His partner, Josh Hart, runs the business on a daily basis. “It’s a phenemonal car, very understated—until you drive it.” He said that it ran a 13.4 at 101.75 mph in the quarter-mile. “We tested it just a couple of weeks ago at Gainesville.”

He added that there were some minor electrical problems and the odometer didn’t work. It’s believed to have more than the 43 test miles that the odometer shows.

Unfortunately, the Piranha concept remained just that—a one-off that, from a marketing standpoint, was replaced by the Pontiac Vibe, sending buyers off into uncharted frontiers of Toyota-based mediocrity. Even the promise of an upgraded Sunfire never came to be, though a version of the supercharged powertrain found its way into the first Chevy Cobalt SS, before switching to a more powerful EcoTech turbo combination.

As usual in that period, Pontiac did all the heavy lifting and received little for its efforts.

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