When given the keys to the Pontiac Sunfire SE coupe, I decided that the best way to test this car's mettle was to take it to Buffalo to visit my sister.

I liked the sleek race-car look of the front and the spoiler on the back leading you to believe that this car had a fiery engine. The sleek design is new for 2001. The manual tranny with the standard 2.2-liter overhead-valve engine that produces 115 hp and 135 lb-ft of torque, had passable oomph. You can trade up and get the GT coupe model, which offers 150 hp and 155 lb-ft of torque with a 2.4-liter twin cam engine.

The car handled well on the snowy trip to Buffalo, although I have to say there were a few times that I felt a bit out of control, especially with high winds whipping across the highway. I also found the sensitive steering annoying. Just changing a CD caused the car to veer off the road or into another lane. I've never had that problem with my own car, so I know it's not my driving.

The interior was gray, or what they called graphite. I liked the cloth seats, the pattern was nice and they were very comfortable. In fact that was the first thing my roommate mentioned when I gave her a ride. My sister climbed into the backseat for a ride and found it very cramped and uncomfortable.

The one thing I've always liked about Pontiacs is the amber-lit dash. Also on this car, the lights dim after the car is locked, so that you have a little light to work with after dark. The dash was easy to read and the knobs were well placed.

Our test-drive car had what GM calls the "Sun and Sound Package," which included, obviously, a sunroof, AM/FM stereo with compact-disc player, equalizer, RDS, and six speaker sound. The surround-sound setup would have been nice had I not nearly killed myself and other drivers trying to switch discs.

The total price of the Sunfire comes to $16,210, which includes $2,555 for the Sun and Sound package. An automatic transmission bumps the price to $17,000.

The Sunfire is marketed to the 35-year-old and under set. And for an inexpensive car, it has a lot of nice features. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a sporty car on a budget.

Heather Milgate