New life and fire

Friday, January 13, 2006

Chevrolet has freshened the 2006 Monte Carlo's styling with new front-end and taillight treatments, but the venerable body shape is still instantly identifiable as one of racing's most popular nameplates. Debuting in 1970 at the height of the muscle-car era, the Monte Carlo was an immediate success at a time when GM claimed almost half of the North American car market. It was Chevrolet's offering for drivers who wanted a sporty coupe that provided a balance of performance and comfort. The performance crowd back then had their Camaros, and the comfort crowd had their Malibus and Impalas. Monte Carlo was for the guy who wanted a bit of both.

And, for a little more cash, buyers could make their Montes into something that even Dale Earnhardt would appreciate. The Super Sport Monte Carlos of the 1970s had one of two 454-cubic-inch V-8s, beefed-up suspensions and "SS" badges inside and out. In 2002 a limited edition SS Dale Earnhardt Signature Edition was released with a run of 3,333 units. The late Earnhardt was a force to be reckoned with every Sunday. When his black Monte Carlo No. 3 appeared on the track, fans swooned. He made the Monte Carlo the winningest nameplate in the history of the NASCAR Winston Cup, and today it is still a favorite.

The original Monte Carlo was a front-engine, rear-drive vehicle, but that design was lost over the years as emissions, safety and gas mileage requirements took their toll. A new model was released in '73, but the SS option was dropped. Another revision came in '78 when the car became smaller, but retained the arcing lines and long hood/short rear deck appearance of its predecessors. More changes followed and eventually the model went away completely in 1988 when it was replaced by the Lumina coupe. But good things never die, and the Monte Carlo returned in 1995, but with front-wheel drive coupled to tepid V-6 engines.

Fast forward to 2006 and GM has breathed new life and fire into the Monte Carlo. For the first time in many years a Monte Carlo can be had with a high-tech V-8 engine producing 303 horsepower. And the best part is, it gets the same gas mileage as the V-6 versions, thanks to variable displacement technology! Because only four of the eight cylinders are activated during some driving conditions, the vehicle achieves an estimated 28-mpg/highway. This engine is standard on SS models, which also feature race-inspired instrument panels and indicators to tell the driver whether the engine is operating in 8-cylinder or 4-cylinder mode. The new engine features polymer-coated pistons that reduce engine wear and contribute to quiet operation. The engine uses drive-by-wire technology that replaces the mechanical link between the accelerator pedal and the engine. The cylinder heads were originally developed for the Corvette Z06, their pent-roof combustion chambers delivering higher horsepower than some other designs. Intake manifolds are of a composite material.

New V-6 engines this year also harken back to the performance days of the Monte Carlo: a 3.9-liter engine in my LTZ test car produced 242-horsepower and 242 ft.-lb. of torque. The standard 3.5-liter produces 211-horsepower. Both of these engines feature advanced variable valve timing that uses an electronic camshaft phaser to maximize power outputs.

The aluminum engines sit in a new extruded aluminum engine cradle that stiffens the vehicle and helps isolate road noise and engine vibration. The new engines can be started before you even enter the vehicle: all Monte Carlos, except the base LS, feature a factory-installed remote vehicle starter system that lets you pre-warm or pre-cool the interior.

And what a pleasant interior the new car has! Larger than a Mustang, the Monte Carlo seats five. Restyled front bucket seats are bolstered for performance driving. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and comfortable rear seats with integral headrests contribute to the 98 cubic-foot interior. A new standard feature is OnStar with a one-year plan providing 24-hour access to GM advisors who can help in a variety of situations.

This two-door coupe comes in four trim levels: LS, LT, LTZ and SS. The LS model comes with 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, power door locks and windows, a tilt steering wheel and remote keyless entry. The LT model includes the larger V-6 engine, dual stainless steel exhaust, dual-zone manual air conditioning and the remote vehicle starter. The LTZ that I tested includes an upgraded audio system, 17-inch alloys, heated leather bucket seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The SS offers the V-8 engine, 18-inch wheels, a performance suspension and full-perimeter ground effects.

Antilock brakes and traction control are standard on the LT, LTZ and the SS; they're optional on 3.5L-equipped cars. Front-seat side airbags are optional on all Monte Carlos.

The 2006 V-6 Chevrolet Monte Carlo handles as well as most other front-wheel-drive cars, and better than some. Torque steer was not an issue, but I'd be surprised if it doesn't rear its head in the V-8 SS. (I've not seen a 300-plus-horsepower front-wheel-drive car that doesn't have a torque-steer issue.) The big V-6 engine I drove has the type of satisfying performance that will please most buyers. The car provided a quiet, pleasant ride, and had the cargo room (15.8 cu. ft.) and passenger room (largest in its class) to suit just about any family.

This test vehicle was provided through the courtsey of Coad Chevrolet of Cape Girardeau.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at Steve@RobertsonsPhotography.com.

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