Chevrolet Monte Carlo gets a little muscle for 2004

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For years the Monte Carlo has been the great poseur.

The Chevrolet coupe, the biggest winner in NASCAR history, has come decked out in Dale Earnhardt colors and has also been sold as a Jeff Gordon edition. Marketing muck and worse since the Monte Carlo that has been offered to the public is about as far removed from NASCAR as a go-cart.

Granted, the Monte Carlo is a pleasant enough ride and many Americans, and many NASCAR fans have found it a classy coupe that will seat four adults comfortably. But when you go and stick the #3 on the side and outfit it with special black paint and insignias, you expect some bite to go along with the bark.

General Motors has created several special editions, all with the venerable 3.8-liter 200 horsepower pushrod V-6, the top engine in the Monte Carlo for several years, but those folks who drive a Monte with Jeff Gordon’s #24 displayed on the side shouldn’t take leave of their senses at the stoplight. The every day V-6 four-door Nissan Altima will dust them.

Thankfully Chevrolet has changed things a bit for the 2004 model year. At last the Monte Carlo can be purchased in a SS format with the supercharged version of the 3.8-liter V-6 that generates 240 horsepower. It’s the same configuration has been available in the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Buick Regal for several years.

It’s not a lot, but at least now there is a little bite in the street version Monte Carlo. But
it is still a far cry from the Monte Carlo’s heyday in 1971 when the SS insignia indicated there was a smoking 365-horsepower big block V-8  under the hood with a beefed-up suspension to match.

That muscle car Monte Carlo went the way of the dinosaur in 1973, the victim of tougher U.S. emissions standards.

We are delighted Chevrolet finally put the modest performance-oriented V-6 under the Monte Carlo’s hood, something it should have done years ago. But wouldn’t it be interesting to take it a stop further with a 5.7-liter V-8 option? That would indeed put NASCAR on the street.

General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz indicated in November that V-8 power might soon be returned to Pontiac in the Grand Am replacement, the G6 and the Grand Prix. Lutz should also consider a V-8 for the Monte Carlo, which, after all, is the most recognizable shape on NASCAR tracks. And Pontiac isn’t going to be there anymore.

But for now let’s rejoice in the extra horsepower available this model year. What does it mean for the Monte? It means a new urgency, particularly off the line and in passing and merging situations. We found the Monte Carlo supercharged SS a very satisfying if not exhilarating drive. The same engine in the Grand Prix, a car with about the same dimensions, is capable of 0 to 60-time of 6.7 seconds and a quarter mile time of 15 seconds at 91 miles per hour. Not world-beaters, but okay for what it is.

Figure about the same for the new Monte. And that’s about a second better than the 200-horsepower engine from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour.

Let’s be clear - speed certainly isn’t everything in a car and it isn’t the biggest selling point for the new Monte Carlo, either. But we believe that if you strike a NASCAR pose as General Motors has done with its coupe, then it should have the goods to back up that persona.

The Monte Carlo, with sales of about 65,000 units a year, has a lot of other good things going for it including a relatively inexpensive price, a wonderfully designed interior with wide and comfortable seats, space for four adults to travel in comfort and a very compliant ride. In fact they should drop the SS designation off the non-supercharged version – it’s embarrassing.

It now comes in three trim levels - the LS with a 3.4-liter 180-horsepower V-6, the SS with the 3.8-liter 200-horsepower engine and the new top-of-the-line supercharged edition.

Prices start at $22,075 for the LS, which is well equipped. The SS starts at $24,475 and the SS Supercharged begins at $27,795.

Even with the extra horsepower, the Monte Carlo is in no way a sports coupe although the suspension has been lowered and firmed up on the supercharged edition and 17-inch wheels added. It still remains more of a touring coupe with well-boosted power steering and a comfortable ride.

The old-style coupe design is still in evidence, particularly when entering and exiting the rear seats. Passengers are forced to go over or under the front shoulder belts that are still anchored to the B pillar.

Our supercharged test car was loaded with standard equipment including four-wheel antilock brakes, dual-zone climate control, power windows and doorlocks, remote keyless entry, tire inflation monitor and a stereo system with cassette player.

A side passenger airbag is not offered even as an option. And Chevy should be ashamed to force its customers to purchase the upgraded sound system just to get a compact disc player.

Options included a $1,960 preferred equipment package that included upgraded stereo, power driver and passenger seats, OnStar communications system, trip computer and heated seats.

Leather seating was another $625 extra. XM radio added another $325 and a driver-side side-impact airbag, $325. That brought the bottom line to  $31,055. There are a lot of cars you can buy with that kind of money and you really need to be in love with an American coupe to spend it on the Monte Carlo.

But the Monte Carlo, which has been in production off and on since 1970, continues to be a viable option if a nearly full-sized coupe is your driving preference.

And now for the first time in years you can flavor it with some serious horsepower.