By on February 18, 2019

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsSince The General built cars on the J Platform from the 1982 through 2005 model years, I still see numerous examples of the J during my junkyard travels. Most of those are late-production Cavaliers and Sunfires — not so interesting — but today we’ve got a genuine high-performance Sunbird bearing one of the most important words of the 1980s: TURBO!

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, engine - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsFor 1989, the Sunbird Turbo had genuine power: 165 Garrett-blown horsepower out of a 2.0-liter SOHC Opel four. That gave the Sunbird Turbo pilot plenty of torque-steering, tire-squealing fun in a car that weighed just 2,422 pounds (about the same as a 2019 Toyota Yaris).

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, gearshift - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMost of these cars were ruined by a three-speed automatic transmission, but the original buyer of this one (wisely) selected the five-speed manual.

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, boost gauge - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIf you were going to sell turbocharged machine in 1989, you had to provide a brightly-colored BOOST gauge, preferably marked for pressure levels your engine would never see.

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, front view - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsPop-up headlights were all the rage as well. If we’re going to get nit-picky here, these retractable headlight eyebrows don’t really count as true pop-ups.

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, hood vents - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsMean-looking hood vents? Got ’em!

1989 Pontiac Sunbird Turbo in Colorado wrecking yard, cannabis dispensary sticker - ©2019 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis one had more than 180,000 miles on the clock when it came to this place, and it’s good and rough. One of the indicators that a Colorado car is junkyard-bound in the very near future is the presence of stickers from cannabis dispensaries on the exterior; I’d say that a good 25 percent of cars in this yard feature such stickers (generally combined with brewery stickers).


Putting more heat on the street.

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59 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1989 Pontiac Sunbird GT Turbo...”


  • avatar
    jatz

    Pick you personal Malaise Era.

    For me it was the ’80s with the featureless, pointy snoot, angular look that this little car hadn’t yet escaped.

    So many rolling doorstops back then.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      Corey’s past two Rare Rides from the 1990s had me again remembering just how awesome these “doorstops” and “jellybeans” from about 1983-2000 looked; especially in the evening shots with their parking lights on and the setting sun gleaming on their smooth rounded flanks.

      In comparison, today’s cars looks like the cheerleader from high school who has had way too many plastic surgeries, has gained 100 pounds, and is chowing down on a huge plate of food at Golden Corral. All you can do is look and think “what happened?”

      • 0 avatar
        jatz

        I loved the jellybeans, especially the Taurus and Sable wagons.

        Just not doorstops.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          We rented a 2017 Fusion awhile back, I parked it next to my 1995 Taurus wagon, and compared back and forth between them.

          You would be surprised how much of a wedge shape a Taurus has compared to the catfish mouth of a Ford Fusion. THey just thought the 1996-1999 Taurus looked like a catfish…

          • 0 avatar
            jatz

            Yeah, I made jokes back then like “needs whiskers” too, but I still loved them.

            As to anything non-truck built after, say, 2010, I’ve completely given up on liking their looks.

            I mean, I imprinted on the gorgeous cars of the early mid-’60s.

          • 0 avatar
            jatz

            Derp… early and mid-’60s.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    It’s amazing that car companies are now getting close to 300hp out of a 2.0L turbo and back then only 165hp out of the same size engine

    I’ll bet those hood vents added at least 1 or 2hp. Too bad there’s no stripes for added oomph

    • 0 avatar
      jatz

      Like HP is an unqualified good worth any compromise or consequence to achieve.

      Look at all the bloated mental larvae careening around you in 300+HP vehicles today. In parking lots.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        I’d still rather have 300hp then 165hp even if the only place I use that power is getting on an expressway or passing on a 2-lane hwy. Nothing scarier then a under powered car when you’re trying to merge into 80mph traffic or pass a semi

        • 0 avatar
          MiataReallyIsTheAnswer

          Pass a semi?!? LOL! Dood (or doodette), these things hauled butt. TONS of TQ. I had the same engine in a 2-door Grand Am, with the automatic which was actually very well suited to a turbo app. You’d punch it at a light, begin to cross the intersection, and halfway across the fat little 215/60/14 Eagle GTs (yes of course raised white letter) would just go up in smoke. Good times.

          And a Sunchicken weighed even less than mine.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            Yes, 165hp on a 2400lb car is fine, I had a Maxima 4DSC with a V6 rated at the same hp and it was plenty fast, but there are a lot of 4000lb. crossovers today with that same hp and those are scary slow

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            I had a 4000lb Acadia with the base 2.5L as a rental. Excruciatingly unrefined and unsatisfying? Yes. Scary or unable to get out of its own way? Not at all.

        • 0 avatar
          Superdessucke

          I agree we’ve come a long way on the power but you have to put things into perspective. This probably weighs about half of what the typical 300 HP modern CUV weighs, so that new motor has to lug around about twice as much weight, equating to roughly the same performance. I mean personally, I would rather have less horsepower and less weight equating to better overall performance.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      @Lie2me

      It may be only 165 hp, but it only has to push around (okay, pull, since it’s FWD) 2,422 pounds.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        True, I’m just surprised at how much more hp they get out of today’s turbo 4 then they did back then

        • 0 avatar
          ToddAtlasF1

          The new Audi A4 2.0T has 188 hp. That’s not much in the way of progress. https://www.motortrend.com/news/next-gen-audi-a4-to-feature-new-188-hp-2-0l-engi/
          It wouldn’t surprise me to see power start falling away again as CAFE creeps up.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            There are actually two different 2.0Ts in the A4 – the base, FWD model is the one you’re talking about. The AWD model comes with 248 hp. My A3 has 220 hp, and it pretty much flies.

          • 0 avatar
            conundrum

            @Todd

            The latest 2.0t Audi making 188 hp is the same coarse warbler they fit to the base A3/A4/Q3 and tellingly the Tiguan. It is the Budack cycle engine, and it’s economical as all get out, according to VW/Audi. In real life it doesn’t want to rev much past 4500 rpm, is coarse at these middling-high revs and gets so-so mileage. A triumph! Not. Even the Europeans complain about it in the Tiguan as not being able to keep up with autobahn traffic.

            Surely by now, most people have heard of this low grade grunter, it’s been called out often enough on this blog and everywhere else. Called out because it is a prime example of how to take a nice 2.0t and make it into a nasty 2.0t merely by the addition of a whiz-bang cylinder head that doesn’t work well. Avoid. I tried one in a base A3 and it’s bloody awful.

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Not just more power, but more livability. I never drove this particular car, but I did drive any number of its’ contemporaries. The power delivery on turbos in that era was like a light switch – all on, or all off. Turbos today are far easier to live with.

          Tech improves the breed – same for larger contemporary engines as well.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I’ve never driven any late 80s turbo, but the turbo engines of today still seem pretty “all on” or “all off”. It’s just that now the “all on” is right off the line and the “all off” is higher up the tach. There’s definitely still a lack of linear power delivery compared to a modern naturally-aspirated engine.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            NA engines are definitely the way to go, but turbos have improved dramatically over the years.

            On old-school turbos, you’d get absolutely nothing until about 3500 rpm, then the turbo would do its’ afterburner imitation, and shove you right back in your seat. It was fun, but with FWD cars, there was torque steer, which meant that if the wheel was a fraction off center, the second the turbo kicked in, the car would point HARD in that direction, pulling you off course. On a high-powered small turbo car like a GLH turbo, you could get yourself into serious trouble pretty quickly. I actually looked at a GLH turbo that did this on a test drive. I passed on it (probably a very wise decision for someone who didn’t have a SCCA license ).

            The power delivery today is FAR more linear *within a certain limited RPM range*. The boost hits and ends earlier. But since the turbo’s basically “on” everywhere from 1500 to 5000 rpms – the range people basically live in every day – it’s far more livable, and easier to deal with if you’re driving quickly.

            But if you tried out a car like the one in this article, you’d see exactly what I’m talking about. It was fun, but it was also more than a little bit scary. If I’d bought that GLH, I guarantee you I’d have wrapped it up in very short order.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            “NA engines are definitely the way to go, but turbos have improved dramatically over the years.”

            I’m surprised to hear that statement from you as someone who lives “at altitude” as I do.

            I’ve been pretty happy with the turbos I’ve driven since getting to the Mountain West.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            I don’t think anything really matches a big-displacement NA engine for power or flexibility. But the key words are “big-displacement.”

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            @Freed – accurate

            I won’t touch a LWB Transit Connect passenger just because the tiny 4 is NA only.

            Gimme the 2.0T that Ford uses many other places and I’d rock that sucker as a family hauler with a smile on my face.

            I’ll be driving the Lacrosse and Impala before making my next purchase. We’ll see how they are at high altitude.

            I know today’s turbos are kind of diesel like in their power delivery and that’s sort of the attraction for me. I hate having to push the Highlander to redline to access the torque. Doesn’t help that it sounds about as unhappy as my 307 V8 Oldsmobile being forced to rev like that.

    • 0 avatar

      All to do with boost pressure and engine design. I had a Callaway Scirocco…max boost with good fuel was 8, usually turned back to 6 pounds. Detonation was controlled like in WW2, with methanol injection (wiper fluid).
      SAAB turbo, the ur-900 did about 10 pounds, and had an intercooler, which made all the difference. Also, water jacketed turbos made them a lot more reliable. My GLH Turbo also 8-10, but with no intercooler it was a sprint not a marathon.
      Rented an ecotech mustang, and was floored at the 14-18 lb max boost showings, but here we have direct injection, multiple firing ignition, intercoolers, and well thought out combustion chambers-near 300 hp !!

      Even my 1.4 VW has a turbo and intercooler (tiny). They choose to make it act torquey-if I cared I’d tune it for giggles.

      It took the turbo quite a while to go from expensive toy lashed on the side of your engine to the base engine in a cheap VW….

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        I had a ’17 Jetta with the 1.4T as a daily driver – it’s a damn good little engine. The biggest problem with that car’s performance was that it was geared too tall to really take advantage of the engine. The tradeoff was excellent MPG – I used to get 34 mpg in mixed driving (with my heavy foot, no less), and on the highway, with the A/C off, you could touch 40 at a steady-state 80 mph.

        Apparently the engine can be tuned, but invalidating the powertrain warranty on a VW probably makes about as much sense as doing your own dental work.

      • 0 avatar
        Featherston

        First off, points to FreedMike for having test driven a GLH, and lots of points to speedlaw for having owned one.

        @ FreedMike – I can’t remember if you explained this in a different thread. Why the past tense with such a recent model year of Jetta? Did you have an accident, or did you just decide to get rid of it?

        I’m not in the market right now, but VW would be on the list if I were. The conservative styling and the fact that the Golf and (more surprisingly) the Jetta have actual room in the rear seat are factors in the brand’s favor. And my very limited anecdotal evidence is that reliability is on the uptick (2010ish CC, bad; 2014 Bug, relatively good).

  • avatar
    deanst

    Well, I know where to go the next time my dryer vent breaks.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    It has a Genuine Dickies seat cover on the front passenger seat.

  • avatar

    On the dispensary sticker….do what ????

    Favorite license plates seen in the wild

    I LUV RUM
    STOLIS

    Why give the cop PC to search, or at least think about looking at your eyes and smelling you ?

  • avatar
    ablenotready

    Had one of these. A 1986 version. I believe it was rated at 150 horsepower before the increase to 165. White 4 door sedan and I remember reading somwhere that it was structurally one of gm’s tightest bodies with the a,b and c pillars on such a short vehicle. So I picked it up new from the dealership one rainy night, (mistake), and after talking with the salesman I happily drove it home.
    Next day I took some more time to pour thru the car and noticed that the right front fender was a slightly different shade of white than the rest of the car. I called the salesman, Kevin, and informed him of this. He said that is unusual. I asked could it have been repsrayed at some point. He said unlikely, (??????), and that he advised against me bringing it back to have it fixed as we wouldn’t want to “break the paint”. Urgggggg! So somehow I lived with that, (mistake), and carried on. Then one day I was washing the car and did a double take when I was was the blacked out rain gutter on the drivers side then as I worked my way around I noticed the gutter on the passenger side was a chrome finish. Amazing and showed my wife who shook her head and laughed. Some language involved as well. So I call Kevin again and tell him the story and he says that I need to bring it back to the dealership so they can see it to believe it. Up it goes and then they need to order the part. Gee whiz one side flat black and one side chrome, that’s quality control at its finest. So that gets fixed and I continue to keep it clean and maintained. Then at around thirty thousand kilometres the fan belt starts squeaking. I take it back and they give it back to me quiet again. Short time later the squeaking starts again and it turns out they only had used belt dressing. Back it went. Same result. At one point it had to go back again for same condition and my wife had to drive it back as I was not able to. They ended up giving her a hard time due to the fact that I figured out it was a misaligned pull

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    In this car, the automatic was not a bad choice at all.

    GM’s clutch and shifter were probably NOT as slick as a period Japanese car, let alone a Honda.

    However, Car & Driver tested this combo in 85 or 86, a turbo automatic, and it did the quarter mile in 16.3 seconds–pretty impressive!

    The curb weight was not impressive. Again, for that era, this car was a porker, coming in at 225-350 lbs more than the “target” Accord.

    But the turbo overcame the weight.

    As impressed as I was with the C&D road test, and I also liked the looks of the 86, and that it was offered with a 5-speed (I was surprised CD tested the auto..), and that is was American, I never seriously considered this car for my first car. My first car was narrowed down to a new Mustang 302 or GTI 8v, or an interesting used car that was a great deal.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That’s the best parking brake lever design I’ve ever seen.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    An old boss of mine told a few stories about her Sunbird turbo when she made up her mind to buy an Edge Ecoboost (the Sunbird was her only other turbo ownership experience.)

    No issues with the car but likely the only reason she still had a license after the ‘Bird was that she’s married to a County Sheriff.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    These had an impressive combination of turbo lag followed by serious acceleration combined with substantial torque steer. You needed to be careful with the steering wheel or you’re heading for the curb.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Like I was telling ajla above…cars this were fun, but they could be tricky to handle, and the pucker factor just rose the more HP you had. I test drove a GLH turbo that made a half-hearted attempt on my life during a test drive.

  • avatar
    NN

    165hp from a 2.0 in a 30 year old 2400lb car.

    My Ford Transit Connect gets 169 (naturally aspirated) hp from a 2.5 and weighs 3900 lbs (60% + more).

    Progress?

    Also, this Pontiac saw over 180k miles. Objectively speaking, the power to weight ratio + lifespan makes this respectable!

  • avatar
    conundrum

    The engine was made in Brazil, and was a SOHC turbo, 2 valve per cylinder, part of the Family 11 units. There were also Family 1 engines of similar design and smaller displacement.

    It was originally designed by Opel but GM had moved on engine-wise in Europe to DOHC engines, so this special came out of GM Brazil where GM flogged the lesser design for years, near enough up to present day.

    If you can withstand the tedium of reading it, Wikipedia has an entry for GM Family 11 (Family 2) engines. “The LT3 (RPO code) or C20GET is a turbocharged version produced in Brazil for the North American market.”
    It is pretty much a late 1970s engine design.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I had heard those motors were to be avoided yet this example proves this knowledge wrong.

      • 0 avatar
        ToddAtlasF1

        You’ve got to understand that just about every horrible design that ever made it through type certification produced at least a few examples that held up like they all should have. When Jaguar introduced the XJ6 in 1968, they offered a 2.8 liter version of their old XK engine that immediately acquired a reputation for being incredibly short-lived. Apparently, all of its testing was conducted by test drivers who ran them as hard as possible, causing problems with low speed lubrication and part throttle operation to be missed in development. Somewhere, there’s a guy still defending his XJ6 2.8, saying it ran fine until it failed its MOT for terminal rust, mostly because he maintained it by the book and used the gas pedal as an on-off switch. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and the survival of the odd ’80s turbo car doesn’t mean that they weren’t generally miserable to own.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      The only other J-car the 2.0 Turbo was offered in was the Buick Skyhawk T-type. Appropriate since Buick has a history of offering a turbo on other models.
      If this motor is in running condition it might work as a Fiero swap.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    man this car brings back memories. One of my friends in HS had a 2 tone blck/red over red velour GT convertible.Even with a 3sp, it was fast to me. Definitely faster than my MK1 GTI. Good times.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Our company gave us a ‘car allowance. I went out and got an Accord sedan with a manual transmission. My counterpart got a Sunbrid Turbo with an auto transmission.

    You can all guess which vehicle clients appreciated travelling in the most and whose auto required the least amount of service and had the highest residual value.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I had a 1990 Sunbird LE coupe that I took over from my sister in 1996 when she got a new Civic. She bought it new in ’90 and probably put 60k miles on it. It had the NA 2.0 with a 3 speed auto. Being a relatively new driver it was just about perfect. It took a beating and kept going. I drove it for about 5 years through the end of high school and most of college. In that time it required a replacement alternator, tires, oil, and gas. Of course, I should have replaced the shocks as it bounced quite a bit up front, but I really couldn’t afford such niceties.
    The fun ended in 2001 when the head gasket blew on it at around 125k miles. My folks had some guy they knew replace the engine with one from a junkyard and they ended up driving it for a couple years before that motor gave out at 140k miles. With that, it was off the the crusher.

    I loved that car. I got a lot of modification mistakes out of the way on that car. It was not fast by any stretch, though when I first got it it would squeal a tire at a hard launch. That was good enough. I always wished it had a turbo but I would have probably wrapped it around a tree if it had.

    The dash boards on these were miles ahead of contemporary Cavaliers and I never understood why Chevy didn’t update them sooner. The seats were comfortable and never wore. The headliner fell down and the driver’s seat recline mechanism broke but a replacement seat from the junkyard was cheaper than trying to fix it.
    Overall, I’d say it was a good car for 1990. I certainly wouldn’t have expected a new car based on it from about 1994 on, but I’m sure they were fine for people looking to not spend a lot.

  • avatar
    ablenotready

    Continued from this morning at 9:52. I got called away. Apologies.
    A misaligned pulley was the cause of the squeaking/chirping. It was taken back again but no never fixed by gm. As the warranty ran out I ended up taking it to an independent who had to remove the pulley and repair as it was misaligned from the factory. Ok so no more chirping. Next item, not sure at what mileage this started, was an overheating condition. Temp gauge would climb scary high in traffic. Death for a turbo car especially one with non cooled bearings like this one. Turns out it was a wire that was connected to the electric cooling fan. It was intermittent. Gm could not fix this issue either and I remember driving into the city, Toronto, to see a concert and watching the temp gauge climb to new heights. Made it to the show though. I ended up fixing this myself. Made sure the wire connection was a solid one. Cooling fan started working as it should when needed. Next item was a beauty. At 73,000 kilometres it blew a head gasket. Not good. I called gm and they advised that I was out of warranty and a nw engine would be about $4500.00. So no. Miracle moment. My wife had become friends with another mother thru some social activities and she mentioned this to this friend. This led to finding out that her husband was a mechanic. My wife asked if he might take a look at the car. So I talked to this fellow and after hearing the facts he asked me to go out and purchase all the baskets needed to replace a head gasket on this motor. There were a number of gaskets required and the grand total was $130.00. He asked me to have the car backed out of the garage on this Saturday morning and he would come and do the work. 8:30am he shows up. Proceeds to take off the top of the motor and replace the head gasket and assorted others. I did assist but mainly it was for getting the beers and keeping the tools handy. 5pm rolls around and he says “so now we find out out if it was a nice sunny Saturday to be outside or a nice sunny Saturday to be outside and fix a motor. I got in, he had prepped the motor for a lubed start, and I cranked the engine. It starts and smooths out, (best it could for a 4 cylinder gm of 80’s vintage) and it was fine. His name was George and not only would he not accept any money he invited my whole family over for a steak dinner and continued beers at his house. Wonderful time. Drove the car until about 120,000 kilometres and by that time it was extremely rusted in many areas of the car. White 4 door Pontiac Sunbird Turbo Automatic with a generous helping of red rust everywhere. Ended up selling it to a pizza delivery guy in our town. I would see the car once in a while and it looked good in red. I heard later that he had transmission problems and had to retire the car. Writing this has been cathartic. Thank you.

    • 0 avatar
      cimarron typeR

      good story. It’s folks like your mechanic friend that got me into cars into first place.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      I’ve told this story before but will repeat myself. I have a soft spot for the Sunbird because of a high school friend and her father, who would die unexpectedly only a few years later.

      She’s very bright, but in kind of a Type B way. In an effort to motivate her to focus on the PSAT, her father promised to buy her a car if she scored well enough to be a National Merit Finalist. His expectation was that she’d end up doing well but not top 1% well. Needless to say, he ended up having to buy her a car. As he had not specified what kind of car, he picked out an early-ish J-body Sunbird, which would’ve been 3-5 years old at the point. Call it an ’83 four-door, with the LH8 I4 and automatic.

      It was serviceable transportation, and it was nice that someone in our group had access to a car without having to borrow the keys from his or her parents. And–so sue me–I actually think the front clip was a reasonable adaptation of the ’77-’78 Trans Am’s styling cues.

      It’s also interesting that the Skyhawk and Sunbird got the turbo I4 as the performance engine, whereas the Cavalier and Cimarron got the 2.8 V6.

  • avatar
    GM JUNK

    A loud, junky vile little car. They may have run, badly, for years but they sure couldnt help but fall apart in copious amounts during that time. Fragile plastics that turned to dust. Fragile mechanical parts that snapped when they got a chance. Funny how I managed to pull off the entire door pull and card in one of these, a Cavalier and a Beretta. GM has always been the epitome of absolute junk.

  • avatar
    Chi-One

    I had an ’86 GLH turbo. Fun times. Damn right you better be holding the wheel tight. Scared the pants off the wife but the 10yr old son loved it. They ran on 195/50×15 Eagle GTs which Goodyear stopped producing.

  • avatar
    chipmnster

    This one is not a GT; GT’s had fender flares and fog lights.

    I had one with the automatic. Could get it into the mid 15s in the quarter. Lots of torque steer if you stomped on it. Fun car!

  • avatar
    millmech

    Love the commercial: BUY THIS CAR [Never mind those stories about some curse]

  • avatar
    statikboy

    A friend’s mum had one of these. (’86 I believe) It was probably a lot faster than my at that time ’87 Accord Hatch (never tested), but the Accord was far nicer to be in and far, FAR nicer to drive.

  • avatar
    theoldguard

    I had both Sunbird Turbo and Omni GLH. Both were exhilarating after what we had lived through the past ten years. Remember, not long before these turbos, there were 120hp V8 Mustangs and, help me here, a 165hp Corvette? With these turbos, and especially the new Mustang GT, cars were getting fun again.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      “Both were exhilarating after what we had lived through the past ten years.” Agreed. It’s easy to criticize these cars 30+ years on, but they were a big improvement over cars of 10-15 years earlier. As referenced by Land Ark, headliners stand out as the one area where Detroit backslid. Other than that, give me an ’80s EFI front driver over a ’70s carbed rear driver.

  • avatar
    teddyc73

    “Wisely”?

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