I drive a bone stock 301 car right now. Love it. I have pulled all kinds of them out in the past and sent them to scrap in lieu of a 400 or bigger. My car isn't going to turn the tires into smoke when I shift into second but it's still super fun to drive and it runs down the highway at 80 with no complaints and will do it all day. The mileage is reasonable as well. I think what really made the 301 suffer was being compared to the 400 so directly. Also, the car really came alive when I swapped the T5 in. The 3.35 first is such a step up from the lame-o 2.35 of the TH350 and 200s of the day. They were fine if you had a real gear in back but a 2.73 need some grunt to make it go. The little guy has a 100 CI disadvantage and is saddled with all the concessions necessary to get meet CAFE and emissions standards.
Consider it is the same bore and stroke as the mythical DZ Camaro (302) those of us who were building stuff 25 years ago knew some one who built a 302 Chevy clone. At one time that was a hot as hell setup.
I think if GM had put a 301 in front of an OD trans with the low first gear, went to 3.08 in the back it would have been viewed differently. I remember my dad bringing home a full size wagon for Mom to test drive. It had the 301 and a 200 4r. It was a hell of a lot more than the 307 smogger she ended up with. I argued for the Pontiac but someone had swapped some Keystone's onto it and dad took it as a sign that it had been abused and mom liked the Olds color better. I still think of that Pontiac wagon and wish for one just like it. Of course, I am commonly referred to as odd as well as old. So maybe I'm just full of hot air.