New Car/Review

The Pontiac Firebird Convertible, Fun in the Sun

by Larry Weitzman

Pontiac

Firebirds have been around since 1967 and are currently in their fourth generation of production. Burt Reynolds and Smokey and the Bandit did a lot to enhance the performance reputation of this pony car, although the several Trans Ams used in that movie did have engine modifications to significantly increase their horsepower. It worked. Trans Ams' became one of the most popular muscle cars in America. I owned an 85 Trans Am and enjoyed its power and performance.

My subject Firebird was a base convertible with a 5 speed manual transmission. Its motive force was provided by General Motors' venerable 3800 Series II V-6. This engine is bullet proof and except for oil changes and filter replacements does not require a tune up for 100,000 miles. Even the cooling system does not require flushing for 150,000 miles or five years.

The engine has an on board computer that monitors engine speed, temperatures and mileage that will tell you when to change oil. The manual advises checking the oil monitor every 7,500 miles, more often under severe driving conditions.

This base engine produces a healthy 200 hp at 5,200 rpm and 225 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. This is the only engine offered in the standard base model. The only other engine is the Corvette derived LS1 which pumps out 305 hp at 5,200 rpm (320 with the WS6 package, $3,150) and 330 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm (345 at 4,400 rpm with the WS6). These engines are standard in the Formula model and Trans Am, but only the base model and Trans Am come in the convertible.

Although the chassis has received refinement over the years, with this newest generation of Firebird, the body received a significant freshening in 1998. The new look is wedge sleek and very aggressive. I like the look, especially in the convertible. The front end has daytime running lamps and standard fog lights mounted low and integrated in the front bumper, with pop up quad headlights.

The chassis is unequal length control arms up front with a solid axle, trailing links, torque arm and panhard (control) rods in the rear. Coil springs are at each corner. Anti-roll bars are located front and rear. Combine this with an exceptionally rigid body, the results are exceptional cornering and handling.

But what about the ride. Would it be punishing or smooth and controlled. Pontiac has been working hard to improve and revise spring rates and shock valving. Actually, I thought my 1985 Trans Am rode reasonably well, but this new Firebird feels like a limo in comparison. On Ponderosa Road, the washboard surface was quelled and the larger bumps were absorbed like no other Firebird I have ever driven. It was smooth.

Because this was a convertible, I did notice some noise from the convertible top mechanism over the more jarring bumps, but there were no body rattles. It's wonderful how automobiles have improved.

In the twisties is where this Firebird gets hot. This is the next best thing to a Corvette. The twists and turns of Green Valley and Bass Lake Road were simply eliminated. This thing goes around corners like water in a hose. The accurate variable assist rack and pinion power steering has great on center feel. Some may find the effort a bit hard at slow speeds, but this is not a car for wimps.

Braking is by four-wheel discs with standard ABS. They are powerful, with very short stopping distances. When cornering hard, they allowed higher speed before corner entry, which can quicken lap times in competition.

Demographics put the Firebird buyer at an average age of 35 years and primarily male. My own observation is that women buy this car as well. The 1985 Trans Am primary driver was my wife, Kim. And she loved and appreciated that car and all its performance. It was a fun ride.

On the highway the Firebird was glass smooth and quiet. Tar strips and concrete joints were eliminated. I did notice some harshness and noise from the V-6 when accelerating hard at higher rpms, but at 70 mph the engine spins at a very relaxed 2100 with plenty of power without downshifting.

The convertible test car came with a standard five speed manual tranny. It was very precise, well located and had nice short throws. It was easy to operate smoothly and added some additional fun in the driving. The clutch was exceptionally smooth and light.

With the V-6, the performance is pretty snappy. I consistently knocked off 0-60 in the high sevens, with my fastest run at 7.53 seconds (the average was 7.8 seconds). Passing times were equally as quick. 50-70 mph averaged 4.6 seconds and going up a grade only slowed that time to 6.9 seconds. All passing was done in third gear. Using second gear with a shift to third only marginally improved the times.

This little V-6 generates solid torque starting just above 3,000 rpm and continues to pull strong through 5,500 rpm. 50 mph in third gear equates to about 3,500 rpm, right in the meat of this engines' powerband. You can drop down to as low as 1,500 rpm in fifth and step on the throttle and accelerate with some authority. It is flexible. Even with the limited slip Torsen rear end, slipping the clutch in first gear with some deep throttle application will light up the tires for about 30 feet. I had the optional electronic traction control switched off ($250).

I did have a chance to sample a Trans Am WS6 convertible on a closed course a few weeks ago. I can tell you that this V-6 is quick, but the WS6 acceleration probably feels more like an F-16 on full afterburner. I came out of the hole on one acceleration run literally smoking the tires all the way through first gear (it was a six speed manual). I am talking super car power, with 0-60 times very deep in the fives. Nothing like having 320 hp on tap. I hope to do a complete road test sometime in the future.

Now for the amazing thing about these performance cars: They are also pretty good economy cars. The V-6 is EPA rated at 19/30 mpg city/highway. I averaged 23 mpg in very hard driving in El Dorado County with almost no highway mileage. The WS6 320 hp Trans Am 6 speed is EPA rated at an amazing 19/28 mpg, nearly as good as the V-6. New for 1999 is a larger fuel tank, up from 15.5 gallons to 16.8 gallons.

The power convertible top was a breeze to operate and was fully lined. It keeps the car quiet with the top up and doubled the fun of driving with the top down. Having the top down also aided rear seat entry. The front seat belts, if integrated into the seats would aid rear seat entry and exit.

Inside, the deep front bucket seats were upholstered in a rich cloth. I found the driving position very comfortable, although ingress and egress with the top up required some extra bending.

The rear seating is not large, although I did take two of my friends golfing and there was no complaint from the six foot rear passenger (the "jaws of life" were not required to extricate him, either). We were able to put three full size golf bags in the trunk with some room leftover. It is bigger than one would think.

The dash is all business. A large speedo and tach sit directly in front of the driver with four ancillary gauges underneath. To the left of the tach is an annunciator panel with a full series of warning lights. The center of the dash has the great "Monsoon" six speaker standard sound system with CD player. Underneath are the easy to use rotary dial HVAC controls. There are two cupholders up front and behind the center console storage armrest are two more for the back seaters. The leather wrapped steering wheel contained full controls for the sound system.

The good news is that the base price for this Pontiac convertible is only $24,785. My test car had only three options. Electronic traction control ($250), chrome five spoke 16 inch wheels ($595) and the 3800 performance package which consists of Torsen limited slip rear end, up level steering, dual exhausts and big 235/55X16 inch touring tires ($490 and worth every penny). With destination charge of $535 the sticker totaled $26,655.

Standard equipment for the base model convertible includes full power (driver's seat too), cruise, tilt, cast wheels and a bevy of other features. However, in the base coupe, which has a list price of only $18,165 plus destination, the list of standard equipment is not as long. But with the addition of option group 1SC for $2,450, the convertible and coupe become comparable. The real price differential is about $4,000. If you add the removable roof panel for $995, then you have a targa for about $3,000 less than the convertible and a very nice alternative for a lot less money.

By comparison, a Trans Am convertible lists for $30,245 plus destination and it comes with about everything standard including leather seating surfaces. A Trans Am coupe, which comes with a standard removable roof panel, lists for $26,175 plus destination.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price                               $24,785 (convertible)
                                    other models from $18,700 to 
                                    about $34,000

Configuration

longitudinal front 
engine, rear wheel drive 

Engines

base
3.8L OHV V-6                        200 hp @ 5,200 rpm
                                    225 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm

Formula and Trans Am
5.7L OHV V-8                        305 hp @ 5,200 rpm (320 hp, WS6)
                                    330 lb-ft torque @ 4,000 rpm 
                                    (345 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm, WS6)

Transmissions

5 speed manual (base model)

6 speed manual (Formula and 
Trans Am only)

4 speed electronically 
controlled automatic 
(all models)

Dimensions

Wheelbase                           101.1  inches
Length                              193.3  inches
Width                               74.4   inches
Height                              51.8   inches (convertible)
                                    51.2   inches (coupe)
Ground Clearance                    4.5    inches
Curb Weight                         3402   (convertible)
                                    3323   (coupe)
Fuel Capacity                       16.8   gallons

Performance

(V-6, 5 speed)

0-60                                7.8    seconds            
50-70                               4.6    seconds
50-70 uphill                        6.9    seconds
Top Speed                           estimated way over 100 mph, but I
                                    went as fast as I wanted to go with
                                    incredible ease
Fuel Economy                        EPA rated 19/30 mpg city/highway.  I
                                    achieved 23 mpg in El Dorado County
                                    in spirited driving.  I would
                                    estimate 22-25 mpg in more normal
                                    country driving and in excess of 30
                                    mpg on the highway.
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