New Car/Review

1999 Pontiac Firebird 30th Anniversary Trans Am

by Carey Russ

     Even sitting quietly in the driveway it's probable cause for arrest on exhibition of speed. It's about as subtle and politically correct as a nuclear-tipped cruise missle. It's got "moving violation" written all over it. Attitude? You want attitude? You've got it, it's called the 30th Anniversary Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

     The Firebird has been around since the late 1960s, and became Pontiac's sole performance image car with the demise of the larger "muscle cars" like the GTO in the early 1970s. There has usually been a considerable amount of muscle available in the Firebird lineup, and 1999 is no exception. The V6-powered Firebird and V8-equipped Firebird Formula and Trans Am models continue with some significant performance enhancements. V8s and some V6s get a Torsen (r) limited-slip differential to better get power to the ground, and traction control is available on all models. A larger fuel tank increases range. And, 1999 is a very important year for the Firebird. It's the 30th anniversary of the Trans Am model, and a special, limited-production 30th Anniversary Trans Am is being offered to celebrate.

     The Trans Am that made its debut in 1969 was a small car by the standards of the day, but it had a choice of Ram-Air 400 cubic-inch engines with  up to well over 345 horsepower. The only color offered was white with twin blue stripes. Special and Anniversary models have appeared regularly since that time, and all are serious collector's cars. The 30th Anniversary  edition looks to be the ultimate Trans Am. Like the original, it comes only in white with blue stripes. It builds on the Firebird WS6 performance option package, with the WS6's 320- horsepower Ram Air inducted 347 cubic inch V8. What it may lack in raw horsepower compared to its ancestor it makes up in civilized comfort, with a special white leather interior. Ensuring exclusivity, only 1000 30th Anniversary Trans Am coupes and 500 convertibles will be offered for sale.

     One of the 30th Anniversary Trans Am coupes has been my transportation for the past week. It's not a car for the shy person. Few cars I've ever driven have gotten more attention. It has all of the raw American muscle power of a regular WS6 Firebird, and sounds like the soundtrack to the movie "Vanishing Point." If it's possibly slightly less quick in the quarter mile than some of the original muscle cars, it handles the stopping and turning at the end much better. Although the number of 30th Anniversary cars is limited, the same performance and nearly the same eyeball factor is available in other WS6 V8 Firebirds. The regular V8, with a mere 305 horsepower, and the 200-hp V6 are quick, good-handling, and entertaining as well.

APPEARANCE: Subtlety has never been a Trans Am styling feature. White paint with blue stripes can be more noticeable than bright red when it's on a 30th Anniversary Trans Am. The basic shape of the Trans Am is more than a little aggressive, with bulging fenders, a front fascia with large foglamps and a hidden intake, plenty of lower cladding, and a large, flat spoiler at the rear. The WS6 package's ultra- radical Ram Air hood bulge makes the standard hood look almost conservative. The 30th Anniversary package can be told externally by its twin blue stripes on a white background, special badging, and the trick light blue clearcoat alloy wheels. Each blue stripe starts with a small "screaming chicken" Firebird emblem just behind the hood scoops.

COMFORT: As outside, the 30th Anniversary Trans Am's interior builds on that of the standard car. Distinctive white leather upholstery and door panels with 30th Anniversary logos, and special logo floor mats differentiate it. A plaque just in front of the Hurst shifter shows the identification number - this one is 0047. This car is no poseur - it's meant for serious driving. The seats are supportive and comfortable. The shift knob and leather-wrapped, tilt-adjustable steering wheel are placed for fast use. A good Monsoon audio system and power accessories show that this is a civilized vehicle. It is a Trans Am at heart, so expect the rear seat to be best-suited for small, agile people and luggage capacity best for those who know how to pack light. This is a sports car, not a sport-utility vehicle.

SAFETY: All 1999 Pontiac Firebirds have four-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual depowered airbags, and the PASS-Key II theft-deterrent system.

ROADABILITY: Underneath, the 30th Anniversary Trans Am is a Firebird with the WS6 performance option. That means suspension modifications to go with the additional power of the Ram-Air engine. Unlike some of the muscle cars of three decades ago, this beast has impressive cornering and stopping abilities in addition to great acceleration. It has a firm ride and sticks tenaciously to smooth surfaces thanks to massive 275/40 ZR17 ultra-high-speed rated Goodyear Eagle F1 GS tires. Traction control helps prolong tire life, and four-wheel vented antilock discs slow it quickly. The solid-axle rear suspension only makes itself felt in bumpy corners.

PERFORMANCE: Trans Am performance over the years seems to have been inversely proportional to the size of the decals on the hood. The twin "screaming chickens" on the hood of the 30th Anniversary edition are very small. The power output of the Ram-Air inducted WS6 5.7-liter LS1 V8 is not small at 320 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque. Surprisingly, it's a pussycat around town, with a light clutch and gentle power delivery at low engine speeds. But step hard on the throttle and the tiger gets serious, quickly. Power is greatest in the midrange, above 3500 rpm. At that point it has all of the classic V8 muscle car sensory inputs. Occupants are pushed against the seatbacks, the twin exhausts howl, the Ram-Air intake honks, and there are plenty of other wonderful mechanical sounds. The Hurst shifter works quickly and smoothly. Fifth gear is best for normal highway speeds, as engine speed is an almost-idle 1500 rpm at 65 mph in sixth.

CONCLUSIONS: The spirit of the muscle car era has survived thirty years in the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price               $ 26,175
Price As Tested          $ 32,960
Engine Type              16-valve pushrod overhead valve V8
                         with Ram Air induction
Engine Size              5.7 liters / 347 cu. in.
Horsepower               320 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           335 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission             6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length       101.1 in. / 193.7 in.
Curb Weight              3397 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    10.6
Fuel Capacity            16.8 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium, 91 octane
Tires                    P275/40 ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1 GS
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / vented disc,
                         antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent short and long arm
                         with coil springs /
                         Salisbury solid axle with coil springs
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      19 / 28 / 20
0 to 60 mph                   5.1 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               13.4 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Custom bucket seats with lumbar support      $    155
Hurst shifter                                $    325
Electronic traction control                  $    450
Remote 12-disc CD changer                    $    595
WS6 performance & handling package - includes: 
  ram-air induction system with functional
  hood scoops, 5-spoke 17" alloy wheels with
  P275/45 ZR17 speed-rated tires, low-restriction
  exhaust system, specific tuned suspension, 
power steering cooler                        $  3,150
30th Anniversary package - includes: 
   blue-tinted alloy wheels, specific exterior striping
   and badging, arctic while paint, specific white
   leather seating surfaces with blue embroidery, 
  30th Anniversary door inserts, floor mats,
   numbered ID plaque                        $  1,575

SIDEBAR MATERIAL -- Interesting Trans Am Trivia

RAM-AIR INDUCTION: Ram-Air induction may be best associated with Pontiac, starting with the Firebird 400 and Trans Am in the late 1960s, but it's been used by many car and motorcycle manufacturers. What is it? Put very simply, ram-air induction is as close to something for nothing as can be had in performance tuning. It takes advantage of increased air pressure at speed to force more air into the vehicle's intake manifold. More air plus more fuel equals more power. Think of it as free supercharging. It's commonly used on racing cars, and also on many current high-performance motorcycles. Note that for ram-air induction to work, the vehicle must be moving, and that more pressure is available at higher speeds. There is not much benefit at street-legal speeds, but at very high speeds the benefit can be considerable. So why use it on street vehicles? Because racers use it and the scoops look cool.

SCREAMING CHICKEN: That's a term of endearment for the decal on the Trans Am hood. It first appeared in 1973. The largest such "chicken stickers" were found on the Tenth Anniversary Trans Am in 1979. Check out those "Smokey and the Bandit" Burt Reynolds movies on late-night TV for good examples of Seventies styling excessiveness. Alas, that was the automotive dark ages, performance-wise. Antismog legislation had strangled horsepower output available with then-current technology and modern electronic and materials technology had not yet been invented. 400-cubic inch engines with 150 horsepower or so were the result.

HURST SHIFTERS: Hurst is an aftermarket company that makes high-performance gearshifts. It got its start in drag racing. Since Pontiac was big in drag racing in the mid-1960s, Hurst shifters became a factory option in high-performance Pontiacs, including the GTO. So, by offering Hurst shifters on 1999 V8 Firebirds, Pontiac is continuing a tradition from the muscle car era.

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