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1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6

by Carey Russ

"PONTIAC: We are driving excitement" says the slogan on the price sticker for the 1996 Firebird Formula WS6. Who's to argue? With 305 fine and healthy V8 horses under the ram-air hood, Pontiac's top performance model offers plenty of excitement.

Actually, there is no lack of fun and excitement anywhere in the Firebird line. The name has been around since 1967, and the current models may just be the best ever. The basic Firebird coupe and convertible are powered by the 3800 Series II V6, with nearly as much horsepower as some V8 competitors. V8 fans have a choice between the Formula or Trans Am body styles with a 285- horsepower, 350 cubic inch LT1 engine. If that's not quite enough, there is the WS6 performance package for the V8 coupes.

The WS6 option pack is a balanced combination of engine and suspension upgrades. It gives a Formula or Trans Am the raw power of the muscle car era with contemporary braking, suspension, and safety technology. The most apparent WS6 feature is a functional hood scoop. That ram-air intake and other modifications help the engine to produce 310 horsepower. Four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes, a heavy-duty specially-tuned suspension, and 275/40 ZR17 tires on alloy wheels ensure that stopping and cornering abilities are in line with the increased power.

A week in a Firebird Formula WS6 was quite entertaining. For all of its race car looks and sounds, the WS6 proved to be a comfortable, modern sports coupe with all of the power to back up its image. Definitely a wolf in wolf's clothing.

APPEARANCE: There is little subtlety in Firebird styling, and the bulging hood scoop and extra-wide tires on the WS6 make a definite statement of intent. It is not a car in which to go unnoticed. The Firebird Formula has a pointed nose with very Pontiac twin faux- nostril front end. Hidden pop-up headlights accentuate the low fender line. Flared fenders lead back to a rounded rear end topped with a large, flat spoiler. The large windshield is steeply raked, as is the fastback hatch. The 17-inch spoked alloy wheels and ultra low- profile tires of the WS6 make sure that it looks as fast as it really is.

COMFORT: The Firebird Formula WS6 may look and sound like a race car, but it is fully civilized inside. The front bucket seats are soft and provide especially good lateral support. The instrument panel is designed for driving. Instruments and controls are placed correctly, with no distractions. Rotary climate controls are within easy reach, as is the AM/FM/CD sound system with graphic equalizer. Warm or cool air are available quickly. Stereo sound is good. There are two bucket seats for rear passengers. Access is average for sports coupes; head and leg room are at a premium. There are small but useful storage spaces around the cockpit, and the trunk is a useful size.

SAFETY: The 1996 Firebird WS6 has dual air bags, side-guard door beams, antilock 4-wheel vented disc brakes, and the PASS-Key II theft-deterrent system as standard equipment.

ROADABILITY: Unlike most of its muscle car ancestors, the 1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6 is a very well-balanced performance car. Each of its 275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires has nine- and-a-half inches of tread on the road. Cornering abilities are amazing, especially on smooth pavement. The solid rear axle does make itself felt on poor road surfaces with some axle hop. Braking is excellent, no surprise considering the four huge antilock ventilated discs. What is surprising is that the ride is not particularly harsh. Ultra-low profile tires often mean a bone-jarring ride, but the Pontiac engineers have done a great job tuning the suspension. Steering and braking, while power-assisted, are on the heavy side.

PERFORMANCE: At idle, the Firebird WS6 gives its driver the feeling that there is a large amount of horsepower waiting to be unleashed. This is no illusion - 305 horsepower in a 3500 pound car may not give the raw acceleration of John Force's Pontiac funny car dragster, but there are few street machines that are quicker. The sound coming out of the twin cast aluminum exhausts is pure glass- pack rumble. Yet, this car is no finicky, uncivilized beast. It is as content to idle through traffic as it is to go fast. My test car had the optional 4-speed automatic transmission, which made traffic less frustrating than the standard 6-speed manual transmission. Because the engine is only turning 2000 rpm at highway speeds, gas mileage can be pretty respectable.

CONCLUSIONS: The 1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6 is a high-performance combination of muscle car attitude and modern technology.

1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula WS6
Base Price               $ 19,464
Price As Tested          $ 25,993
Engine Type              pushrod ohv V8, 16 valves
Engine Size              5.7 liter, 350
Horsepower               305 @ 5400
Torque (lb-ft)           335 @ 3200
Transmission             4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length       101.1 in. / 195.6 in.
Curb Weight              3452 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    11.3
Fuel Capacity            15.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium
Tires                    P275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle GS-C
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / vented disc
     front-              independent unequal-length A-arm, coil springs
     rear-               Salisbury axle, coil springs
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed           17/25/20
0 to 60 mph                             5.8 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                         14.4 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)                0.34