Pontiacs long-lasting Firebird coupes and convertibles. A dramatic and sought-after member of the Pontiac lineup since 1967, the Firebird wont be around much longer. Like the related Chevrolet Camaro, its scheduled to expire after the 2002 model year due largely to declining sales over the past few years.
Both models are throwbacks to the muscle-car era, which no longer capture the fancy of young people as they did in the past. Added together, Camaro and Firebird sales amount to far less than half of the totals racked up by the Ford Mustang GMs long-time archrival in this league.
Hatchback coupes still come in base, Formula and Trans Am form. Convertibles are offered in Formula and Trans Am trim. Shock absorber revalving is supposed to improve ride comfort, but little else is new this year.
Though the Firebird is shaped much like a Camaro, the coupe and convertible versions are known for their twin-port grille up front, different taillights and other distinctive exterior features. Firebirds are the more aggressive-looking of the pair, which is no surprise since Pontiac prides itself on being the sportiest division of the GM family. Most body panels are formed from composite material that is impervious to rust or corrosion.
Removable T-top roof panels are available for coupes, while convertibles have a power top and glass rear window with a defogger. Base models have 215/60R16 tires, and Formula Firebirds include a performance suspension, limited-slip differential and 245/50ZR16 tires. A Sports Appearance Package for base models includes a distinctive chin spoiler, rocker-panel extensions and a deeper rear valance to give drivers of a V-6 some of the image of a V-8 model.
Not all traditions are pleasant ones. In theory, Firebirds carry four occupants, with cloth-upholstered bucket seats up front and a folding rear seat; in reality, the cockpit is cramped and seats are low to the ground, making it somewhat difficult to enter and exit. Dashboards offer a full complement of gauges. Cargo space isnt bad, with 34 cubic feet in the coupe and 13 cubic feet in the convertible.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, tachometer, CD player, remote hatch release, automatic headlights, fog lights, a rear spoiler and a theft-deterrent system. Convertibles have power windows, locks and mirrors; a leather-wrapped steering wheel, gearshift lever and handbrake; a six-way power drivers seat; and a Monsoon stereo system. Formula models also have leather-wrapped interior items, a Monsoon system, and power windows, locks and mirrors. Trans Ams come with a six-way power drivers seat, leather upholstery, remote keyless entry and removable hatch roof panels.
Under the Hood
Base models use a 200-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine teamed with a five-speed-manual or four-speed-automatic transmission. Both the Formula and Trans Am use a 5.7-liter Gen III LS1 V-8 (derived from the Chevy Corvettes engine), which produces 310 hp, a gain of 5 hp this year with the help of a new camshaft and intake manifold. The WS6 Ram Air option comes complete with a functional hood scoop and is available only on the Trans Am, which boosts output to 325 hp.
Stepping even further up the line is an SLP Firehawk option. This version is modified by a separate company and includes a 330-hp V-8 engine, a special hood, tauter suspension, special trim and 17-inch tires. Firebirds with V-8 power have a standard four-speed-automatic transmission or can be equipped with a six-speed manual at no extra charge. The six-speed gearbox can be fitted with an optional Hurst shifter that produces quicker, more positive shifts. A V-6 performance package includes a Torsen limited-slip differential, dual exhaust outlets and a revised axle ratio.
All-disc antilock brakes are standard, and traction control is optional. Side-impact airbags are not available.
Essentially the leftovers from a different era, Firebirds have long been known for their stiff ride quality, snug cockpits, noisy operation and gas-guzzling V-8 engines. Firebirds with the V-6 are tamer in fact, all models are more civilized than they used to be.
Firebirds, and especially the Trans Am versions, promise an unabashedly vigorous driving experience. They deliver on that promise even though you have to accept a few drawbacks along the way. Unless youre an ardent admirer of cars of this ilk, youd probably be happier in a more refined and contemporary vehicle.