Trans Am WS-6: gorilla engine, six-speed gearbox wrapped in a ragtop
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $18,590
As Tested (MSRP) $35,610
Pontiac's Trans Am can fairly be considered a dinosaur, especially when fuel prices are rising. Trans Am as T. Rex. But when the Trans Am WS-6 is dismissed like that, many of its engineering attributes and excellent qualities are overlooked. And there are still people who enjoy an all-American four-seat sports car, with all its inconveniences and optional beastliness, simply because it's fun to drive. But maybe more than that, the Firebird reflects an enduring personal style.
Pontiac Firebird is available in coupe and convertible body styles and in three models: Firebird, Formula and Trans Am.
Compared with the base Firebird, the Formula adds speed-rated tires, performance suspension tuning, and a Monsoon CD sound system with 10 speakers.
The Trans Am gets further standard equipment: removable roof panels and a special spoiler on the coupe, and leather seats with six-way power adjustment for the driver.
The engine in the base Coupe or Convertible is the 3800 (3.8 liter) V6, yielding 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque. The 5.7-liter V8 (overhead-valve LS1 with aluminum cylinder block and heads) comes in the Formula and Trans Am in two versions: 305 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque or, with the WS-6 Ram Air package, 320 horsepower and 345 foot-pounds of torque.
Three transmissions are available: The base Firebird gets a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic; the Formula and Trans-Am get either the automatic or a six-speed manual in which both fifth and sixth gears are overdrive.
Few cars on the market today have the visual impact of a WS-6 Trans Am - especially a red convertible like our test vehicle. The Trans Am always draws stares and comments on how cool it looks. Those great big long bulges on the great long hood are reminiscent of a Lister-bodied racing car from the late '50s. There are actually four nostrils for the Ram Air intake, two flared ones and two more gaps where the hood meets the rest of the nose. Fat chrome tips to the twin exhaust come out of tunnels under the rear bumper that look like an exotic racing car ground-effects undertray. The Trans Am also features some of the usual Pontiac styling touches, including hundreds of hexagons in the taillights that suggest a fly's eyeballs. The 17-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels are so polished they appear to be chrome, and they are wrapped with wide P275/40ZR17 tires rated for extremely high sustained speeds.
There are other flares, scoops, styling grooves and bulges, which are probably considered uncool by your Lexus owner, but they are a Trans Am tradition and not out of place on this car. There are functional louvers behind the front wheels, for the release of hot air from the engine compartment. The wing on the convertible is more like a platform over the entire rear deck; it begins just behind the side windows-and it might even offer downforce to keep the car from floating should you ever run it in the 130-mph range, which we certainly don't suggest. With its incredibly tall sixth-gear ratio, the engine would be rumbling at less than 3000 rpm at that speed.
From the inside, you feel like you're in a racing car, as the low seating position and faraway unseen corners make judging near distances difficult. However, with so many adjustments to the driver's seat and steering wheel, this can be improved.
The convertible top, though handsome, is wide behind the side windows, creating a big blind spot that further complicates parallel parking; the glass rear window is small as well. But the power top operates wonderfully easily. A tonneau cover takes up precious limited trunk space, and thus will be left in the garage by many owners.
Not surprisingly, the rear seats offer little legroom and almost no visibility. The convertible top is a tradeoff in the rear compartment; it steals 2.2 inches of hip room, but gives back 4.2 inches of headroom.
The optional front bucket seats ($185) are intelligently shaped and comfortable for long distances; they aren't difficult to climb in and out of, considering how low to the ground they are, but the front doors do scrape on sidewalks. The driver will probably wish he had a steering wheel with a larger diameter, more in keeping with the high-performance theme of the car, and more suited to the excellent handling. It tilts into a good position, allowing visibility over the top without hitting the knees of an average-sized person. An extra set of sound system controls is located in the hub. Sounds are a high priority for Pontiac owners, and even the convertible comes standard with an eight-speaker CD system. There's a big fixed cupholder behind the shift lever, which has a stylish leather knob. There's a tidy compartment between the seats, and other storage spots exist in the doors and behind the front seats.
We spent a wonderful long 500-mile weekend with this car, using it as it's absolutely intended, while at the same time as it's not really intended. We drove from San Francisco to Mendocino up the remote and curvy Pacific Coast Highway, an approximate 175-mile stretch whose views from rocky cliffs hanging over the rugged ocean are some of the most stunning in the country. It was a gorgeous spring day, and we had the top down. This is truly what this car was made for.
We had two kids in the back, in car seats-one just over five, the other just under three. Battling boys, on top of it. This is not what the Trans Am was made for. But it worked. Kids are happier in the back than adults. Legroom is not a problem when your feet don't touch the floor. Of course, we traveled light. The one-kid collapsible stroller stayed home, although it fits in the trunk.
Driving relatively easily, the Trans Am is a gem. Macho drivers-and there will be plenty with the WS-6-will abuse the car and push to its limits, but when it's driven reasonably and within the law, it is highly rewarding and not the least bit uncomfortable or difficult.
The biggest problem is the perception of size, from behind the wheel. Still, the wife and mother of this driving family is 4'10” tall, and she managed to find a seating position that afforded her reasonable driving and parking in the city.
The power steering is not heavy, but it is a compromise; women might like easier turning for parking, but precision would then be lost in the cornering-and this is, after all, a high-performance car. The steering is direct and steady, no roaming or twitching at all, both in the curves and on the freeway.
Cowl shake has been a bugaboo with Firebird and Camaro convertibles, given the lack of chassis stiffness provided by a roof, combined with a suspension that isn't designed to simply soak up bumps. During our test over fairly smooth roads, the cowl never reared its shaking head. This is a significant advancement, a true character change. If this T. Rex is destined for extinction, at least it will be refined when it goes out.
The suspension performed admirably. Never once were we jarred, which is saying quite a lot. And never once did we feel the car undulating, even slightly. We suspect that extremes in both road conditions and driving aggression could indeed produce those responses from this Trans Am-at least we hope so, because the suspension wouldn't be correct if they didn't. True, a car like the Mercedes E55 AMG can do it all, but for twice the price.
The six-speed gearbox with Hurst linkage feels solid, though not quite buttery. It might be overstating things to call it quirky, but it requires some understanding. The pattern is closely spaced for quick shifting, which means you sometimes find yourself in third gear instead of first, when pulling out. There is a lockout of second gear at certain rpm and at a certain pace of acceleration designed to save gas. Accelerating slowly causes the computer to force you to shift from first gear into fourth. Basically, it won't let you drive sharply and casually at the same time. You either accept it or you learn how to get around it. There is a way to get into second gear, when you want to; we could explain, but it would take two paragraphs. The good news is there's so much torque that you actually can go from first to fourth gear, even at a tame 2500 rpm, without bogging the engine.
Sixth gear will save you more gas, because the ratio is so tall. It might also get you a ticket. Sixty-eight miles per hour is only about 1500 rpm, and because there is so little engine compression to slow you down when you lift off the throttle in sixth gear, the car wants to keep rolling on into the 70s and 80s. With such low rpm, you don't hear it or feel it. You really need to use cruise control in sixth. On an open highway, it does indeed save gas.
As for power, well, you've got 320 horsepower to go with the manual transmission. It's smooth, not really neck-snapping, and the exhaust note is deep but not loud, It's as much power as you'll ever need, and probably as much as you'll ever want, but it's not scary. It's eminently controllable. One of the changes for the 2000 model is to the throttle linkage, and the delivery of acceleration is more than manageable.
Pulling away in first gear does call for some attention, however. It's easy to stall the engine if you're too casual with throttle application, especially at red lights on the steep streets of San Francisco.
Dinosaur or not, powerful rear-wheel-drive cars like this are tradition - tradition that isn't likely to be killed off as long as it's profitable. It will die a natural death, when its time comes. So Pontiac keeps building them - and improving them. The Trans Am might not be as slick as a Lexus, Mercedes or BMW, but it's a lot better than it's often given credit for. You just have to take it for what it is.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.