by Natalie Neff
Head-turning looks with power to match.
Base Price $19,235
As Tested $27,335
The Firebird commands attention, from ogling construction workers and wide-eyed children alike. But the head-turning response is just the second thing you'll notice about Pontiac's timeless pony car. The first, of course, is the fun.
For the traditionalist, the Firebird strikes all the right chords. With muscular, low-slung lines and a 320-horsepower V8 feeding massive rear tires, there's no doubting the Firebird is meant to be driven, and driven hard. And with traction control now available across the model lineup, every Firebird now inspires more confidence when the urge strikes to mash the gas.
Pontiac's Firebird comes in three variants. The $19,235 base Firebird gets motivated by the ultra-smooth 3800 Series II V6, mated to either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission. The $24,135 Formula and the $27,245 Trans Am feed off the robust 5.7-liter LS1 V8 lifted from the Corvette. Both are available with either a 4-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual gearbox; the automatic is geared more aggressively than in the V6 model.
A major facelift for 1998 brought a slightly new look to the Firebird, along with the addition of the V8 and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Pontiac added only a few updates for the 1999 model. All versions get a larger, 16.8-gallon fuel tank, while V8-powered models get a Torsen limited-slip differential, available as an option with the V6. For those with a particular bent for hard driving, the V8 cars offer a power steering cooler and a Hurst shifter.
Compared to the sleeker, understated Camaro, the Firebird wears a more aggressive face, fronted with hideaway headlamps and capped by a voluptuously bulging hood. The WS6 performance option on our Formula test car adds a none-too-subtle Ram Air nose with not one, but a pair of signature Pontiac nostrils sandwiched on top of each other. The functional scoops add breathing room to boost the Formula's base 305-horsepower output by 15 horses. The WS6 upgrade also enhances the Formula's menacing lines with larger, polished alloy rims wrapped in P275/40R17 radials and matching alloy exhaust tips.
Climbing up to the Trans Am sees mostly cosmetic differences. Fog lamps are pushed in-board and turn signals outward, placed over the brake-cooling vent ports.
The base V6 model forfeits much of the performance offered by the Formula and Trans Am but loses little in the way of visual appeal. With a sticker starting at $19,235, it nabs most of the attention of the more powerful V8 versions for an affordable price. And like the Trans Am, the V6 Firebird is available as a convertible. (Firebird Convertible is $25,855; Trans Am Convertible is $31,315.)
Compared with a similarly equipped Mitsubishi 3000GT, for example, which can run $10,000 more than the V6, it's clear that the Firebird offers sporty performance for a great price. But the Firebird's options add up fast.
The WS6 and autocross packages on our Formula test car jack its base $24,135 sticker by $4,325. A power delete option lowers the car's overall cost by $1,125 -- and removes the power windows, locks, mirrors and antenna in the process.
The Inside Story
The interior sees a continuation of the exterior's aggressive theme, although it was hardly touched when the Firebird's exterior was refreshed. Pontiac's trademark blood-red gauges fill the instrument panel, adding to the Firebird's menacing demeanor. Oversized control knobs dominate the console, both on the cabin climate controls and radio, making adjusting the levels of either a simpler, eyes-on-the-road task. The turn signal isn't as accommodating, however. The driver must forcefully push the lever to indicate a lane change.
The seats offer decent bolstering for all passengers, but getting comfortable behind the wheel still takes some effort. Taller drivers will find it requires kicking back into a Caesar-like position. And from there, trying to peer out over the long hood makes tight driving maneuvers difficult.
Shorter drivers will find the Firebird more comfortable. This short-legged test driver finds striking a good balance between the steering wheel and pedals a breeze. Reaching all the car's controls is easy as well, although getting out becomes an acrobatic feat. The Firebird's long, heavy doors only add to the difficulty, especially when climbing out while wedged in a tight parking spot.
The front passenger won't have an easy time of it, either, and must sit with one knee bent askew. This is because the catalytic converter sits under the right-side floorboards, leaving a large lump where the passenger's left foot rests. The back seat, with its deep buckets and dearth of legroom, remains the province of only the very, very small, which is what you expect in a pony car.
Ride & Drive
Once the driver is buckled in and on the road, the Formula really starts to shine.
The autocross package gives the Formula a stiffer ride than the basic Firebird -- itself a solid driver -- without becoming kidney-busting. Larger front and rear stabilizer bars, stiffer front and rear springs and control arm bushings and dual adjustable shock absorbers all add to the Formula's rock-solid feel. The result is a car that hugs turns with as much authority as it speeds through the straights.
The car sets up nicely into turns, and the stiffer spring rates do a good job of damping excess body roll. Likewise, compared to less effectively sprung cars, heavy braking results in reduced nosedive, and hard launches from the line produce less rebound.
Get up to speed and the Formula's extra-wide rubber grips the asphalt with authority, making tight cornering possible without fear that the wheels will break away. The antiquated solid rear axle setup displays nervous tendencies, however, especially when driven over uneven surfaces. The more frequent the bumps, the more jittery the back end can become.
The 6-speed works well with the 5.7-liter. Its gears are well-spaced, and the V8's fat torque curve assures ample power through most of the rev range, dropping off only after 5,000 rpm. Working the stock shifter efficiently requires some attention during particularly hard driving. Its long throws tend to bog the shifter when forced and, combined with the Formula's inordinately heavy clutch pedal effort, rush-hour driving turns into a test of endurance -- not to mention a great thigh workout.
As fast as the Formula is, even speed-demons have to slow down once in a while, and it's good to know that it doesn't take much effort to tame the Formula. The same 320 horsepower that propels this beast to 60 mph in just over 5 seconds is all but invisible at low speeds, making it a good daily driver.
The availability of traction control makes it a year-round driver, too. The system works by reducing engine torque and applying individual brakes at the first sign of wheel slippage, at which point the wheel with traction gets more power sent its way. The driver can deactivate the system by pressing a button on the dash. After all, one never knows when the need will arise to muster up a hellacious smoky burnout.
Those interested in a more sedate ride might do well to look elsewhere. Although not too stiff for the driver looking for sporty performance, the Formula's ride is by no means sedan-like.
The Firebird's highly stylized stance may put off the more staid or blue-blooded drivers among us, but it's guaranteed to turn heads everywhere it rolls. Its look-at-me quality has long been part of the pony car's appeal.
Another part of that appeal is an ample amount of power. Pontiac has come a long way toward recapturing the brawn of the original 1967 Firebird in this respect. It's hard to believe that only 10 years ago the Firebird topped out at 235 horsepower, with the base V6 cranking out a piddling 135 horsepower. With 320 horsepower and competent handling and ride qualities, the Firebird makes a great case for a return to excitement of the muscle car era. The Firebird remains a great American ride for a price that's hard to beat.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.