1996 Pontiac Firebird

By November 10, 1999
1996 Pontiac Firebird

The definition of the American muscle car centers on lots of performance for not much money. Big engines, driving the rear wheels, in swoopy 2-door bodies. And of all these fairly affordable muscle cars that once poured off the American industry's assembly lines, the General Motors F-body cousins–the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro–are the only two that have offered, year in and year out, an unbroken line of performance of this uniquely American recipe.

Some diehard sentimentalists moan the passing of what they remember as truly fast cars, but they ought to open their eyes. The current Firebird and Camaro are far faster than their ancestors ever thought about being, and they're better in every other way, too. At the top you'll find the Firebird Formula and Trans Am, available with GM's familiar 5.7-liter V8 rated at 285 hp. With the optional WS6 Ram Air package, horsepower is upped to a remarkable 305, zero-60 mph will take less than six seconds and the top speed will nudge 160.

But there's something even more surprising than that–and with more real-world significance, as well. The base Firebird–and its Camaro cousin–is fitted with GM's 3800 Series II, a 3.8-liter V6 that's been massaged and polished to 200 hp and 225 lb.-ft. of torque, and it will go to 6000 rpm. It doesn't require elephantine memory to remember when V8 Firebirds didn't have 200 horsepower.

What you have with the V6 Firebird is V8-level performance, 6-cyl. economy, a total price under $20,000 and a car your insurance agent probably won't notice unless you get giddy and tell him.

Walkaround

There are three models in the line; Firebird, Formula and Trans Am, each available as a coupe or convertible. The Formula and Trans Am are the V8 versions; for this review we concentrated on the base car with the 3800 Series II V6 and 5-speed manual, and a carefully selected option list. Remember that what is said here about the Firebird could be essentially duplicated in Camaro form, as they share the same platform and powertrains.

High on our priorities was Pontiac option Y87, known as the 3800 Performance Package. It includes a limited-slip differential, 4-wheel disc brakes, quicker steering, dual exhaust outlets, 3.42:1 axle ratio and P235/55R-16 tires on 5-spoke alloy wheels. It costs only $535. Add a sound system and you have yourself a quick, efficient, great handling car for less than $17,000. It would blow the doors off practically any 4-cyl. imported or domestic sporty car and cost less than most of them.

Our specific Firebird was also fitted with an assortment of comfort and convenience features, but still stayed below the $20,000 barrier.

What you get for that amount is a terrific-looking car that's fun and rewarding to drive beyond all measure of what you paid for it. It will out-handle most of its sporty competitors, and it will also deliver fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg city, 30 highway and go 100,000 miles between major tuneups.

Interior Features

If there's a sore spot with the F-bodies, it's found inside. Or, to be more accurate, about midway between inside and outside. The car is low and getting into it–or out–is not as easy as sliding behind the wheel of a sedan. If you're tall, simply entering or leaving the Firebird can be a minor athletic event.

Once inside, some people may find the seating position lacking in comfort–although we think it's just about right, especially for the kind of enthusiastic driving the car encourages. The car's low height and swoopy shape result in a low-down, close-to-the-floor seating position, with your legs and feet stretched out in front of you; it may not be everyone's delight.

And if a useable back seat is a requirement, this may not be the right car. For anything but the shortest trips, it's virtually uninhabitable, at least for adults. The back seat is best left for kids, briefcases, jackets, caps and gloves–and maybe not all those at the same time.

The trunk, an odd-shaped bin under the rearmost portion of the hatch, is small, too. This cargo hold is deep enough for grocery bags, but if you want to carry much more you'll need to fold the rear seat forward.

Ergonomically, the Firebird's interior layout is conducive to the business of enthusiastic driving. The important control functions are where they need to be, with instrumentation housed in a rounded pod where all is easily visible. The sound system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls are a hand's reach away in the center. And the laid-back driving position is actually quite comfortable for the long-distance driver.

Visibility gets mixed reviews. To the front it's OK, to the sides it's not bad, to the rear it's minimal and to the rear three-quarter–for that all-important view of the lane you're about to move into–it's pretty limited. It's a good idea to watch the mirrors, keep track of whatever's back there and avoid any nasty surprises.

Driving Impressions

For spirited driving the Firebird fits great. The pedals are well-placed–unlike those in some of the competition–so you can do a proper heel-and-toe dance as you work on the niftiness of your corner entry technique. The shifter works the gearbox through short throws and precise motions. And the Firebird has long had a reputation for good steering feel, with clear feedback coming from the front tires.

Even if the only competition you'll ever enter is to race make-believe ghosts up on-ramps and around cloverleafs, the Firebird can put you in the Walter Mitty winner's circle every time.

The Firebird's chassis, with a live rear axle–as distinct from independent rear suspension–might seem antiquated to some, but it's well-developed and works with amazing results. In front, the Firebird has upper and lower control arms instead of struts–a big plus–and in back the axle is properly located, with twin trailing links, a Panhard rod for lateral positioning and a long torque arm that controls axle driving and braking torque.

In hard driving, particularly, the Firebird behaves predictably and enthusiastically.

On the debit side, the ride is not as soft as some sporty cars; whether the Firebird's ride is objectionable is a matter of personal preference. We like the taut, connected feel; others may not.

The convertible also deserves mention. As convertibles go it's quite good; the top operation is easy, and with the top down it's about as solid and rattle-free as you can reasonably expect of an open car.

But the bottom line of the Firebird's ride and drive is the driving. You boot the gas pedal and find your right foot connected to the rear wheel. You turn the wheel and it arcs into corners with a response and feel you just don't find in a front-driver. Basically, it's an exhilarating car to drive.

Summary

There is no practical reason to buy a car like a Firebird; for the same amount of money or less you can easily find something that has more space inside, gets better fuel economy and won't upset the mother-in-law.

But the Firebird is about having a good time driving. With the 3800 Series II V6, and equipped properly with the performance package, it does an extraordinary job of finding the ideal spot where the conflicting curves of performance delivered and money spent meet and cross.

It wasn't long ago when few V8s made as much as 200 hp, to get that in a V6 that won't have the insurance companies doing stakeouts in your neighborhood is a shining accomplishment and a clear indication that a few good people who build cars for a living know why we want to drive instead of taking the monorail.

You think there's no justifiable reason for a car like this? We say drive one, stand on the gas, sail it through a fast interchange, then tell us that just one more time. After you wipe the grin off your face. What more justification do you need?