"Now the Excitement Begins." So went Pontiac's boisterous boast in its advertisements for the stunning, neatly downsized 1982 Pontiac Firebird, representing a platform that endured until 1992.
Fortunately for General Motors, the new-and-different Camaro and Firebird for the Eighties emerged just as America was sensing sparks of renewed interest in performance cars. A coincidence? Perhaps; but even in the darkest days of the '70s, when performance seemed a relic of the distant past, Pontiac had kept up the fight. Now that battle had an opportunity to turn into victory.
Pontiac Firebird Image Gallery
Stylists under John Schinella again maintained Firebird's distinctive look, despite its continued tie to Camaro. Differences included a low-riding nose with shallow twin grilles within air slots, plus hidden headlamps-employed previously on Camaros, but a Firebird "first."
Once again, Firebird adopted a more rounded profile than Camaro, exemplified by the soft S-curves over each fender. Pontiac called attention to its "sabre-like nose and rakish tail."
Some models wore full-width, smoked-lens taillamps, creating a blackout effect. All were "glassback" coupes, with a rear hatch instead of a trunk lid. Several automakers had revived convertibles in the works, but there would be no open
Firebird until the end of this third generation.
Sleeker and swoopier, lighter and less bulky than before, Firebird benefited from what Pontiac expert John Gunnell described as "space-age engineering." Underneath, modified MacPherson struts replaced the old wishbone-style front suspension. Out back, coil springs replaced multi-leaf units.
Front-wheel drive had been considered, but the ponycars stuck instead to traditional rear-drive. Design goals included keeping the cockpit as spacious as before, while reducing outside dimensions. Wheelbase shrunk by seven inches; overall length by eight; width by one.
For details on the 1982, continue on to the next page.
More than just a pretty face would be needed to sell plenty of 1982 Pontiac Firebirds. It would have to offer serious performance and handle like a veteran and -- in this era of attention to aerodynamic efficiency -- slice through the air with some ease. No problem there, as the new Firebird's body rated 0.33 on the coefficient-of-drag scale, helped by the dramatic, 62-degree windshield slope.
Each of three Firebird models adopted a distinct identity. Base coupes were considered compact cars, and carried -- of all things-a standard four -- cylinder engine. No Firebird had ever run with fewer than six cylinders, but Pontiac's fuel-injected "Iron Duke" four delivered an adequate, if uninspiring, 90 horsepower. Next in line was the luxury touring edition, dubbed S/E, with a Chevrolet 173-cid (2.8-liter) V-6 underhood and special suspension below.
Trans Am again served as performance king, even if its standard carbureted 305-cid (5.0-liter) V-8 delivered a rather feeble 145 horses. At least Pontiac offered a hotter option, borrowed from Corvette: a 305 V-8 with dual throttle-body ("Cross-Fire") fuel injection, rated at 165 horsepower.
Road & Track called the fuel-injected Trans Am "a dramatic improvement on [its] predecessors," managing a 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds-sluggish compared to muscle cars of a decade earlier, but swift by 1982 standards. Handling was deemed softer than Camaro's, more European in nature. Car and Driver declared "America's latest shot at a modern GT coupe . . . worlds better than the car it's replacing," even though Camaro/Firebird "engine displacements have been trimmed more aggressively than their curb weights," and the editors bemoaned their test car's "10.6-second waltz to 60."
Consumer Guide® testers took their carbureted Trans Am with automatic to 60 mph in 10.8 seconds. Although the ride was declared shaky and stiff, and the car's character brutish, no fault was found with its super handling and flat cornering behavior.
Subtle it was not, with brash front-fender air extractors and flared wheel openings. Trans Ams might no longer wear their immense and insolent decals, but the new hood did feature a rear-facing scoop.
Dazzling looks doubtless accounted for the impressive sales figures of the newly diminutive Firebird. A total of 116,362 were built in the abbreviated model year-more than 45 percent Trans Ams. Four-and six-cylinder Firebirds had their followers, but 64,116 customers selected a moderately vigorous V-8 instead.
On the next page, we'll look at improvements made on the Firebird in 1983.
1983-1984 Pontiac Firebird
Considering that the 1983 Firebird appeared barely half a year after launch, it showed a surprising number of technical improvements. A new integral-rail shift mechanism replaced the cable linkage on the four-speed manual gearbox. Even better, new close-ratio five-speed (overdrive) manual shift became standard for the S/E and Trans Am. Chevrolet's 2.8-liter V-6 again powered the S/E, but it was now the H.O. (High-Output) version-an engine not offered in the equivalent Camaro Berlinetta. Also new: a four-speed overdrive automatic transmission. More than half of the 74,884 cars built were V-8 powered.
Two special-edition Trans Ams appeared in 1983: a black Recaro coupe and a Daytona 500 Anniversary model in white/charcoal. Late in the model year, Pontiac announced a high-output 5.0-liter V-8 option for the Trans Am, packing 190 horses and 240 pounds/feet of torque.
Through most of the Eighties, annual styling changes were slight; and many of those affected Trans Ams alone. Among the most notable was the grille-less "bottom-breather" nose installed for 1984. Trans Am's "Cross-Fire" V-8 faded away, replaced by the 190-bhp carbureted version.
A new aero option package, including rear wing, could give Trans Ams the look of the Recaro special-edition. A few such doodads made sense for owners who wanted to accentuate their Firebird's sleek lines.
A 15th anniversary Trans Am came only in white, with blue trim and aero skirting. High-Performance Pontiac magazine compared it to "The Judge" in appearance, but complained of its stiff suspension, stalling engine, fuel starvation, loose gearshift, and wheel hop. Pontiac claimed that a Trans Am with H.O. engine could hit 60 in seven seconds, but test figures ran closer to eight.
Firebirds seemed to be finding their niche again, as 128,304 rolled off the line for '84-the high point of the third generation. Trans Ams continued to sell well, but were beaten by the base model.
Three seasons into the new Firebird, Pontiac decided it was time for a facelift. Read about it on the next page.
1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 Pontiac Firebird Models
After three seasons without major modification, the 1985 Pontiac Firebird was ready for serious changes. Trans Ams earned a more aggressive appearance for '85, highlighted by aero components, foglamps, and a louvered hood. The standard Chevrolet-built Trans Am 5.0-liter V-8 got a boost to 165 bhp. The high-output version kept its 190-bhp rating, but top honors went to a new variant of the 5.0 offered only with automatic transmission. Breathing through Tuned Port Injection, it delivered a rousing 205 horse-power. Customers were clamoring for more zest, it seemed-and Pontiac was ready to provide.
Meanwhile, the luxury-oriented S/E got new front/rear fascias and its own louvered hood, plus a 135-horsepower modification of the 2.8-liter V-6, with multi-port fuel injection. Even the 4-cylinder "Tech IV" engine got attention, earning roller hydraulic valve lifters. Four-speed gearboxes were gone; even four-cylinder models shifted through five cogs now (or eased along with four-speed automatic).
Output slipped to 95,880 units for 1985, but leaped past 110,000 in the next season. All Firebirds now rode standard 15-inch tires. Base models got new taillamps and body touch-ups, plus a rear spoiler. Even if your Firebird lacked musclebound V-8 brawn, it could look the part.
Trans Ams had a choice of three engines (all 5.0-liter). In a gesture to shifting attitudes, a 140-mph speedometer now came with its optional V-8s. Consumer Guide® noted that a V-8 Firebird sounded and felt like muscle cars of the '60s-but with better tires and brakes to accompany the abundant power, there-by providing more balanced performance.
Giant Firebird hood decals departed as the '87 models arrived. Biggest change was availability of a 350-cid (5.7-liter) V-8, borrowed from Corvette, ready to liberate 210 eager horses and 315 pounds/feet of bustling torque. Pontiac engineers felt that a bigger engine was needed to propel such a heavy coupe with sufficient haste, in order to keep pace with such imported rivals as the turbocharged Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 300ZX. Offered only with automatic, it came in both Trans Ams and Formulas.
Four-cylinder engines were gone, along with the SE series. On the other hand, a base Firebird could be ordered with a new $1070 Formula option, including a four-barrel V-8 and 16-inch tires. The tuned-port-injected 5.0-liter engine now came with either a five-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic.
Meanest-looking (and acting) member of the '87 lineup was the Trans Am's new GTA option. Priced at $2,700, it featured the 5.7 V-8 and a host of performance-oriented extras, including a fully articulating driver's seat and an engine oil cooler.
All Firebird engines were fuel-injected in 1988, consigning the four-barrel carburetor to the dustbin of history. Base models added standard aluminum wheels, and the Trans Am (and Formula option) carried a standard 170-bhp V-8. All but base Fire-birds could be ordered with the big 5.7-liter engine, now rated at 225 horsepower. Chevrolet began offering convertible Camaros, but Pontiac eschewed soft-tops until '91.
"If you could hang an aero package on a lightning bolt" you'd have the GTA, insisted Pontiac copywriters. "These machines hold title to the streets as classic bully-boy, rear-wheel-drive performance coupes." Produced with a notchback roof for 1988 (along with the customary hatchback), the top Firebird was "available in three flavors: Strong, Stronger, and Strongest."
Strong words, too-but Firebird sales were starting to sag. Production had slipped to 88,612 for 1987, then dipped below 65,000 for the next two seasons before bottoming near 20,000 in 1990.
How could this be? Trans Am zealots had seemingly revived the status of their favored machines as virtual "cult" cars. Base and Formula versions appealed to young working women, as well as to men. Yet Pontiac's ponycars weren't keeping pace with modern front-drive rivals. Cited as culprits were the car's little-changed basic design, fast-rising prices, high insurance rates and imperfect workmanship.
Next up: we take up the 1989 Firebird and beyond.
1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 Pontiac Firebird Models
Auto thieves, on the other hand, adored Firebirds. Along with Camaro, it topped the list of favored targets. GM responded with a "pass key" theft-deterrent system for the 1989 Pontiac Firebird model. Rear shoulder belts now were standard. So were four-wheel disc brakes-at least in Firebirds with the hottest engines.
Performance fanatics had a treat in store, provided they could cope with a price tag past $30,000. A turbocharged Firebird, on sale at midyear, marked Trans Am's 20th anniversary. Only about 1,500 were built, adopting its 250-bhp powerplant from the departed Buick Regal Grand National. Could the turbo travel? Well, a 0-60 time as quick as 4.6 seconds and 153-mph top speed made it the fastest domestic car of the year, if not the era.
A driver-side airbag went into all Firebirds for 1990, elbowing aside optional radio controls in the steering wheel. Base V-6 engines grew to 3.1-liter displacement, while V-8s added a few horsepower.
A front-end facelift emerged in spring of 1990 as an early '91 model, its impertinent snout (with lower-profile headlamps) adapted from the Banshee show car. All except base models added new rear spoilers. Trans Am and GTA also got fresh taillamps and shared new bodyside skirting, while Trans Ams adopted bigger (16-inch) tires on the GTA's lacy-spoke wheels. A newly optional Sport Appearance Package for the base model imitated the Trans Am/GTA look. During 1991, too, a Firebird convertible joined the fleet-the first since 1969.
Anyone unhappy with Firebird's action had a new choice. A Street Legal Performance package for 5.7-liter and high-output 5.0-liter V-8s, marketed through GM dealers, provided up to 50 additional horsepower.
In this extended model year, output swelled past 50,000. Sadly, volume fell by nearly half in 1992, when Firebirds changed little apart from claimed "structural improvements for a tighter and quieter ride."
Trans Am, the PR folks claimed, "supplies unmitigated power for those able to handle it." But plenty of buyers chose to wait for the fourth generation -- the first completely restyled Firebird in 11 years -- which went on sale several months after the 1993 model year began.
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