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.