Power can be seductive in a vehicle - especially when it comes wrapped in a sexy, muscular and curvaceous body. After logging a week behind the wheel of a cherry-red 1995 Pontiac Firebird convertible, I have determined that power and seduction are what this car is about. We're not talking about some fire-breathing, gas-sucking, ear-piercing V-8-powered hot rod. Although you can get that in a Pontiac Firebird by checking off the WS6 option on the order form, the Firebird convertible I tested gets the job done with just six cylinders. That's right. Six cylinders. Here's the story: GM engineers recently tore apart their workhorse 3.8-liter V-6 engine to look for ways to boost power and performance. They found plenty. After the engine was almost completely rebuilt, horsepower shot up from 170 to 200. And performance improved so much that the 1995 3800 V-6 Firebird makes more horsepower than V-8-powered Firebirds of just a few years ago. Installing the 3800 engine in the Firebird is the single best thing Pontiac has done to the car since overhauling it a few years ago. It's a powerfully seductive machine. PERFORMANCE The 3.8-liter V-6 replaces the harsh, rough-running 3.4-liter, 160-horsepower V-6 used in previous base-model Firebirds. The 3.8-liter now is the standard engine. In the late '60s, you could buy a Firebird with a high-performance overhead cam engine called the Sprint Six. This innovative 4.2-liter engine developed 230 horsepower and delivered performance equal to many small V-8s of the day. The latest 3.8-liter Firebird coupe and convertible carry on the tradition of offering V-8 performance for a six-cylinder price. I don't know of any non-turbocharged six-cylinder sports car other than the Firebird that can make the rear tires smoke when you bury the accelerator in the carpet. That is impressive. The Firebird's 3.8-liter engine starts quickly and runs smoothlyat idle. It emits a light growl as the tachometer needle climbs toward the 6,000 rpm limit. After logging about 400 miles in our test car, I feel that Pontiac engineers did more than just bolt the new V-6 into the Firebird. They did some fine-tuning. The 3.8-liter Firebird delivers exemplary performance at all speeds. Lightly touch the accelerator and the Firebird soars away from stoplights. Press harder and the car leaps past slower-moving traffic. The new V-6 gives the Firebird the same kind of smooth, powerful demeanor as an import, such as the Mitsubishi 3000GT. Our test car came with a four-speed automatic transmission. When driven hard, this gearbox doesn't seem to shift as smoothly as other automatics. The change from one gear to the next is noticeable, but that gives the car a sportier feel in a way. The 3.8-liter engine is available with a five-speed manual transmission, a setup sure to further delight driving enthusiasts. In combined city/hig hway driving with a very heavy foot and with the air conditioner running most of the time, our test car delivered a respectable 25 mpg on regular unleaded. HANDLING The V-8-powered Firebirds I tested in the past couple of years have been a bit nose-heavy. The V-6 changes that equation. Pontiac says the 3.8-liter V-6 weighs 57 pounds less than the 5.7-liter V-8. The weight is distributed the same way among V-6 and V-8 models -56 percent up front and44 percent in the rear. However, the 3.8-liter Firebird felt more agile and stable while I rolled the Firebird through a tight, fast curve. I never felt the body lean or heard the tires squeal in sharp turns, signs that conveyed to me that the Firebird's suspension works better with the V-6 than with the V-8. Without those extra pounds on the front wheels, the Firebird is easier to steer. It responded quickly to slight movements of the wheel. The front disc/rear drum power-assisted anti-lock brakes bi hard and stopped the car quickly. Firebird comes with a solid rear axle and a short-long arm, coil spring suspension up front - not a particularly advanced setup. However, the ride is very civilized for a sports car. It handles most bumps with ease. But the convertible's body flexes a bit on rough terrain, which causes the body to shake a bit more than one might expect. All in all, I would say the 3.8-liter Firebird is the most stable and best-handling Firebird I have yet to test. FIT AND FINISH Despite all its good points on performance and handling, the Firebird still has several major shortcomings. They can be found inside. GM has made great strides in recent years improving the seats in its cars. But somehow the Firebird - at least the base models - have been overlooked. I was uncomfortable from the moment I sat in the driver's seat. The thinly padded bucket seats in our test car lacked support in all areas, and the headrest was next to useless. The more expensive Formula and Trans Am come with better seats. The base model Firebird - world class in many ways - deserves better. Although the Firebird is a fairly large sports car, don't expect much interior room. The rear seats are nearly uninhabitable for adults. It's better to think of the Firebird as a two-seater. The back seats and trunk are best used for groceries and small packages. On the plus side, the snug cockpit is a cleanly styled, user-friendly place. Most controls are less than an arm's length away. The radio can be adjusted by using buttons on the rim of the steering wheel. Like a true sports car, the Firebird comes with a complete set of analog gauges. They are attractive, well-lighted and easy to read. The power convertible top raises and lowers quickly and without fuss (I think the Firebird looks best with the top down). Our test car was built well. The top was leak-proof - I stayed dry in heavy rains. And I heard no wind noise. All the trim and body parts fit together snugly. There were no rattles or squeaks. The 3.8-liter V-6 engine delivers all the performance most people need. Ordering the six-cylinder engine likely will save you a bundle when it comes time to pay the insurance man. Yet you'll still get tire-spinning performance. Givethe Firebird a better set of bucket seats, and it would be a match for any V-6-powered sports car, foreign or domestic. Truett's tip: Fast, fuel efficient and fun, the Firebird convertible from Pontiac delivers just about everything you could want in a sports car.
|Richard Truett||Orlando Sentinel||October 19, 1995|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||July 23, 1995|
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