The lesson learned from the Chevrolet Corvette has been passed down to the Pontiac Firebird.You can gain without pain. For 1998, Pontiac has redesigned its Firebird sport coupe. Nothing major: a new hood, facia, fenders, popup headlamps and novel honeycomb taillights but attractive. The major change is that the base coupe and convertible offer a 3.8-liter V-6 as standard, but the uplevel Formula and Trans Am sport a 305-horsepower version of Corvette's 5.7-liter, 345-h.p., LS1 V-8 engine to replace the 5.7-liter, 285-h.p. V-8. For '98, Pontiac has gone top shelf. The 305-h.p. V-8 delivers 335 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 r.p.m. versus 350 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 r.p.m. in the 'Vette and 325 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 r.p.m. with the 285-h.p. V-8.That means quicker movement off the line. The new V-8 also has a so-called camel mode, meaning if it starts to overheat, you can limp home for help even if you lose the coolant. The engine will shut down four cylinders while using the other four to pump air to cool the engine. The camel mode was adopted from the Cadillac Northstar V-8. Pontiac also revised the automatic transmission to handle the power more quietly. At 115 m.p.h., Pontiac boasts you won't hear much transmission noise filtering into the cabin--as if you could hear trans noise over your heartbeat at 115 m.p.h. But it takes more than a potent V-8 to make a performance coupe. It takes a more road worthy suspension that keeps the car sitting flat on the pavement. Performance means you can accelerate into and out of those bends in the road without having to slow down and tiptoe to keep the body from leaning or swaying. And you won't have to fight the wheel to keep control. Past Firebirds put occupants through a ritual initiation of getting bounced around, beaten and bruised so they could say they traveled fast in a sports coupe. When Chevy brought out its re-engineered Corvette for '97,it revised its age-old philosophy about how to treat sports-car buffs. Tame was in, torture was out. Pontiac borrowed the blueprint to come up with a more civilized Trans Am for 1998. At a media preview at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway here, a special serpentine course was set up with a series of sharp turns and one modest straightaway to test the coupe's ride and handling. The Trans Am sat flat while scooting through the course on its speed-rated, p245/50ZR, 16-inch, all-weather radials. No lean, sway or riding on the sidewalls. No fighting the wheel. Engine/suspension/steering/brakes were in harmony. The driver had control over the course; the course didn't dictate to the driver. It helped that Pontiac revalved the shocks on V-8 models for '98 and beefed up engine mounts to reduce engine vibration and bounce, which lessens vertical movement under the hood so the coupe doesn't gyrate each time the engine does. It means smoother ride and more precise handling. On V-6 models, Pontiac stiffened the front springs and used smaller diameter stabilizer bars to make the ride less stiff. Pontiac also improved braking by adding larger rotors, calipers and premium linings so it takes less effort to stop, and you end do so in a straight line. And there's no brake fade even after several energetic stops and starts. We also used a parking lot nearby to check out the anti-lock brakes, which have been revised to reduce pedal chatter until just a few feet before stopping. Some motorists don't want ABS chatter, insisting it makes them feel as if the system isn't working. Others would rather be advised with a little chatter that ABS is at work. We belong to that school. In addition to ABS, Trans Am offers traction control as an option with the V-8. The system uses ABS and fuel flow to control wheel slippage for more sure-footedness under slippery co nditions. Too bad it's a hefty $450. Ouch! To check out the traction control, Pontiac dotted a parking lot with several car-length vinyl mats soaked with soap and water. The car was to accelerate smoothly with all four tires on the slippery mats and then with just the left or right tires on the mats. Did both. The car took off without wiggling or jiggling. The feature will be appreciated even more in the winter in the Snow Belt. We drove the Trans Am convertible and Firebird Formula coupe with the same V-8, but with the standard 4-speed automatic in the convertible, no-cost 6-speed manual option in the Formula. A racetrack and a few of those desolate stretches of the Western desert may be the only places you can get out of third gear with a 6-speed manual before running into a construction barricade. We spent the most time in the convertible, which is best with the top down. Press two latches at the header and hit the power button, and it slips into its hiding place without effort. Kudos to Pontiac for very good sealing so you aren't hassled with wind noise when the top is up. However, with the top up, you'll experience Trans Am's nagging flaw--no small rear window on the side to eliminate the blind spot when parking/ passing/backing up. The top wraps all the way to the back of both front windows. Another irritant is Pontiac's use of a space-age articulating bucket seat, which contradicts the carmaker's avowed strategy (Transportation, Sept. 28) of catering more to older buyers rather than youth who can't afford the insurance, much less the car. The seat reminds us of today's computers--a million features depending on how you maneuver the buttons. Youth might appreciate the science required to adjust the seat, but their parents just want a wide, supportive bucket that holds them in place when driving aggressively and cushions them when cruising long distances down the interstate. Jim Murray, Pontiac brand manager, told us in an interview that the coupe market is shrinking as the youth that had dominated it moves over to sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, vehicles that are fashionable and, thanks to reasonable insurance rates, affordable. "What we get is the Baby Boomer coming back into the market, the one who grew up with muscle cars and who wants to relive his or her youth, people who have money and aren't affected by high insurance rates because of their age," Murray said. "If we can hold the volume up by focusing on an older buyer, we can keep Firebird for five years," he added. We hope that in those next few years, Pontiac can fix some of the gripes, such as no trunk space, no rear-seat space and no way to avoid getting soaked when you crack open the driver's window on the coupe in the rain and the water cascades over the aerodynamic roof into your lap. Nice touches, however, include road-rage red lighting on all gauges and controls at night; a larger exhaust that promises three years longer life; heater that warms up 50 percent faster; standard T-tops on the Trans Am; and standard electric rear-window defogger and cruise control on all Firebirds. The Trans Am also offers as standard dual reduced-force air bags, four-wheel ABS with four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with CD player and clock, power windows and door locks and steering-wheel radio controls for '98. You also can get a WS6, or Ram Air, version of the Formula or Trans Am with a 320-h.p. edition of the 5.7-liter V-8 with dual hood bulges and 17-inch speed-rated tires. Run-flat tires aren't available on the Trans Am, as they are on the Corvette because they cost too much and the ride is too harsh, Pontiac said. The Trans Am convertible starts at $29,715, the Formula coupe at $22,865. >> 1998 Pontiac Trans Am convertible Wheelbase: 101.1 inches Length: 193.8 inches Engine: 5.7 liter, 305-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 18 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway Base price: $29,715 Price as tested: $31,140. Includes $595 for remote compact-disc changer; $450 for electronic traction control; $225 for rear performance axle ratio; and $155 for articulating front bucket seats. Add $525 for freight. Pluses: Minor redesign, but major engine change with addition of 305-h.p. version of Corvette's 5.7-liter V-8. More civilized suspension. Absence of wind noise with snug, tightly sealed and easy-to-use power top. Dual air bags and ABS standard, traction control optional for optimum roadability. Minuses: Articulating seats a pain. Traction control a whopping $450. Convertible has no small side window in back to eliminate blind spots. Rear seats offer no room. Ditto for trunk. >>
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