General Motors seems no longer content to just compete in the mid-priced sports car market. Judging from this week’s test-drive vehicle, a 1994 Firebird Formula convertible, the world’s largest automaker clearly wants to own the market.
I can’t think of another convertible sports car on the planet that delivers more for the money than this week’s test car.
No matter what you use as your measure – performance, safety or cost – the Firebird convertible is an incredible value.
Now for the bad news: Pontiac won’t be making many Firebird convertibles for the 1994 model year, because it took engineers longer than anticipated to work out a few minor last-minute production problems.
Running at full tilt, the factory can build just 1,000 Firebird convertibles before shutting down for the summer, Pontiac spokesman Randy Fox said from Michigan. Fox said 250 of the 1,000 Firebird convertibles scheduled to be built for 1994 will be 25th Anniversary Trans Am convertibles, which will have a special appearance package.
Each June or July, auto factories close for a few weeks to prepare for the next year’s models. But when the factory reopens and begins to build the 1995 models, there should be an adequate supply of Firebird convertibles on hand in the fall.
As with a hardtop, the red Formula convertible came outfitted with a 275-horsepower version of the 350-cubic-inch Corvette V-8. You can choose between a six-speed manual transmission or a computer-controlled four-speed automatic.
Our test car came with the six-speed. This proved to be an easy-to-shift transmission. The clutch pedal also worked smoothly, making the Formula easy to drive.
The Firebird’s blistering acceleration made the car extremely fun to drive. With a touch of the gas pedal, the car rocketed forward and the chrome-tipped dual exhausts uttered a thundering rumble.
The fuel-injected V-8 engine is loud and, at idle, it shakes thewhole car. But, hey, that’s what the Firebird Formula is all about. There is nothing subtle, subdued or restrained about it.
Though Pontiac has not released performance figures, the slightly heavier convertible is about as fast from 0-to-60mph as the Formula hardtop. Figure 0-to-60 mph in about 6.3 seconds. The Formula convertible weighs about 100 pounds more than the hardtop.
Our test car delivered 24 mpg on a long highway cruise and 16 mpg in the city.
The Firebird Formula is a civilized sports car. Unlike other performance cars, the Pontiac doesn’t shatter your spine with a stiff, unforgiving ride.
The Firebird’s suspension system is nothing exotic, but it does its job well. The Formula handles with just as much ease as many other more expensive sports cars. Up front there’s a short/long arm suspension with gas-charged shocks and a stabilizer bar. In the back there’s a solid axle and coil springs.
The secret of the car’s ride, Po ntiac engineers say, is in the Firebird’s stiff body. By making the body rigid and nearly flex-free, the suspension system could be fine-tuned to provide a ride that absorbs bumps yet also is firm enough to keep the car poised and easy to control during aggressive driving, such as fast cornering.
Pontiac didn’t skimp on the steering or brake systems. There’s a very tight and precise power-assisted rack and pinion steering system and four-wheel ventilated disc brakes equipped with an advanced anti-lock system, which has more sophisticated sensors.
The Formula’s fat tires and the car’s low stance make the car feel very stable.
FIT AND FINISH
The Firebird is not a big car, but the long dash and sloping nose make it a bit difficult at first to get your bearings when you are parking.
Our test car featured leather seats (an $805 option) that were exceptionally comfortable. On one trip I covered nearly 200 miles and my back felt fine afterward.
Th re’s not much legroom in the back seat, but it is not impossible to get comfortable. One adult can sit sideways or angle his legs over the transmission tunnel.
Visibility is excellent – as long as the top is down. With it up, you can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic. The glass rear window is very small, and its size restricts your vision.
However, raising and lowering the power top is a very easy procedure. All you do is unfasten the two latches on the top frame and press a button under the dash. The top folds neatly into an area behind the rear seat.
The Firebird’s convertible top deserves special mention. It is made of an expensive canvas-like cloth, and on the inside it is lined with thick cloth to keep out wind and road noise. With the top up, the Formula convertible is nearly as quiet as the coupe. The roof had no wind or water leaks, and the rear window sported an electric defroster.
With its 275-horsepower V-8, long list of standard safety features, exotic styling and excellent road manners, the Formula convertible sets the standard for value in its class. It might take a while to get your hands on one, but it’s well worth the wait.
Truett’s tip: The Firebird Formula convertible delivers astounding performance, exceptional handling and best-in-class safety for a price that no other automaker can match.