Hey, guys! Got a beer budget and a craving for all the power Detroit has to offer? Look no further than the 1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula with the new Ram Air package. You get a souped-up V-8 coupe that offers a ton of performance for less than $25,000.
But be forewarned: This much muscle isn’t for everyone.
(Translation for female readers: You may be a woman who runs with the wolves, but the Ram Air Firebird may be too much car even for you.)
He: What a perfect complement to my new diet and exercise program! A bright red Pontiac Firebird Formula with the new WS6 Ram Air performance kit. I LOVE to feel that 305-horsepower V-8 throbbing under the hood, or those meaty 17-inch tires ripping the pavement when you slam the six-speed gearbox into first and pop the clutch. Gee, I feel like a teenager again – just in time for my 25th high-school reunion.
She: The Firebird does have ‘male adolescent’ written all over it. Or Batman. The first time I drove it was at night and you sure get a jolt when the headlights pop up and the exhaust roars. All that’s missing is fire coming out of the dual oval exhaust pipes and a parachute to slow it down. I’m trying not to be too judgmental about who would want this car. After all, I get attached to objects, too. But luckily, they’re things like $12 green-and-white spatterware batter bowls that radiate hominess and goodness, not excessive power and adrenaline.
He: Hormones, honey. I guess you did look a little out of place behind the wheel.
She: Not just behind the wheel. In the passenger seat, too. We got all tucked in the Firebird yesterday with our cups of coffee – and one cupholder. Pontiac has the nerve to brag about putting a front seat belt buckle in the 1996 version for ‘child seat lockability.’ As if I’d ever let you take a baby in that car. Why didn’t they spend the money on a second cupholder? Or is this a car for the REAL independent single male?
He: I like to think of it as my inner adolescent. I mean, nothing stirs the blood like a good old-fashioned American muscle car. Right now, this particular model may be at the top of the heap. Yes, the new Mustang Cobra is a nice package, but somehow it just doesn’t have the sting or the sexiness of a Firebird Ram Air.
She: Sting, right. I was stung that, despite the fact the driver’s seat has a four-way manual adjuster, I could never get the seat high enough to feel comfortable peering out the window. I wish the Firebird had see-through smoked glass visors like airplane cockpits do to give me a little more visibility. It was really hard to park and even drive looking out over that long hood – sexy as it may be. But I guess I’m just too practical. Sure, you get all that horsepower, but we averaged about 15 miles a gallon in the Firebird. I know, you’re going to argue that’s a small price to pay for getting a Corvette engine in a Pontiac, without having to pay $37,000.
He: What I think is a bargain is the Ra m Air package, which adds $3,000 to the Firebird Formula’s $19.500 base sticker. We had a few more options on our test car, but the total price was under $25,000. I guarantee this car will suck the headlights out of nearly any Bimmer. If James Bond were a REAL man, he’d be driving this beauty.
She: Suck the headlights? What are you talking about? I suppose, the styling does have a certain classic blue-collar appeal, especially with those twin hood scoops that draw air into the engine to boost horsepower and the modified spoiler in back. But as my mother would say, “You’re roots are showing.”
He: I don’t like you referring to the Firebird as ‘blue collar.’ I like to think of it as having ‘value-added.’
She: OK, if you don’t like my description, listen to what Pontiac says about it. The press kit describes it as: “This open-snouted, fire-breathing dragon for serious driving enthusiasts who want the response of an I-Ain’t-Kiddin’ 305 horsepower V-8 engine.” Geez – I’d r have a smoother ride and an I-Ain’t-Kiddin’ charge card.
He: Only problem is, you could fill up that miniscule trunk with less than an hour’s worth of power shopping – at least the way you do it. As for the ride, this is really a single-purpose vehicle, meant to handle like a sports car. That’s what the stiffer suspension is for. And that’s why the Firebird is still solid-axle rear-wheel drive, the way God intended muscle cars to be.
She: I’m still not crazy about rear-wheel drive vehicles, especially in the snow. I was happy to see that traction control is available with the 5.7 liter V-8 engine and that the car does have antilock brakes and dual airbags. And the steering wheel radio controls and remote keyless entry are what I consider nice safety touches. But those are things that women tend to worry about. And I can’t imagine most of them getting past the Firebird’s rough ride to even appreciate the little details.
He: Sorry, dear, but I don’t really see this as a woman’s car – at least not the Ram Air configuration with the six-speed. This is a pure macho fantasymobile. With an affordable price tag, I might add.
She: I try to visualize the woman who would love the Firebird and I keep picturing Shirley Muldowney, the former drag racing queen. She is one of those rare females who can somehow combine a good manicure, high heels and all that muscle in a car. So for Shirley and you macho guys – enjoy! You’ll be shooting past the rest of us by in our Cavaliers and Camrys.
Anita’s rating: average
Paul’s rating: world class
What we liked: Brute power; amazingly good handling; sexy styling (Paul)
What we didn’t like: Lousy gas mileage; poor trunk space; limited visibility; all that engine overkill seems silly (Anita)
1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula
Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sport coupe
Price: Base, $19,464; as tested, $24,658 (inc. $505 destination charge)
What’s new for ’96: New standard engine, WS6 performance package, steering-wheel radio controls, 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels, 100,000-mile spark splugs, theft-deterrent system.
Standard equipment: Air conditioning, reclining front bucket seats, adjustable steering column, four-spoke steering wheel, rack-and-pinion power steering
Safety features: Antilock brakes, dual air bags, traction control (optional), side-door impact beams
Options on test vehicle: WS6 Ram Air: performance and handling package ($2,995) inc. Pontiac Ram-Air induction with functional hood scoops, 5-spoke 17-inch cast aluminum wheels, P275/40ZR17 speed-rated tires, dual oval exhaust outlets; specific tuned suspension; Option Group 1SC ($1,604) inc. power door locks, windows, mirrors, remote keyless entry, AM/FM stereo with cassette, graphic equalizer and steering wheel radio controls, 4-way manual driver’s seat; rear-window defogger, cruise control, floor mats, power antenna and Pass-Key II t heft deterrent system ($90)
EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8; 305-hp at 5400 rpm; 335 lb-ft torque at 3200 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Competitors: Chevrolet Camaro Z28, Ford Mustang Cobra
Specifications: Wheelbase, 101.1 inches; overall length, 195.6 inches; curb weight, 3452 pounds; legroom, 43.0 inches front/28.9 inches rear; headroom, 37.2 inches front/35.3 inches rear; shoulder room, 57.4 inches front/55.8 inches rear.
*12-month insurance cost: $1421
Where built: Ste. Therese, Quebec.
* AAA Michigan rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.