Versus the competiton:
The hood scoops fed air to a beast of an engine, a 320-horsepower, 5.7-liter SFI V-8, which growled at idle and roared at speed.
It was raw, sinewy power, far more sexy than sensual. There was no finesse, no pretense, no seduction. There never has been with General Motors Corp.’s rear-drive muscle cars, of which this was one–the 1999, 30th-anniversary special edition of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Coupe.
The car was arctic white with broad blue racing stripes running fore and aft, interrupted by a T-top roof and its related glasswork. The wheels, 17 inches in diameter, were polished cast aluminum covered with medium-blue-tint clear-coat paint, giving them the look of gleaming blue steel.
White leather covered the seats, the headrests of which were embroidered with blue, winged 30th Anniversary Trans Am logos–a theme repeated on the floor and cargo area mats.
The car came with a smooth, six-speed manual Hurst shifter. It could have had a less exciting electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission–standard on Firebird Trans Ams.
I sat behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel and sniffed the car’s newness, a mixture of fresh paint, cowhide and vinyl fumes. I stepped on the clutch, a springy piece, and keyed the ignition.
The big engine growled. The car moved forward in the manner of a panther–stealthily, ready to pounce. But I low-growled through my Arlington neighborhood, where speed limits run from 25 mph to 35 mph, and where traffic laws are strictly enforced.
I kept the Trans Am in creep mode until I reached westbound I-66, where I went into high gear. Whooossshhh! The heaviness of the Trans Am’s 3,477 pounds disappeared. There was a wonderful lightness of being. I was having fun.
And thus things continued for about 40 miles on a run through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was a beautiful ride on a splendid day, a rare moment of brilliant sunshine and warmth in an otherwise uncertain spring.
There was an explosion of color in the surrounding landscape, including one decidedly unnatural hue. It was blinking blue and speeding in my rearview mirror.
My heart sank. Pulse quickened. I got the sweats. Hitting the brakes was a no-no. Sudden brake lights constitute an electronic admission of guilt. I took my foot off the accelerator, let the car calm itself a bit. I shifted from fifth to fourth and prepared to pull over.
But the blinking lights atop the Virginia state trooper’s gray Ford Crown Victoria swerved and soared past me. I couldn’t believe it. The uniformed dude was after someone else, somebody driving a Mitsubishi Montero Sport sport-utility vehicle. Ha! Relief gave way to praise of the Almighty, and I vowed never to sin that way again.
1999 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am
Complaints: The Firebird and its various iterations are motorized anachronisms, as is its cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro. Despite all of their recent technical improvements and cosmetic fixes, they remain ove rweight, overpowered growl-mobiles with steadily declining sales, thanks to the availability of lighter, tighter sports cars such as the Toyota Celica GT and the Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T/GS-X.
Praise: Despite their shortcomings, I love the Firebird and Camaro and always will. They are quintessentially American cars–big, bold, raw, in-your-face. There is something about them that gives the ignoble digital salute to all that is politically correct Washington.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Lousy ride, acceleration and handling at low speeds. You really feel the weight and clumsiness of the Trans Am under these conditions. But at highway speeds, the car is something else–sharp, light, fast, very definitely fun. Excellent braking, too. Brakes include power four-wheel discs with antilock backup.
Safety: According to federal safety records and insurance industry testing, the Firebird and Camaro fare very well in front- and side-impact crashes. Depowered air bags are offered in th e newest models. So are seat belts. Wear the belts.
Engine: Test car’s engine equipped with WS6 Ram Air. Puts out 320 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 335 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Capacities: Seats two people. New 16.8-gallon fuel tank helps to increase range by 45 miles over previous model. Limited cargo space.
Mileage: About 20 miles per gallon in city-highway driving. Estimated 325 miles on usable volume of required premium unleaded gasoline.
Price: Base price on the 1999 Firebird Trans Am is $26,260. Dealer’s invoice price is $24,028. Price as tested is $32,960, including $6,165 for the 30th Anniversary package and a $535 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: Compare with Ford Mustang GT, Toyota Celica GT and Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T/GS-X.