EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

If you find yourself a tad short of funds for a 3000GT Spyder VR4, considera Pontiac Firebird convertible.

OK, the top is vinyl and not retractable steel and you have to unfasten theclamps at the windshield as well as push the power button to motor the top up or down, and the engine is a 3.8-liter, 200-h.p., V-6 that falls 120 h.p. shy of the Spyder’s. But the 1995 Firebird Formula convertible we tested starts at$45,000 less than the Spyder VR4, so you have to make a few concessions.

At least the Firebird Formula we drove comes with dual air bags and four-wheel ABS as standard, like the Spyder. No four-wheel steering or drive, but the Formula is adequately nimble for a rear-wheel-drive coupe.

Traction control is an option on the Formula coupe, with 5.7-liter, V-8, but not the Formula convertible, which comes with a 3.4-liter, 160-h.p., V-6 as standard and a 3.8-liter, 200 h.p., V-6 as optional ($350).

Even with four-wheel ABS, you may find yourself leaving your Formula convertible in the garage on a few dates in the winter without traction control.

Formula styling is magnetic.

The Formula we tested had the 3.8-liter V-6 and optional 4-speed automatic ($775), a tame combo meant more for show than go (a pleasant 19 miles per gallon city/28 m.p.g. highway rating) as well as manageable insurance rates. The drop top Firebird is meant more for open-air cruising than all-out carousing.

The top, however, was our main gripe. It powers up and down and features a glass rear window, but the vinyl extends well around the sides and creates rather large blind spots when passing or parking. A small side rear window would eliminate the blind spots.

The Formula convertible starts at $22,039. Our test vehicle added a $508 option package of remote keyless entry with AM/FM stereo with cassette and digital clock and steering wheel controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel/shift knob/brake handle, and power antenna; automatic transmission at $775; 3.8-liter engine at $350; power seats at $270. Also, 16-inch touring (softer ride) tires added $132, and compact disc player upgrade to the sound system added $100. With $500 for freight, the car stickered at $24,674.

Fore!

Wilmette native and New Trier East High School alum Mark Hogan, 44, a General Motors vice president and president of its Brazilian operations, reluctantly admitted while in town last week on vacation that his son-named for famed golfer Ben Hogan-has yet to win a major much less a minor golf tournament. “Remember, he’s still only 4 years old,” Mark said of offspring Ben. The excuses some fathers come up with!

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