EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

One mean-looking machine.

The ’99 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with Ram Air sports twin air scoops above the normal air intake openings, pop-up headlamps, and bold fog lamps along its nose. Side air intakes dress up the fenders and a deck-lid spoiler rests over multicolored honeycomb taillamps.

Can’t beat the looks, but no one is beating down the doors to buy one. Firebird fans, like Camaro loyalists, wail at any suggestion the car be dropped from the lineup. But few of those worshipers have been willing to put their money where their crocodile tears are.

Firebird is a sports coupe in a sports-utility market. At least, that’s the trouble everyone seems to be talking about.

After testing the ’99 model we found another problem. The car just ain’t as good as you’d expect from a $34,500 sports model–not when a Corvette hardtop coupe starts at $38,200 and is a lot more car for not-so-much-more money.

Corvette has spoiled us, having grown so smooth, pleasant, roomy and comfortable. Yet while becoming so civilized it hasn’t lost any of its performance attributes. ‘Vette is still a potent machine, yet you exit one without the bumps and bruises you once did before Chevy got religion and brought out a new generation in the 1997 model year.

‘Vette’s beauty is what now makes the Trans Am a beast. Bump and bounce. Rock ‘n’ roll. Getting out of a ‘Vette and into a Trans Am is like moving from an easy chair onto a wooden stool.

We tested the Trans Am with Ram Air in convertible version, which made for even more adventure. With the wrap-around top up, you sacrifice visibility. Nothing like riding a high-powered rocket without knowing what’s coming up behind or alongside of you. Attempting to leave a parking space is an insurance agent’s nightmare. Having your passenger get out to direct traffic so that you can back up without running into a Soccer Mom’s mini-van isn’t “cool.”

With Ram Air, the 5.7-liter V-8 that normally develops 305 h.p. now develops 320 h.p. with a hefty ingestion of cool air that explodes with more power when heated.

The Ram Air package also comes with 17-inch speed-rated radials mounted on polished aluminum wheels, a special sports-tuned suspension, and low-restriction dual exhausts.

The 6-speed manual is fairly smooth, though if confined to rush hour jaunts, expect a steady dose of first-to-fourth shifting as the 6-speed automatically overrides second and third.

Find an open road, motor the top down and the Trans Am delivers hours of pleasant open-air cruising. The 17-inch speed-rated Goodyear radials grip the pavement well. Traction control is standard as an added insurance policy and, for ’99, Trans Am adds Torsen II with Equvex, which basically means when a wheel starts to slip, power is directed to the wheel or wheels still making contact to keep you in control.

Lots of style, lots of pep, but get back on congested streets with the top up and you g et a jolt of reality, as well as a jolt each time you pass over a tar mark in the road. Unless you have access to open roads, you might want to consider the 4-speed automatic. The little bit you give up in power you gain back in driving ease.

Standard equipment in our test car includes four-wheel ABS, traction control, dual depowered air bags, power top, planelike instrumentation, and a fairly roomy forward cabin. The two seats in back are there strictly to keep insurance premiums down. The seat bottoms, or butt bowls as they are called, are deeply recessed to force kids that get in back to sit low so they don’t bump their heads against the cloth roof. No adult should try venturing into the back seat without first signing a waiver resolving you of any physical liability.

The Trans Am convertible starts at $30,245. Our test car added $3,150 for the Ram Air performance package, $450 for traction control and $155 for lumbar-support adjustable seats. Don’t waste the $155. Just get some rocks and place them on the seat bottom and back and get the same feeling.

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