EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Where have the years gone?

The Pontiac Firebird first arrived in 1967, the high-performance Trans Am in 1969, and now, despite numerous rumors of Firebird’s demise, the Trans Am celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Sluggish sales and sky-high insurance rates have threatened to kill the Pontiac sports coupe, as well as its cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro, many times.

The latest speculation is that the car will be gone in the 2001 model year, if not sooner. Perhaps a new version will take its place, perhaps not.

We tested the 30th Anniversary Edition and truth be told, the vehicle proves why Michael Jordan was wise in hanging up the sneakers while at the top of his game. Age has caught up with the Firebird, in both its base and top-of-the-line Trans Am editions.

The 5.7-liter, 305-h.p. V-8 engine with Ram Air boost packs a punch, but other than robust zero-to-60-m.p.h. agility, Trans Am squeaks and rattles (OK, the removable glass roof panels didn’t help) and comes with a suspension system that beats you up.

In part, blame Chevrolet. The rival division took the Corvette, a vehicle that squeaked, rattled and offered a suspension even more unruly than Trans Am’s, and civilized it. Now ‘Vette is tight and taut with a suspension that’s the master of any road. Yet, the ‘Vette is one of the quickest, most alert machines on the highway, a pleasure to drive at any speed and on any surface straight or twisting.

Since 1997 ‘Vette set a new benchmark for performance cars. The Trans Am falls short of that.

Of course, part of the Trans Am’s undoing is also Pontiac’s fault. Blame Grand Am and Grand Prix and their switch to wide tracking, upgraded suspensions and peppier engines, with Grand Am in line for a supercharged V-6 like the Prix.

Grand Am and Grand Prix are Top-10 quality cars in ride, handling and performance. They provide viable alternatives at respectable prices to a vehicle such as the Trans Am.

The commemorative Trans Am has a base price of $26,175. Our car added the $3,150 Ram Air performance and handling package that includes Ram Air induction, functional hood scoops, 17-inch polished aluminum wheels, 17-inch speed-rated tires, low-restriction dual exhaust system, sports-tuned suspension and power steering cooler; $1,575 for the 30th Anniversary appearance package that includes blue-tinted wheels, anniversary striping and badging, white leather seats with blue embroidery, anniversary insets for headrests/door inserts/cargo mats and a number ID emblem; $595 for remote compact CD changer in the trunk; $450 for traction control; $155 for custom bucket seats; and $535 for freight.

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