The flared nostrils of its Ram Air hood let even neophytes know that Pontiac's Firebird Formula with the WS6 package is a serious performance machine.

It bulges, snorts and bellows with 320 horsepower, accessed through a six-speed transmission that feels as rugged as an 18-wheeler. Its neck-wrenching acceleration means it is not a car that suffers fools or indecisive drivers. It commands your attention at all times, as well as the attention of almost every young person within eyesight, especially in the bright red livery of our test car.

Under the hood sits a 5.7-liter LS1 V8 that is a kissin' cousin to the engine that lurks in the Chevrolet Corvette. It has an aluminum block with iron cylinder liners for durability and a deep-skirt design that adds structural rigidity to the crankshaft. While that technical stuff may be gospel to hot rodders, it has merit in everyday life because it adds to the engine's lifespan. In standard guise, it is rated at 305 horsepower, 20 more than last year. Add the Ram Air option, like our test car, and output goes up 15 horses. Serious stuff.

From the standpoint of brutal acceleration, the Ram Air Firebird is on par with the Corvette, although it costs thousands of dollars less. From a road holding and drivability standpoint, it is not nearly as refined as the Corvette.

With all this go power on tap, Pontiac engineers have improved the Firebird's brakes. Both front and rear discs are larger, and they have added one of the industry's first Electronic Brakeforce Distribution proportion valves for the rear brakes. Pontiac says this results in better stopping and more even wear.

Anti-lock brakes are standard, and our test car was equipped with the optional traction control system ($460) that is necessary with the abundance of power.

The six-speed transmission is best for ultimate performance, but in moderate driving around town the computer forces you to shift from first to fourth gear. This feature was created to improve fuel mileage, but is most annoying. I found myself constantly fighting the gearbox and trying to outsmart it, which resulted in even greater aggravation.

Given this car's performance nature, the front seats are heavily contoured to provide good lateral support for vigorous driving. They happen to be quite comfortable in every day use, as well.

Instrumentation is not only complete but nicely designed. All gauges are housed in a large round pod behind the steering wheel, with the speedometer and tachometer taking precedence.

The center of the dash is occupied by the radio and ventilation controls. The 500-watt Monsoon stereo system was so powerful that when I put in a Dixie Chicks compact disc it made the rearview mirror jump and jiggle.

Muscle cars require certain sacrifices. Even though it does have a small back seat, the Firebird is basically only big enough for two people. A hump in the floor for the catalytic converter intrud es on the passenger's foot space. Luggage space is limited, but the back seat does fold forward. A large suitcase should fit in the deep well at the back of the trunk.

There have been rumors about future of the Firebird, and its Chevy sibling, the Camaro, which seem unclear at this point. One thing is certain, however. With 320 horses, a six-speed transmission and a price of $27,180, this is a lot of performance for the money.


The base price of the Firebird Formula with the LS1 V8 is $22,865. The Ram Air WS6 package ($3,100) consists of 17-inch wheels, performance handling package and a power steering cooler. Other options on our test car included traction control and a security alarm.

The sticker price was $27,180.


The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: Brutally fast and ruggedly macho, the Ra Air Firebird Formula is a performance bargain.

Counterpoint: There is little luggage space, the back seat is small and a hump intrudes on passenger foot space.


ENGINE: 5.7-liter, V8


WHEELBASE: 101.1 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,455 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $22,865


MPG RATING: 17 city, 26 hwy.