The age of the dinosaurs finally has come to a close. The 2002 model year is the last for Pontiac's fabled Firebird. (The same is true for its close cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro.)
But this front-engine, rear-drive scorcher isn't going away without a final flourish. There's a special Collector Yellow edition that features the famed screaming chicken graphics package.
Firebird coupe ($19,515), convertible ($26,430); Formula coupe ($25,460); Trans Am coupe ($27,490), convertible ($31,560)
Even without that screaming yellow chicken, few cars have the visual impact of a WS-6 Trans Am. With its big bulges and long hood, the Trans Am always draws stares and comments. There are actually four nostrils for the Ram Air intake, two flared ones and two more gaps where the hood meets the rest of the nose. Fat chrome tips to the twin exhaust come out of tunnels under the rear bumper that look like an exotic racing car ground-effects undertray.
The Trans Am also features some of the usual Pontiac styling touches, including hundreds of hexagons in the taillights that suggest a fly's eyeballs. The 17-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels are so polished they appear to be chrome, and they are wrapped with wide P275/40ZR17 tires rated for extremely high sustained speeds.
There are other flares, scoops, styling grooves and bulges, which are probably considered uncool by your Lexus owner, but they are a Trans Am tradition and not out of place on this car. There are functional louvers behind the front wheels, for the release of hot air from the engine compartment.
The wing on the convertible is more like a platform over the entire rear deck; it begins just behind the side windows, and it might even offer downforce to keep the car from floating should you ever run it in the 130-mph range, which we certainly don't suggest. With its incredibly tall sixth-gear ratio, the engine would be rumbling at less than 3000 rpm at that speed.
From the inside, you feel like you're in a racing car, as the low seating position and faraway unseen corners make judging near distances difficult. However, with so many adjustments to the driver's seat and steering wheel, this can be improved.
The convertible top, though handsome, is wide behind the side windows, creating a big blind spot that further complicates parallel parking; the glass rear window is small as well. But the power top operates easily. A tonneau cover takes up precious limited trunk space, and thus will be left in the garage by many owners.
Not surprisingly, the rear seats offer little legroom and almost no visibility. The convertible top is a tradeoff in the rear compartment; it steals 2.2 inches of hip room, but gives back 4.2 inches of headroom.
The front bucket seats are intelligently shaped and comfortable for long distances; they aren't difficult to climb into and out of, considering how low to the ground they are, but the front doors do scrape on sidewalks. The driver will probably wish he had a steering wheel with a larger diameter, more in keeping with the muscle car theme, and more suited to the excellent handling. It tilts into a good position, allowing visibility over the top without hitting the knees of an average-sized person.
An extra set of sound system controls is located on the steering wheel. Sounds are a high priority for Pontiac, and even the convertible comes standard with an eight-speaker CD system. There's a big fixed cupholder behind the shift lever, which has a stylish leather knob. There's a tidy compartment between the seats, and other storage spots exist in the doors and behind the front seats.
The engine in the base Coupe or Convertible is the 3800 (3.8-liter) V6, yielding 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque. The 5.7-liter V8 (overhead-valve LS1 with aluminum cylinder block and heads) comes in the Formula and Trans Am in two versions: 310 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque or, with the WS-6 Ram Air package, 325 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque.
Driving relatively easily, the Trans Am is a gem. Macho drivers, and there will be plenty with the WS-6, will abuse the car and push it to its limits, but when it's driven reasonably and within the law, it is highly rewarding and not the least bit uncomfortable or difficult.
The biggest problem is the perception of size, from behind the wheel, though drivers of smaller stature find it manageable.
The power steering is not heavy, but it is a compromise; it's not as light as most sedans for parking. At speed, the steering is direct and steady, no roaming or twitching at all, both in the curves and on the freeway.
Cowl shake has been a bugaboo with Firebird and Camaro convertibles, given the lack of chassis stiffness without a steel roof and a suspension that isn't designed to simply soak up bumps. During our test over fairly smooth roads, the cowl never reared its shaking head. This is a significant advancement, a true character change.
The suspension performed admirably. Never once were we jarred, which is saying quite a lot. And never once did we feel the car undulating, even slightly. We suspect that extremes in both road conditions and driving aggression could indeed produce those responses from this Trans Am, at least we hope so, because the suspension wouldn't be correct if they didn't. All Firebird models received re-valved shock absorbers for the 2001 model year.
The six-speed gearbox with Hurst linkage feels solid, though not quite buttery. It might be overstating things to call it quirky, but it requires some understanding. The pattern is closely spaced for quick shifting, which means you sometimes find yourself in third gear instead of first, when pulling out. There is a lockout of second gear at certain rpm and at a certain pace of acceleration designed to save gas for EPA ratings. Accelerating slowly causes the computer to force you to shift from first gear into fourth. Basically, it won't let you drive sharply and casually at the same time. You either accept it or you learn how to get around it. There is a way to get into second gear, when you want to; we could explain, but it would take two paragraphs. The good news is there's so much torque that you actually can go from first to fourth gear, even at a tame 2500 rpm, without bogging the engine.
Sixth gear will save you more gas, because the ratio is so tall. It might also get you a ticket. Sixty-eight miles per hour is only about 1500 rpm, and because there is so little engine compression to slow you down when you lift off the throttle in sixth gear, the car wants to keep rolling on into the 70s and 80s. With such low rpm, you don't hear it or feel it. You really need to use cruise control in sixth. On an open highway, it does indeed save gas.
As for power, well, you've got 325 horsepower with the Ram Air system to go with the manual transmission. It's smooth, not really neck-snapping, and the exhaust note is deep but not loud. It's as much power as you'll ever need, and probably as much as you'll ever want, but it's not scary. It's eminently controllable.
Pulling away in first gear does call for some attention, however. It's easy to stall the engine if you're too casual with throttle application, especially at red lights on the steep streets of San Francisco.
Trans Am is no BMW, but it's a better car than many people realize. You just have to appreciate it for what it is, a brutally fast pony car.