Friday, December 28, 2001

Two time-honored nameplates will soon disappear from the American road. Confirming years of speculation, GM has announced that it will cease production of its two veteran pony cars the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevy Camaro in 2002, capping a 36-year production run.
GM’s sport coupe siblings arrived on the scene in 1967, two plus years after Ford had turned the first Mustang out of the stable. Through the years, Firebird and Camaro were GM’s coupled entry, bred to duel with Ford’s fabled filly.
Firebird (like Camaro and Mustang) came of age in a simpler automotive era, when rear-wheel drive was the rule of the day and horsepower was the coin of the realm. Time passed, tastes changed, sales dwindled and mainstream auto America passed the pony cars by. With little funding for new development, Firebird and Camaro became enigmatic throwbacks, appealing to a select crowd that was partial to swoopy, aggressive styling and the snarly, rumble of Detroit iron. Now, after years on the death watch, GM has finally pulled the plug. While rumors persist of a retro revival for Camaro a few years down the line, no such scuttlebutt surrounds its Pontiac sidekick. As far as we know, 2002 is the last call for Firebird.
Both Camaro and Firebird are going out in style, with a limited run of special Collector’s Editions. The look of the Collector’s Edition Trans Am is vintage Firebird flash. The fourth-generation styling, essentially unchanged in 10 years, is hyperaggressive, without apologies. The commemorative-graphics package includes two small, hood-mounted birds, streaming a pair of feathery black decals. A similar set of long, thin wings stretch from rocker panel to rear fender. Special bird-shaped badges adorn each door, seatback headrests and floor mats. Even the wheels get in the act, with the black, aluminum, 17-inch five-spoke rims sporting center cap call-outs.
Overall, the impression is classic, in-your-face Trans Am, with a (relatively) subtle tip of the cap to the giant, “screaming chicken” hood decals that adorned 1970s and 1980s Firebirds. In Sunfire Yellow paint, with wing, spoiler and snout scoops, the Collector’s Edition is to subtlety what a screaming guitar solo is to a piano sonata.
Inside, the Trans Am’s 2+2 cabin offers a combination of high-tech controls and dated ergonomics. Pontiac celebrates the Firebird’s swan song by raising the level of standard equipment. Every 2002 Firebird is equipped with power antenna, mirrors, door locks and windows. The 10-speaker sound system will rock the house and an optional, trunk-mounted, 12-disc changer is a boon to road trippers. Heating/air-conditioning controls are rheostat style and easy to reach. The front seating is first-rate, with highly adjustable, supportive buckets that wrap around you like a driving glove.
A floor hump, courtesy of the catalytic converter below, cuts into the front passenger’s legroom. Driver visibility is hampered by wide C-pillars and the big wing bisecting the rear-window view. Rear seats will accept limber, smaller passengers, unless front occupants are tall (in which case those in back will need to check their feet at the door).
Firebirds are hatchbacks, and the rear compartment provides a generous amount of cargo space, provided that you can negotiate the quirks of the storage area’s layout. A deep, main bay holds much, but also doubles as the stacking spot for the T-tops, when removed. Additional space is available farther forward and the rear seat folds flat, adding to your carrying options. The high lift-over height in back is a litmus test for the health of your back.
On the road, the Trans Am reminds us of how far the muscle-car breed has progressed over the years, and how different this approach to performance is from other sporting designs. Select the optional performance and handling package and you add, among other things, low-restriction dual exhaust, sticky, Z-rated tread, the grippy WS6 suspension and ram-air induction.
The Trans Am’s 5.7-liter engine provides a rumbling soundtrack that adds interest to even the most mundane trip. The ram-air V-8 is rated at 325 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque. The TA’s stump-pulling, low-end power makes quick work of any situation requiring sudden, low-speed acceleration whether for a rush-hour ramp merge, or a quarter-mile romp.
Thanks to some intelligent gearing, the TA returns respectable gas mileage for a performance car (18 city/26 highway, by the Environmental Protection Agency’s reckoning). The WS6 suspension makes the big bird handle well. The driver is constantly reminded of the TA’s sheer size and weight (3,517 lbs.) in tight cornering situations, but the chassis and tires have a lot of stick and the big disc brakes are always up to the challenge.
Ride quality in the latest-generation Firebird is a noticeable step up from previous models. Gone is the coal cart ride of earlier “birds,” where suspension stiffness was achieved at the expense of passenger comfort, and highway expansion joints were counted through the seat of your pants.
Pontiac has picked a fitting package to send off its final Firebird. The Collector’s Edition is brash and outspoken just like the best of the breed were, when it was first hatched in the late 1960s. Muscle cars are an auto life form that’s all but extinct these days. Most of the memorable ones were outrageous in form and color, assaulting the senses with eye-popping graphics, backed up by tire-smoking performance. Straight-line speed was the calling card of the breed. Capable of 0-60 runs in the low five-second range, the TA still has the juice. However, the new “birds” are light-years removed from the old ones in terms of handling and braking, due to a couple of generations of suspension tweaking and vast improvements in tire technology.
Old school and flashy, without doubt. Trans Am is a very different take on performance than that found in other cars in the market these days, most of which weren’t even born during Firebird’s screaming chicken years.
In the market of sporty cars, where the object is to go fast and have fun doing it, muscle cars like the Trans Am are an interesting, uniquely American option.
For that reason, performance buyers who are curious about this retro ride may well want to test drive a Trans Am. But they’ll need to act fast, because after this year, it’s history.

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