For an eternity Pontiac had begged GM for a sports car of their own. Chevrolet had the Corvette, why couldn’t they have their own sports car? And before me sits their Frankenstein’s Monster, the Pontiac Fiero SE V6, Pontiac’s one and only sports car.

All of my life, I have been told that the Pontiac Fiero was a flop. They caught fire and sometimes showed diabolical handling characteristics. Fieros needed to have more power or their bodies were too heavy. The suspension components and the drive train were leftovers from cheaper cars of days gone by. If you ask most “car people,” they’ll tell you the Pontiac Fiero was a failure, but if you were to ask them if they had ever driven a Fiero they’d most likely say no. I think that’s the problem.

Staring at the front of this metallic grey 1986 Pontiac Fiero SE “notchback,” I can’t help but notice the similarities of its Firebird sibling. The traditional Poncho slight center beak and hideaway headlights are tucked smartly away. A Cheshire cat-like grin escapes while my fingers trail along the fender line to the thin A-pillar of the driver’s door. Its black plastic clad keys feel light in my right hand as my left reaches for the door pull. A solid click and the door glides open with ease. Glancing at the rear of car before I fold in, the roof line smartly dips down into a flying buttress, then to a flat decklid. Black metal louvers flank either side of the engine bay and a subtle luggage rack/spoiler follow to the rear. The bob-tail rear is decorated end to end with full-width smoked tail light lenses just over its European-influenced quad-pipe exhaust.

This is a vintage sports car that you could daily; its interior is civil and welcoming. With the dash protruding outwards and the seat so low, sliding myself down into the cockpit was fairly graceful, like a greased emu on ice. The amount of leg room and arm space was surprising, clearly designed for the American marquee in mind and not my near “little people” stature. After pulling the seat all the way forward I gripped the phallic, suggestive gear lever and checked for neutral before turning the engine over.

With the twist of the key the car snaps into life with a growl and snarl not like what one would expect from a “parts bin special”. Ergonomically the Pontiac Fiero is great; visibility is fantastic all-around and the mirrors well placed. Having driven many exotic sports cars, the very center inboard pedals feel ideal. With the push of a button the headlights spring up and the gauges glow a fantastic blood-moon red.

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Backing out of the garage and onto the street, my left foot is warning me about the heavy clutch pedal. The low-end torque effortlessly pushes the lightweight car, encouraging you to lay off the clutch. While you could get one of these hot tickets with the patented boat-anchor “Iron Duke” 4 cylinder, this one is equipped with the exotic 60-degree 2.8 liter V6 with fuel injection (shared also with its Firebird brother) and a four-speed manual gearbox. The noise grumbling behind me is troubling, this car sounds angry. I dab the throttle and the loud exhaust is quick to snarl. Surprised and in almost disbelief I stab it once again. And as a result it shouts angrily at me, popping and burbling back down to its steady idle. This isn’t what Id expect to hear from 1980s-era GM.

Power delivery is explosive in the Fiero. Snicking the car into first, pointing the Pontiac in the general direction that I desire, giving it all hell and it freaking rips. First gear is done and over in a blink. Quickly I row it into second, exhaust snarling between the shifts and barking again as I’m back on the power. My butt firmly seated now, I watch the needle eagerly claw its way up the face of the tachometer. Upshifting into third, I’m rewarded with a solid torque curve and the car rapidly accelerates beyond the speed limit. The tightly packaged engine behind me is a Tasmanian devil in a bird’s cage trying to get out and beat the life out of me. Rowing the car into fourth and letting off the throttle I exhale for the first time in what seems like ages.

Cruising along in the North Georgia mountains, the design and purpose of this car settles into my psyche. It’s like living with the sexiest partner in the world who jokes about killing you in your sleep. Are they really joking? And are you okay dying this way? This car was unjustly defined by its compromises when it should have been celebrated for overcoming the compromises. This Fiero is a driver’s car from stem to stern. The manual steering feels perfectly weighted in the hills and curves it’s carving. As a result, the road feel is phenomenal. The front end admittedly does feel too light at times, but find me another mid-engine car that didn’t share that same grief. With an almost squared stance and wide wheelbase, the car always feels like it’s in control. A sure-footed, comforting feeling seeps in as I dig harder and harder into the curves trying to hit that apex.

Consider some of the rumors about the Pontiac Fiero’s notorious issues to be just that – rumors. Sure, some had a pension for combusting like a sinner at communion, but not all of them did. Consider that culling of the herd. Fiero’s real problem laid with the consumer and their lack of understanding of an MR (mid-engine, rear-drive) platform. Climb aboard a Toyota MR2 or even a Lamborghini Countach and you’ll experience similar “snap-oversteer” characteristics. By making a supercar obtainable to the everyday blue-collar consumer, General Motors was greeted by ignorance and misunderstanding. To make this Fiero affordable, they shared the hell out of parts. The front is a Chevette and the rear is a Citation, literally. Who knows what else was pulled from another car? Heck, the windshield washer fluid bottle looks like it came out of a dump truck.

But who really gives a hoot about shared parts when you’ve got a car that feels and looks like a something twice as expensive? And after driving it around for a day it became clear to me, we the consumer weren’t ready yet. Here we are 30+ years later and we accept its compromises. We can easily shrug them off as “it’s just how they were”. That’s the beauty of classic car ownership. It could leak oil all over the living room floor and we’d just shrug our shoulders and clean it so as long as the drive makes you smile.

The Fiero’s fuel needle now looking sad, I stop at a gas station on my return home. While fairly economical, if you drive it like a race car, its thirst rivals my own. The night has fallen and the fluorescent bulbs above glow harshly on the car. Leaning against the door, waiting for the tank to fill I’m approached by a young man eyeing the car. He asks me what it is as he’d never seen one before. Standing up straight I step away from the car for him to gaze. “It’s a Pontiac Fiero, they were made a long time ago”. He studies the car and looks over to me. Puzzled and explains he thought it was a new car of some sort, and what’s a Pontiac? That still stings some.

Both windows down and sunroof popped up, the Fiero’s original radio humming Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” and I find myself singing along with resonating emotion. The now-collared Tasmanian Devil of a V6 engine now grumbles away happily behind me. It’s hard to explain my exact feelings. I’m upset. I’m disappointed. All of my life I was told this was a bad car and they were better off a kit car. Yet it was one of the finest driving experiences I’ve had to date. The way its wide track hugs to the road, its manual steering forcing you to actually drive the animal. It requires genuine effort to drive; frankly, it’s not easy, but the Fiero is so rewarding when you get it just right.

This “monster” will eat your lunch and give you a black eye if you mess up. Yet it’ll be as majestic as Old Faithful in the process. It was a budget sports car too good for the masses.

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Special thanks to Eddie Bowen for the use of his 1986 Pontiac Fiero SE.
All photos courtesy Chris Landry.


6 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve always loved these. My political science professor from undergrad insists that he designed the trunk release lever for the Fiero when he worked for GM in the 80s. I’m not sure if I believe him or not, but one thing is for sure and that’s that truly affordable mid engine cars like the Fiero are special no matter the cloth they’re cut from.

    I suspect that the MR2 had something to do with its commercial failure, but that also was far from a predictable handler.

    At least we have another mid engine vehicle from GM now.

  2. Still have my 1986 fiero GT,
    which i bought used for $2,400.
    back in ’97.

    The real gist of the fiero GT, was
    that it was the poor man’s Ferrari.

    Sure, it had issues from the factory,
    but there’s always the AFTERMARKET.

    I replaced, and upgraded the ENTIRE
    front/rear suspension, upgraded the
    shifter, clutch slave cylinder, threw out
    the factory exhaust (MAJOR chokefest),
    simple engine mods (power pulley, up
    graded injectors, roller rockers, headers),
    removed any dead weight i could find,
    (Car was 2,700 lbs before – 2,100 lbs after)
    The pontiac moves out, and SOUNDS like
    it should! ( i scare people quite often
    just NORMALLY taking off in first)

    Having fun with it as is, but have procrastinated far too long. Time 4 a custom
    chip, and modified intake.
    (That crappy intake is a SERIOUS CHOKEFEST, no cap)

    The kicker is almost everyone on
    a certain fiero forum repeatedly
    disses the iron head 2.8 v6, but
    if you got an aftermarket version
    of this engine; upgrade the exhaust,
    upgrade the intake, and reprogram
    the OBD1, then you will experience
    true fahrvergnugen.

  3. I bought a 85 for 200.00 that sat for 10 years in the high desert of Eastern Oregon Put a new fuel pump in, changed the oil and it fired on the first turn. Drove it from Seattle to Austin no problems. Just bought an 86 for 500.00. Same thing, bad fuel pump. Sat for 7 years Had to burn the fuel tank and clean the injectors. Same result, fired first turn of the key. But auto trans. The 4 speed is just too much fun, lol. Nice to see a real review, thanks. Oh and BTW? More vettes caught fire in the same time period.

  4. This article reminds me of the first day I drove my then brand new (!) 1986 Fiero GT V6 4 speed. I think that list price was about $10,000. I was all smiles. Everywhere I drove it, people said nice things about it’s styling – almost like when driving my 87 Buick Grand National around – today! That feeling lasted for another 14 years and 160,000 miles. Most were commuter miles. That was inclusive of harsh Michigan winters that would have destroyed most any other car in 1/3rd the time. Despite hitting all the pot holes that were thrown at it and steering derived from a Chevette, it stayed very tight and never developed any play in it. The fuel pump went bad twice. It probably went bad again when I finally sold it – cheap. Back then I knew just about nothing about troubleshooting cars with electronic fuel injection and couldn’t believe that it could be the fuel pump – again… Today would be different. I could have kept it running forever. Rust eventually took it’s toll on the engine cradle and around the sunroof opening. I should have rustproofed those areas when I first bought it. The body panels stayed like new – of course…

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