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