1988 Pontiac Fiero Formula – Finally a True Sports Car

August 31, 2011

1988fieroformula-s1.jpgThe history of the Fiero is a mixed bag. On one hand it was a breakthrough car that initially was a big sales success and on the other hand it later became a punching bag for the U.S. press and suffered a serious sales plummet. Granted the Fiero had its small share of problems but most of which were blown way out of proportion. The 1980s was an era when many in the U.S. mainstream media and this included a lot of auto journalists had a love affair with anything that came from the land of the rising sun or Europe. You couldn’t open up a newspaper, magazine, or watch on the TV a news story which even remotely touched on the subject of automobiles and not encounter the glowing reviews of Japanese and to a lesser extent European cars. With all the bashing of the U.S. Auto Industry in the press back in the 1980s, you would have thought  GM or Ford could do nothing right. Quite the contrary, several Ford and GM cars of this era were good cars many of which are still on America’s roads today in large numbers providing reliable service.

Most critics complained that the Fiero was slapped together with parts off the shelf from other cars including GM’s X-car and the Chevrolet Chevette (both of which were also punching bags of the press). And these critics would be correct, however the same could be said of the original Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO. And the critics also said that the 1984 Fiero when it debuted was underpowered and not a serious sports car. There again they would be correct. However this was not Pontiac’s fault. When John DeLorean was at Pontiac’s helm in the 1960s, he wanted so badly for Pontiac to have a two seat sports car. John DeLorean knew that in order for Pontiac to be a true performance automaker it needed its own two-seat sports car. DeLorean had his engineers come up with the Pontiac Banshee two-seat sports car in the mid-1960s and it had everything a sports car should, and would have made the perfect production sports car for Pontiac. Only one problem – the Corvette. There was no way GM upper management was going to let Pontiac produce its own sports car and take away sales from the Corvette, so Pontiac was denied its sports car. DeLorean would stay around GM for a few more years and then would leave to later produce his own ill-fated two-seat sports car with his own company. Pontiac would eventually get the green light for it’s own two-seat sports car. The problem was Pontiac in order to get the green light from GM, had to cripple the Fiero so it couldn’t compete with GM’s favorite – the Corvette.

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The final result was the 1984 Fiero – a well built very attractive mid-engined two-seat sports car with a throttle-body fuel-injected 2.5 liter Iron Duke four-cylinder that produced only 92 horsepower. It was a compromise car, and Pontiac marketed it not as a sports car but an attractive two seat commuter car. Even with the compromise the Fiero was one very popular car after it was released, it sold 136,840 units in the first year. Sales dropped off a little for 1985 however still remained strong at 76,371. For 1986 sales again rebounded slightly to 83,974. And by 1987 sales plummeted to 46,581 and for its last year, 1988, sales nose-dived to 26,401. The press had turned on the Fiero, but Pontiac had the solution, a new more powerful Fiero slated for the 1989 model year with an optional 200 horsepower Quad4 H.O. motor. More than likely sales would have rebounded due to the new styling and more horsepower. The 1989 Fiero would have certainly been the right car to bring sales back on track after the Fiero’s bad press, but GM instead pulled the plug on the Fiero towards the end of the 1988 model year. So we’ll never know. One thing is for sure, the folks at Chevrolet probably breathed a sign of relief. After-all the 1989 Corvette had 245 horsepower and would have weighed 600 lbs more than the 200 horsepower 1989 Fiero. The Fiero would have more than likely at least matched the Corvette’s performance at less than half the price.

Pontiac which could not get a V6 into the Fiero until the 1985 model year, kept improving the Fiero year-by-year. The Fiero was a good handler even in its first year of production, however it had numb steering and the suspension was a little rough around the edges and lacked refinement. By 1988 that was a different story, GM in the meantime had purchased Lotus which helped to tune the suspension on the 1988 Fiero GT and Formula and give them the refinement which was very needed. Most in the auto press were impressed with the updated suspension. By 1988 the Fiero in GT and Formula trim was finally the well balanced sports car it should have been when the Fiero was first introduced. Unfortunately this did not really help the continued sales slide.

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The GT was the top-of-the-line performance Fiero model since its introduction in 1985. The Fiero SE from 1985-1987 could be optionally equipped with the V6 and all the performance goodies of the GT for a slightly lower price. The 1986 Fiero SE was essentually a rebadged 1985 Fiero GT (for 1984 and 1985 the SE had the same body style as the base Fiero), since the Fiero GT would again make an appearance mid-1986 model year with an all new rear design and a fastback roof-line which still would have the flat vertical rear glass right behind the passenger cabin like every other Fiero. The SE would make it’s last appearance in 1987 unchanged from the 1986 model year. For 1988 the SE was gone and replaced with a new "Formula" model. It was part of a revived marketing strategy. Pontiac which had used the Formula name on a performance Firebird from 1970-1981 that was for all intents and purposes a budget Trans Am – a reasonably priced and less flashy Firebird that had most of the Trans Am’s performance goodies for a lower price. Ironically a Firebird SE replaced the Firebird Formula for 1982. Unfortunately the SE nameplate was marketed as a hi-tech Firebird to potential buyers and the Trans Am’s top performing engines not being available on the SE didn’t help things either.

So Pontiac switched gears and re-introduced the Firebird Formula for 1987 and it was a big hit with buyers who wanted the same engines and other performance goodies only available on the Trans Am for a less expensive price. Pontiac figured that a Formula model aka a performance oriented budget Fiero was just what the Fiero lineup needed for 1988. Where the 1986-1987 Fiero SE had all the bodywork of the slick 1985 Fiero GT which had the aero nose of the 1984 Fiero Indy Pace Car edition, the 1988 Fiero Formula would use the body work of the base 1988 Fiero. The body work of the base Fiero had an update for the 1987 model year which gave the front nose a smoother look than the 1984-1986 base Fiero along with a smoother rear bumper – the flat black front and rear bumperettes of the base 1984-1986 Fiero were gone for 1987. The Formula came standard with the wild but attractive rear decklid spoiler which was also standard on the 1988 Fiero GT and not available on the base Fiero. The Formula also used the smoked out colored rear taillights of the base Fiero. Overall the Formula was a very attractive car and it appealed to those who thought the extra lower body panels of the GT were a bit too much. The Formula looked very sporty but also elegant in a minimalist way compared to GT which had a more racing circuit look to it. The Formula had large "Formula" decals on the lower portion of the side doors which gave the car a sporty look and reminded onlookers this was not an average Fiero.

Where with the 1985-1987 Fiero SE the 2.5 Iron Duke four-cylinder was standard and the V6 was optional (the 1984 Fiero SE only had the 2.5 Iron Duke), the 1988 Fiero Formula came standard with the 2.8 liter V6 – the same engine which had been standard on the GT since its 1988fieroformula-2.jpgintroduction in 1985. The 2.8 liter V6 had a sophisticated Multi-Port Fuel Injection (MPI) system and produced 135 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque which was about 10 horsepower and 10 lb-ft of torque more than the same engine used in some of GM’s front-wheel drive cars. The main difference was that the Formula had a free-flow exhaust system with four exhaust tips (two on each side of the rear), not only did it give the Fiero extra horsepower and torque as mentioned it also gave the Fiero a deep and mean exhaust sound which would even please a traditional muscle car V8 lover. For comparison’s sake the sound had a deeper and better tone than Buick’s legendary turbo 3.8 liter V6 powered 1987 Grand National which had a specially tuned dual outlet exhaust system. The Fiero’s 2.8 liter V6 used a speed density sensor while all other applications of the MPI 2.8 liter V6 in other GM cars at that time used the more popular mass air flow sensor. Chevrolet had revamped the MPI 2.8 liter V6 for 1987 and horsepower and torque both dropped by 5 – the 1985-1986 V6 powered GT and SE produced 140 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. However performance times didn’t suffer much if at all due to the slight power drop – no difference ever showed up in magazine test results back in the day. The average performance times of the 1988 Fiero Formula were high-7 seconds from 0-60 mph and high-15 second range for the 1/4 mile, which back in 1988 was not too shabby. And since the Formula was slightly lighter than its GT brother with the same engine, it was slightly faster. MotorWeek, a TV automobile review program, back in 1988 drove a 1988 Fiero Formula and obtained a 0-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds and a 1/4 mile time of 15.7 at 87 mph. As a comparison Motor Trend magazine back in 1988 test drove Pontiac’s flagship performance car the 1988 Trans Am GTA equipped with a 225 horsepower 5.7 liter Tuned Port Injected (TPI) V8 – it went 0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds and did the 1/4 mile in 15.9 seconds at 90 mph. Granted these GTA figures are slower than the average GTA test time back in the day, but it does prove the point that the Fiero Formula had the potential to give Pontiac’s GTA which was double the Fiero Formula’s price tag a real run for its money.

The Formula came standard with a Getrag/Muncie 282 5-speed manual transmission with overdrive, a THM-125 3-speed automatic was optional. The rear axle for the manual was 3.61 and the automatic was 3.33. One plus to the Fiero Formula was that it could get close to 30 mpg on the highway which was much more fuel efficient than most performance cars of that era.

The Fiero may not have come with anything more powerful than the 2.8 liter V6, however that has not stopped Fiero aficionados from dropping bigger and more powerful motors into their Fieros. Popular upgrades include the 3.4 liter V6, a larger displacement version of the 2.8 liter V6 (which was available in later GM cars), and the aluminum block Cadillac 4.9 liter V8. The 4.9 liter V8 (which was used in different front-wheel drive Cadillacs) is very popular since its small size and light weight allow it to easily fit into the Fiero’s engine bay that is geared towards a transversely mounted engine which is the typical engine configuration for front-wheel drive cars. The Fiero just like all front-wheel drive cars drives the wheels the engine sits on top of, in the Fiero’s case it’s the rear wheels. The Cadillac 4.9 liter V8 which produced 200 horsepower when dropped into the Fiero still allows it to weigh less than 3,000 lbs so it’s no surprise that it makes the Fiero a real performer.

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As previously mentioned the TV show MotorWeek test drove the 1988 Fiero Formula. What made this test an interesting one was the Formula was tested against its main competition the supercharged 1988 Toyota MR2 also a mid-engined two-seat sports car. The supercharged MR2 may have had a little more horsepower (145 horsepower to be exact) and was a little more than 200 lbs lighter, however that did not stop MotorWeek from declaring the Formula the overall winner due to its best all around performance which included superior handling and better driving feel. This is where improvements of better brakes on the Formula which now included four-wheel vented disc brakes that stopped better than all Fiero models of previous years which had run-of-the-mill four-wheel disc brakes. The improvements to the suspension as tuned by Lotus positioned the Fiero Formula in almost the same league as the best mid-engined exotic sports cars from Europe. On a skidpad test the Formula was good for around .84 g which made it one of the best handling cars of its era. Previous Fiero models could match this handling figure however as previously mentioned on these models the steering feel was numb and tended to have a mind of its own when the tires hit bumps or uneven pavement and the suspension also felt harsh. With the 1988 Fiero Formula the suspension feel was as perfect as you could expect from this era. Steering was very precise and it handled the bumps and uneven pavement like a pro. The Formula gave the driver a feeling of being able to do just about anything and all you had to do was point the steering wheel to make the magic happen. Unfortunately power steering was not available on the Formula or any other Fiero, Pontiac had promised it would be introduced as a late 1988 model year option, but that never happened due to the cancelation of the Fiero in early 1988 calendar year. However even in parking lots there was not much turning effort needed to pull the Formula into tight spots so power steering was not really missed. Also helping was the Formula had thinner front (P205-60R15) tires versus the front (P215-60R14) tires of some previous Fiero models, so it was easier to turn the front wheels in tight parking spots at slow speeds. The Formula had wider P215-60R15 tires in the rear – the different size in the front versus the back seemed to work very well for the Formula, the only drawback was that four wheel tire rotations could not be done causing the rear tires to wear out much sooner.

The interior of the Fiero Formula was basically the same as the 1984 Fiero. Even in 1988 it was still attractive and very futuristic not to mention also very functional. All gauges were easy to read and all buttons were easily assessable. Pontiac had an innovative emergency 1988fieroformula-1.jpgbrake setup in the Formula just like all other Fieros where the handle was between the driver’s seat and the driver side door, it was out of the way and though a little complicated once you got the hang of it, it was easy to use. However it was common place when a driver didn’t know how to work the brake handle and he or she thought it was disengaged but it was still engaged (hard to tell since the brake handle always would rest on the floor even if it was engaged), it was easy to cause damage to the brake by trying to accelerate the car. Or worse yet think the parking brake was engaged on the manual transmission equipped car when it was not – only to have it roll into another car or worse. The GT had the best seats for 1988 which even included a leather seat option. Unfortunately the Formula just got the standard Fiero seats which were comfortable but lacked the extra lateral support of the GT’s seats. One advantage of the Formula was its well laid out interior – the center console was very well positioned, the manual and auto shifter were both only a few inches away from the steering wheel, perfect for quick and easy access. The seating position was low with the two seats almost on the floor which allowed even taller drivers to feel comfortable – even 6’6" drivers had a few spare inches of headroom in the Formula. Not to mention the leg room was also very spacious. The only downside was that the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals were all offset to the right which is the norm on mid-engined sports cars due to the front driver side wheel well being in the way.

Most Formulas where purchased by budget conscious performance oriented buyers which caused many Fieros to be sparsely equipped with options – the main reason why you see many Formulas today that have hand crank windows and no power door locks. It’s very rare to see a Formula loaded with many or all the available options. However one option that was popular was the large pop out sunroof which was easily stored in the front compartment under the front hood – it took all of about 20 seconds to pop the top off and drop it there to store where it was completely safe. Pontiac also offered on the Formula and GT a T-top option, unfortunately this was a rare option but one that really gave the complete open air experience when ordered. It’s too bad it took Pontiac the fifth model year of the Fiero to offer this great option.

Over the years the Fiero has increased in popularity with two-seat mid-engine sports car enthusiasts. Some keep their Fieros to stock specs and others convert their Fieros to the many of the available aftermarket conversions. The Fiero is the perfect conversion vehicle 1988fieroformula-5.jpgsince Pontiac had designed it with a steel cage shell which is surrounded by plastic duraflex panels that resisted dings and dents along with never rusting. The design was ingenious since the steel cage gave the occupants added protection in an accident and the design also made it so easy to swap out the body panels for new plastic body panels. Today there are so many aftermarket body conversion kits for the Fiero – there are even a few different Ferrari model clone body panels to chose from. The downside to this trend is it’s getting more difficult to find good conditioned original spec Fieros. And since only around 5,000 total Formulas were produced, the remaining supply that are still original spec are hard to find.

Fortunately if you do find a nice conditioned Fiero Formula it will be less than $10,000 and in some cases as low as $5,000 which is a downright bargain. However prices have started to ascend upwards recently and that’s to be expected especially since the 1988 Fiero GT prices have in recent years skyrocketed. It’s only a matter of time before the collectors start to focus on the Formula and you can say goodbye to reasonably priced Formulas.    

MotorWeek at the end of its Fiero Formula and supercharged MR2 comparison test when they declared the Formula the champion in the matchup said it best when summarizing the Formula: "It took Pontiac four years to get the Fiero right, we hope it’s not too late". Unfortunately it was, but at least Pontiac even having its hands tied behind its back when the Fiero was released in 1984, eventually was able to transform the Fiero by 1988 with the Formula into the true sports car it always wanted to be and not the slick commuter car GM upper management had originally intended. Back in 1988 with a base price of $10,999 a Fiero Formula offered more two-seat sports car bang for the buck than anything on the market, if Pontiac had released the Formula in 1984 you can bet automotive history would have been written differently – who knows it may still be around today showing the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini a thing or two.
 

Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved  

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