Pontiac hopes to keep sales of its Firebird fueled for another year or so by giving it the most obvious restyling in a decade and reintroducing it early as a 1991 model.
General Motors will not offer a completely new Firebird until mid-1993. But the latest version gets a new nose that goes a long way in updating the current body style, first seen in late 1981.The potent Trans Am and GTA versions get new rear spoilers and side skirts. All Firebirds have smaller halogen headlamps and a repositioned center stop lamp.
Most other mechanicals and underpinnings are carried over from 1990, when a supplemental driver's side air bag was added to all models.
That was done partly to deflate high insurance costs, which contributed to a sharp decline in sales, from a high of 188,212 Firebirds sold in 1978 to only 55,000 sold last year.
For 1991, the Firebird is offered in models that range from mild to wild, with prices covering its traditional U.S. competition - Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro - as well as the new generation of import or hybrid coupes that has eaten away its sales.
Those cars include the Nissan 240SX and 300ZX, Ford Probe and the Eclipse/Laser/Talon triplets built by Chrysler and Mitsubishi.
The standard Firebird is powered by a 140 horsepower 3.1 liter V6 engine and starts at $11,985, up $665 from 1990. But an AM-FM stereo cassette and 4-speed automatic transmission are now included.
The Firebird Formula has a 170 hp 5.0 liter V8 engine, along with air conditioning, anti-theft system and a long list of other amenities. It starts at $14,610, unchanged from 1990.
The Trans Am, powered by a 200 hp version of that engine, starts at $16,732. That's up $222, but an AM-FM cassette stereo and larger tires are now standard.
The even more powerful Trans Am GTA starts at $23,475, up $155 from 1990. Choices include a potent 235 hp 5.7 liter V8 coupled with an automatic, or a 225 hp 5.0 liter V8 coupled to a 5-speed manual.
Several versions were driven for this review, including the flagship GTA that cost $24,610 as tested, counting the $459 destination fee on all models.
But those looking for the best combination of price, performance and driving fun should consider the Formula, especially when equipped with the 225 hp 5.0 liter multiport fuel injected V8 engine and a 5-speed manual.
The Formula evaluated cost $17,701 as tested - nearly $7,000 less than the Trans Am GTA, even when a lengthy list of options was tacked on, like an $889 package containing power windows, locks and mirrors and cruise control.
An additional $1,000 worth of options were also added, including the higher output engine for $745.
Like the GTA, the Formula blasts a path into the past, rekindling the days when Pontiac ruled the muscle car roost with its legendary GTO.
Both have muscular, tough sounding V8 engines capable of neck-snapping acceleration. Both are shod with meaty P245/50 Goodyear Eagle ZR50 radials on 16-inch rims, bolted to stiff suspensions that provide crisp handling and steering response.
While suspensions and tires are identical, the 3,318-pound Formula has a less jarring ride because it is nearly 200 pounds lighter than the GTA. This alone makes the Formula a car one can live with daily, while the GTA was found to be downright teeth-clenching on anything but smooth pavement.
Besides getting all those longing looks from envious kids who seemed to crowd around these cars wherever they are parked, that's where the fun ends.
Although its instrumentation is well-marked and complete, the Firebird's driving position is too low. What little rearward vision there was has been obliterated by the center stoplight, now mounted at the top of the glass hatch.
Its doors also are too long and heavy, and rear seat space, while not a high priority in this kind of car, is virtually useless.
In short, the Firebird has become something of an anachronism simply by standing still during the past 10 years.
It now seems overweight, crude and unrefined when compared with the new crop of smaller, more nimble sports coupes. With the V8, almost an automotive anachronism itself, fuel economy is a relatively thirsty 16/24 mpg.
The '91 Firebird also continues to suffer from chronic quality defects, like poor paint application, shoddy interior fits, and numerous squeaks and rattles.
Despite its competitive price for the base and Formula versions, the Firebird is in dire need of a complete overhaul.
Let's hope GM hasn't waited too long in doing so.