Declare Independence From Mediocrity With These Three Underrated American Sports Cars

GM

In the postwar sports car scene in America, European cars were more numerous and more popular. A generation later, Japanese sports cars proliferated yet home-grown choices remained limited. In fact, you could credibly argue that the number of true, two-seater American sports cars can be counted on two hands. Among them, there are three overlooked and somewhat misunderstood but very entertaining choices.

1988 Pontiac Fiero GT

1988 pontiac fiero gt front three-quarter
GAA Classic Cars

The original Fiero was sold to GM bean counters as an efficient two-seater “commuter” car. Because power and sporty handling weren’t part of the original design brief, the 4-cylinder Iron Duke-powered 1984 Fiero contained a mish-mash of suspension parts from GM underachievers, like the Chevy Chevette and Pontiac Phoenix. It was at least exceedingly thrifty on fuel and actually quite safe despite some engine fires on early cars that tarnished its reputation. But sporty it was not.

Somehow, the Fiero found enough advocates in the vast GM bureaucracy to benefit from some actual development—a  decently powerful and growly V-6 and a Getrag 5-speed were quickly added, along with a new flying buttress fastback body style. But the chef’s kiss came with the 1988 Fiero GT, with its revised suspension that was similar to what the engineers wanted in the beginning. While not designed by Lotus (as has been often stated), it certainly bore some of the hallmarks of their designs. Alas, GM killed the Fiero at the exact moment that they got it right, so the Fiero only lived up to its full potential for one year.

1987 Pontiac Fiero GT rear three quarter vertical
GM

Because of its one-year greatness, the 1988 GT is the most valuable of the Fiero family, with a condition #2 (“excellent”) value of $22,000 compared to $17,200 for a 1986 GT. The #3 (“good”) condition value is a rather cheap $12,300. The 1988 Fiero Formula, which has most of the GT equipment but with less flashy styling, is cheaper still with a #2 value of $12,400 and a #3 value of $7700. And this is for a wedgy mid-engine two-seater with a V-6 in a 5-speed. Imagine how much it would be worth if it were European or Japanese.

2007-2009 Saturn Sky Redline Roadster

2009 Saturn special edition of Sky Red Line Roadster
GM/FPI Studios

The Saturn Sky may well be one of the most overlooked sports cars in history. It’s the forgotten twin to the Pontiac Solstice, and many think that it’s the more handsome of the pair. While the 2.4-liter Ecotec-powered base model was somewhat unremarkable, the high-performance model—the Redline—was simply sensational. A new 2.0-liter direct injected and dual-scroll turbocharged engine offered 260hp (up from 177hp in the base car) and 260 lb-ft, while a limited-slip diff further added to the excitement. It was enough to push the Sky Redline to 60 in well under 6 seconds, while the classic rear-drive, front-engine layout and competitive price made it a real alternative to the Japanese and German small sports cars that dominated the segment.

With an excellent chassis, quick and communicative steering, and handsome styling, the Sky Redline should be remembered as one of the best American sports cars of all time. Motor Trend said that “the handling and the drivetrain” make the Sky Redline a true star. Alas, it left a legacy to last a lunchtime, and it seemed to disappear from memory along with the Saturn division itself in the wake of the Great Recession. None of this should stop you from seeking one out. Condition #2 values range from $21,300 to $23,600, and #3 values range from $14,600 to $16,900 depending on model year. The equivalent Pontiac Solstice GXP, which is more distinctive but less elegant than the Saturn, typically runs a few grand less.

1992-1996 Chevrolet Corvette LT1

1992 Chevrolet Corvette coupe C4
Mecum

The C4 (1984-96) generation of Corvette truly gets little respect. It was very nearly a clean-sheet design, and it certainly had the appearance of one, while some truly cool new tech would find its way into the car over its long production run. Although there were some shortcomings on the early cars, maybe the best thing to find its way into the C4 was the LT1 version of Chevy’s evergreen 5.7-liter pushrod V-8, introduced for the 1992 model year. More rev-happy, and pumping out an even 300 hp, it was a 55-hp leap over the L98 that preceded it and it made the complex, expensive and somewhat peaky DOHC ZR-1 feel almost redundant.

Road testers from the big-four mags of the day (Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Automobile, and Road & Track) were unanimous in their praise for the car, deeming it a massive improvement over the previous C4 Corvette. The chassis, which had seen significant improvement over the previous generation C3, remained more than up to the task, especially when working in tandem with Bosch ABS and traction control (the latter could be defeated by flipping a switch).

C4s, even the much better late LT1-powered cars, live in a somewhat uncomfortable middle ground price-wise, in that the subsequent C5 (1997-2004) Corvette is objectively a significantly better car for not much more money while the C3 that came before is a bit antiquated but also has a classic look and charm that the C4 lacks. Regardless, it’s positively criminal how undervalued these late C4s are. Really clean ones sell from the high teens to low-20s depending on year and body style, but a decent LT1-powered driver can be had for under 20 grand easily.

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Comments

    The Solstice should be listed here. It is often forgotten too.

    The Fiero V6 in general is a good underrated car. The 85-87 can handle much like an 88 with the addition of a rear sway bar. The problem is the 88 is a one year car and some parts are difficult to get today.

    It is mentioned, says right in the sky article “forgotten twin to the pontiac solstice “.

    I covet the Solstice because it’s the last new design to come from a storied (and defunct) make…

    The Redline and Solstice are just rebadged and fendered Vauxhals, so the really are European sports cars. Most Europeans don’t care about 1/4 mile times, they have curvy roads. My American designed, Japanese built Miata makes a nice blend. Underpowered by American standards, it is by far the most fun to drive car I have ever owned.

    I’m reasonably sure you have that backwards. The Vauxhall and Opel versions were badge engineered from the Solstice and Sky, not the other way around.

    “Imagine how much it would be worth if it were European or Japanese.” Amen. A truism for many American cars, sporty and otherwise. Foreign car snobbery by American car buyers has sadly been in vogue for many years now.

    There is a reason why so-called American sports cars cannot compete with foreign rivals. They truly are inferior. They also are overpriced for what you don’t get. The reason is that American drivers as a rule don’t care much about being close to the road, actively driving, or foregoing anything that will soften their ride. That’s why our SUVs really are the great American dream car, especially when they are never used as SUVs.

    So MG’s, Triumphs and other European and Japanese cars were such ‘great’ sports cars? Even the vaunted Datsun 260 was fairly weak when it came to power. Give me a break! FEW so called sports cars had power and handling from the factory. The cars featured are not in the price range of Porsche or Ferrarri. They are fun two seaters.

    Because sportscars weren’t necessarily about power. A country with a muscle car mentality typically missed the mark.

    Lol. So would it reduce foreign car snobbery if we took 50 hp out of American cars to match the Europeans?

    I hear you Brad J. And some of us grew up with Formula One drivers as our heroes (such as Clark).

    You are somewhat correct. My brother has a Miata and I have a Sky Redline. One for handling and one for power. We often exchange to get the different experience.

    Add a supercharger to the Miata to get a much more refined drive. You don’t have to drive it hard to notice the difference. You can also lower the springs to get a true go-cart but you don’t have to do this.

    I have an ND2 MX5 and a 1994 LT1 Corvette Roadster. After buying the Miata the LT1 gets little road time. What with 40mpgs on the MX5? Had the Vette for 12 years and I’d sell it, except for the fact I’d have to give it away. Miata is the answer.

    They’re built for different purposes. Euro/Japanese auto manufacturers have been building small cars because their terrain dictates it. Japan is smaller than just the US east coast and also very mountainous. With dense, high population cities and size restrictions, it’s easy to understand why they excel at making small cars with high revving engines. Much the same for European manufacyuerers – a large chunk of Europe fits into just Texas. All of Europe fits in the less than half of the USA.

    The USA on the other hand is mostly flat, open land. Large land yachts that were comfortable to drive and had undersquare v8s that dont rev high, and make torque down low are the name of the game. It’s not hard to see why racing in a straight line was always the preferred method.

    Snobbery, true — inevitable with some folks. BUT: US manufacurers missed several opportunities to be more competitive — case in point, another Pontiac, the Banshee. GM decreed otherwise, fearing competiton to it’s sacred Corvette (supposedly), but the two-passenger Pontiac in it’s several iterations could have been an import fighter and a really fun car. I’d sold my ’65 Tempest Custom 2-dr. HT (326, three pedals) when I was inducted into the Big Green Machine in 1969, and was saving the cash to buy one of John D.’s sleek sports/GT’s when it was announced that they were cancelled. Very poor decision by GM bean counters, and untimely: The Datsun 240Z burst on the scene to kudos from all the sports car journals, and when I was ready to ETS (separate from the Army) in the fall of ’70, I’d bought one of them instead. It was a truly great ride, especially for $3,600 out the door in July of that year, but I couldn’t help but wistfully wish it were an American product! The Banshee, with the 207-bhp SOHC six and Muncie would have been my auto of choice. Both it and the Z occupied the same space in the market and in my needs; quick economical sixes with three pedals and some creature comforts too! The two early gen Banshees still exist, one the Sprint package, and one a full-on 350-cid snorter, though in partially ‘finished’ trim, as I understand. Yes, it would have cut into the Firebird market somewhat, as well as a few who couldn’t afford a ‘ Vette, but considering the unforseen but impending fuels crisises to come, a prophetic line that never had a chance to shine!
    Another ‘broken crystal ball’ note: GM had Saginaw Gear drop the tooling for the H-D all-synchro three-speed box with over-drive just in time for Fuel Crisis #1! The B-W style O.D. wasn’t ideal, but it did work (silly free-wheeling featuer excepted) and with a non-crunch first gear, would have been a great alternative. Also, the O.D. unit could be swapped onto the Saganaw 4-speed — if you could source the overdrive basics. I located on in the late ‘seventies, but when I foolishly told the seller my intentions, he changed his mind about letting me buy it! GM with hardening arteries… too much success! I M Humble O.

    Around the same time that the 240Z was introduced into the American market, there was the Opal GT. I considered both and then waited 6 months to take delivery of a 1971 240Z. I never regretted my choice, not for a second.

    That disdain was hard and well earned. I’m old enough to have gone through a bunch of cars, European, Asian and American. One of the best was a Jeep Cherokee and the all-time very worst was a Ford Taurus SHO. Great drive, maximum Fix Or Repair Daily, and assholes working the Service Desk.

    The German cars have been the best, the Japanese solid, and the Americans sketchy. In the end, the dealer experience tipped the scales hard against the Americans. Even Cadillac can’t compete with lowly VW in this regard.

    They’re all okay . If you can find a clean example at a ‘ I bargained them down ‘ price and it’s a transitional car why not? Or maybe you wanted one or maybe you’ll learn to love it. Staying in the GM family I’d look for a 90 through… Olds Cutlass Supreme convertible. Not as easy a find, a little different, a back seat and so seemingly forgotten that few remember them . That was the period that Oldsmobile went Trans- Am racing as well. So, a certain something for that period, by relation and a not quite but – ” Somebody get me a
    cheeseburger ! ” – vibe.

    I bought my wife a 95 Cutlass Supreme convertible a couple years ago. It now has 28,000 miles on it. It has the 3.4 liter engine and is a blast to drive and it is the right color, red.

    Just for fun, try an Olds Cutlass V6 Twin-Cam convertible. My ex-wife burned up the back roads of the Texas Hill Country, and, I confess, it was a very “FUN” ride. Nearly as much fun as my Olds Aurora. Another fun Olds performer.

    I replaced my Reatta convertible with a ‘93 Cutlass Supreme “basket handle” convertible.
    I’m enjoying the reliability compared to the Reatta’s electrical and brake system problems.

    The Fiero and Sky/Solstice stories demonstrated, in my view, what was wrong with GM. As stated in the article, GM killed the Fiero just as they got it right. As for the roadster cousins, there are a couple of issues. First, they could have done what Toyota did with the FR-S when they killed Scion, and just rebadged one of them as a Chevrolet. Second, when comparing the Solstice to the Miata, the Solstice had some ergonomic issues. I tried sitting in a Solstice, and had to duck and move around to see the tops of the speedometer and the tach. Also, at a time when Mazda was making the roof of the Miata even easier to use, GM made the soft top for their roadsters a pain in the neck. The hard boot cover may have looked cool, but needing to get out of the car to raise or lower the roof, versus the Miata top that can be done one-handed from the driver’s seat, was a mistake. When they decided to make a fixed roof version of the Solstice, instead of just making it coupe, they made it a targa…. oh…. by the way… no place to store the targa roof on the car if you decide to take it off when it stops raining part way through your drive (Porsche and Honda managed to find storage for their targa panel). Or, you’re driving roofless, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a pop-up thunderstorm, no roof. No problem, just use the bikini soft top, you say. Oh, that didn’t come with the car… you had to purchase it as a separate option. Also, from the descriptions I read about that top, it took 2 people to effectively install it. Looks like you’re getting wet. Finally, GM also fell into the trap of chasing numbers. Watch Cammisa’s Revelations video with his take on why the Miata has outlasted almost all others… Mazda doesn’t chase numbers. I would have liked to see the GM roadster cousins succeed, but GM had other plans.

    Regarding the soft top for the Solstice Coupe, I would not say it takes two people to assemble. I have a Sol’ Coupe and did experience the sudden storm just after I bought the car. I saw ominous clouds while exiting a store. I removed the 3 parts of the top from the bag and attempted to assemble them on the ground. Since this was my first time assembling the top out of necessity, by the time I completed the assembly, the sky had opened up and dumped on me. It took me about 5 minutes to assemble it that time due to its tight tolerances and tight fits and being very new. By the time I completed the process, the floor and seats had literal puddles. After that incident, I practiced the assembly so i could do it in about 2 minutes. Unfortunately, I have not had to do it again in more than 10 years, so if I get caught again, I am likely to repeat that incident. 🙁
    By the way, I still love the Solstice and Sky twins. Now I have both.

    The reason GM killed the Sky Redline, I have a 2008 with a Trifecta tune, was because it was challenging the Corvette and they didnt want the competition….plain and simple. But I am 88 this year and am now driving a more acceptable car to my age, a 2008 Lexus SC 430. So I will sell the Sky

    Not true. Look at sales and the fact Saturn was killed in the bail out is why they killed it.m

    Yes I think I’ll hang on to my 2004 MADZASPEED, all original with 35,000 miles on the clock! Reminds of my first new car 1965 MGB I brought in Scotland while in the Navy. I was 21 and paid $2,200 (Navy shipped it home) with everything (including hardtop) but no overdrive (big mistake!). Now at 80 I have my old “B” with more grunt, a 6 speed and reliability, good job Mazda…

    You need to understand the Solstice and Sky were cars built at a time GM was broke. The flaws were there because they tried to build a show car into production from parts bind. To be honest they did a damn good job with bits from, the GMC envoy, CTS Cadillac, Grand Prix and a number of other cars. Yes there is no trunk because of the CTS diff sitting under it.

    Even with that it drive just fine. It is a small car so yes the interior is small. It is low because it is a sports car.

    None of this is excuses just the way it was. Note too no one complains about the hot rockers on a Viper or the roof that never worked. The lack of windows that rolled up.

    The whole idea was to build this car yo attract attention to a performance division that was destroyed before Lutz got there with hopes to save it. . Most sports cars are 5-9 year life spans only the Corvette and Miata have survived. The Miata was limited in sales too keep up demand and the Corvette has become an icon that few other cars ever reach.

    The Sky Redline is cute, but it’s firmly into Boxster S and Z4 3.0si monies, so, nope for me – especially since parts for those cars are plentiful.

    Really.
    I own a 08 GXP and it suits me fine no matter where it originates .
    Of course in Canada we no longer have a home grown vehicle so we are not so picky as our American cousins .

    Actually, it’s the other way around. Opel had very little to do with the RWD GM Kappa platform. The GT was more of a re-badged Sky, build in the USA, in Wilmington, Delaware to be exact.

    Perhaps, or is the Opel GT actually a rebadged Saturn Sky. Solstice, Sky and GT were all produced on the same assembly line in Wilmington, Delaware.

    Your info is incorrect. The Solstice came first into production after a huge public interest in a Pontiac concept car displayed at multiple car shows in the US. The Saturn Sky came a year later. The Opel GT is a rebadged version of the Sky that came after Solstice production and distribution had already begun in the US.

    Many of the ‘better’ GM cars of those years were based on Opel designs – as you note “German Engineering”, probably why it took so long to unload Opel while they were slashing & burning auto history. ‘Bean counters to the top’ approach never worked for anyone.

    The Opel GT is a rebadged Solstice.

    But the Opel Speedster predates them. I guess these are much rarer. Developed with Lotus.

    your wrong it started as a concept opel but was designed and made in America they exported the opel gt to Europe as well as the daiwoo

    Charlie, you mentioned the “Opel GT” — you surely don’t mean the original ‘seventies GT, do you? The mini-G3 Corvette that Buick dealers sold? Ought to clarify that.
    Though a Cherrman car, it might qualify for this think-piece, as well.

    I don’t care what the market thinks, I still love my original owner 93 Vette after 165k miles even when compared with my C6 and many other sports cars I’ve driven over the years.

    I wish I had the luck you had then with ratcheting up 165,000 miles on my LT-1, which is in a ‘95 Firebird Formula convertible. The original owners – actually both elderly – babied the car with regular maintenance, and the I did the same, but now there’s a blown head gasket (at just 95,000 miles) and I cannot find either a speed shop or GM dealer capable of fixing this otherwise perfect car which I have loved for 12 years. I hate to say it, but it made me realize I’ve never known a small-block Chevy to hit 100,000 miles without a major rebuild, save for the newer LS engines.

    I’ve never known a small block Chevy to NOT last 100,000 miles before needing a rebuild. Most I’ve seen have over 200,000 or a couple decades of age before the old exhaust valve guide seal issue arises. But that only makes the engine smoke on start-up, doesn’t require a rebuild. I’ve now owned 2 LT1 cars, both exceeding 100,000 miles with no need for a rebuild. Head gaskets on these engine usually only fail if the head warps and that only tends to happen if the engine is overheated. Since it has reverse flow cooling that only tends to happen if it runs low on coolant or someone doesn’t know what they’re doing when the exchange the coolant and doesn’t open the bleed port… I have a TPI 350 in my garage that lasted well over 300,000 miles, never rebuilt, but we don’t know how many it had because the last 10 or so years of its life the odometer was broken. That engine only quit because the body of the truck it had been swapped into literally fell apart around it. The small block Chevy is one of the most reliable engines ever built. BTW, any old shade tree that’s swapped heads on their old Camaro can swap heads on a gen2 LT1.

    We had a 350 cid stock to nearly 500,000 km no problems
    Yes a small cloud on starts but no major oil consumption

    Thanks for sharing your experience about the valve stem seals which somewhat confirms my suspicions. I have an 86 305 Trans Am that visibly smokes on startup (only if warmed up). Runs absolutely perfect. I have been apprehensive about replacing the seals primarily because of all the original/old emission control hoses, possibly rusty AIR pipes and tiny/probably very fragile plastic vacuum lines I would have to disturb and remove. All that junk captures the valve covers. A friend recently told me that he has some AIR injection pipes he took off a car in good shape that I could have. So if they fit, that’s good if I need them. I want to keep the car original looking if possible, so don’t want to just plug up the holes in the exhaust manifolds.

    Hmmm…I have a 1991 Suburban 350 with 160,xxx miles, and had a 1973 Nova 350 with 185,xxx miles. No engine problems with either. On the other hand, I had a 1985 Monte Carlo SS in which the 305’s crankshaft sheared off at about 2000 RPM. So, it can go either way, but that MC was a lemon in other ways too.

    Wow, first time I have ever seen my car mentioned as a good buy. I have a 1994 LT1 Coupe with 68000 miles on the clock. At 75 with a bad back, I don’t seem to have an entry or exit problem. I hit 120 on the back straight at Sebring last year and the 300 horses are enough for the street. I am a happy C-4 companion.

    I always liked the looks of the Saturn Sky soooooo much more than the Solstice with its bulbous nose. I thought it looked like a sleek mini-Corvette! I had no idea they came out with a Redline model with that generous amount of hp! We would have looked at one more closely!

    I prefer the Saturn Sky to the Pontiac Solstice. It’s the better looking of the two. The rare beast is the Solstice Coupe. I’ve met one owner in all of this time.

    A few points.
    My wife had a Fiero, purchased new. It overheated every time she turned on the AC, including the trip home from the dealer. They were never able to solve the problem. She traded it off.
    My best friend has a Solstice GXP, ordered and bought new. Runs great, but there is a big practical problem: there is no trunk space. We took a ride up from Cody through Yellowstone and up Beartooth Pass. Great fun, but when we stopped for supplies, they all needed to fit in our Boxster. Two trunks are better than none. They could barely get a jacket in there if you dropped the top. He started looking at Boxsters when we returned home.
    The issue briefly addressed in the story and by others is the corporate culture at GM. If it weren’t for the inertia of producing Corvettes all these decades, they would not have anything of substance left.
    And that C4 puzzles me. I really like them, but see them all the time on Marketplace or Craigslist for $7-12k with under 100,000 miles. Why is that?
    The problem

    The problem is the ergonomics of that wide entry sill and the low seat position that you “drop” into. and crawl out of. Add that the dash is at chin/mouth level and the door panels are too high for good outward visibility. Late model Camaros have the same problem. Many of my friends sat in those cars too and later bought Mustangs and Challengers. I can’t imagine how people can see the cones when autocrossing such cars. When C4 first came out, I immediately recognized the poor ergonomics and how that car would not be very attractive for most older buyers. Time has proven me right. Poor resale.

    I really love my Sky RedLine. Really fun to drive car. I’ve been considering selling either it or my 96 Mustang GT as I need to “thin the herd” but having a hard time deciding. The Stang is more a more practical car with the power top, back seat and a trunk that the Sky is lacking but I think the Sky will be more collectable in the long run. If one was a hardtop it would make the decision much easier.

    Nice to see the LT-1 get some recognition, although I couldn’t care less about whether anybody likes them or not. I have owned a 1969 Z-28, 1970 Boss 302, 1975 Trans Am, 1976 and 1979 Corvettes, 1984 Corvette Z-51, 4-speed and now a 1995 LT-1 6-speed. All of the cars were fun in their time and place (1972-present), but the 1995 LT-1 has been the most enjoyable to drive of them all.

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