1996 Pontiac Firebird
6-cyl. 231cid/200hp SFI
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As it turns out, the fourth generation Firebird would also be the last one. Discontinued along with the Camaro after 2002, the Firebird did not share in the Chevy’s resurrection at the end of the decade, so it and the GTO were the last in a long line of Pontiac performance that goes way back to the very beginning of American muscle.
When introduced in 1993, the fourth generation Firebird was mostly all new. Base models got a V-6, while Formula and Trans Am models got the 5.7-liter LT1 V-8 similar to the one introduced in the 1992 Corvette, albeit with more restrictive intake and exhaust. This was coupled to a standard Borg Warner 6-speed manual, although a 4-speed automatic was a popular option. The V-8 cars rode on 16-inch wheels and in 1995 the Trans Am got Z-rated tires.
For 1996, the LT1 was up to 285 hp thanks to a new dual catalytic converter system, and there was also the desirable WS6 performance package, which added a “Ram Air” hood, different tailpipes, tighter suspension and available Bilstein shocks. Under the hood, the WS6 raised performance with 305 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque, up from 325 lb-ft. For 1997, the WS6 option was extended to convertible models. The WS6 became an increasingly popular options package, and by the end of the production run, Pontiac was building more WS6 cars than standard Trans Ams. Manual transmissions also got more and more popular, as early cars were largely automatics but 6-speeds became more common as the years went on.
The biggest visual update for the fourth generation Firebird came with a 1998 facelift that included a new hood and front fascia. More importantly, though, the Firebird and Camaro this year gained the LS1 V-8 from the C5 Corvette, which was lighter, more powerful and more tunable than the LT-series V-8s that it replaced. For 2000, a Hurst shifter for manual cars and a power steering cooler were added to the options list.
A 2000 Motor Trend test of a WS6 Trans Am found that the car could do 0-60 mph in five seconds flat, the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds and 0.84 g on the skidpad, matching or beating the equivalent Camaro SS and doing it with a "perfect '60s exhaust note that's equal parts Woodward Avenue and Daytona 500."
Throughout the fourth generation Firebird’s production run, there were several special editions. The Trans Am GT was a 1994-only model that had Z-rated tires and a 155-mph speedometer, but the 1994 model year also introduced a 25th anniversary model with white paint with a dark blue stripe to look like the 1970 Trans Am. 1999 then introduced a 30th anniversary model that was white with two dark blue stripes and had blue alloy wheels and a white leather interior. It was available on either the WS6 convertible or T-top coupe. The most eye-catching Firebird of this generation was probably the 2002 collector’s edition, which was a WS6 car with bright yellow paint with black accent stripes and black alloy wheels.
There was also the special-edition Firehawk, produced by SLP Engineering but sold at Pontiac dealers. These cars had more power and better suspension, and today are fairly hard to find. From 1993-97, all Firehawks were based on Firebird Formulas, while from 1999 the Firehawk could be had as a Formula or a Trans Am. There were no 1998 Firehawks. The most desirable SLP Firehawk from a collectability standpoint would be one of the 29 1997 models equipped with the LT4 V-8 out of the Corvette Grand Sport, but any Firehawk would be considered a real find. Like Camaros and Corvettes, Firebirds have long represented a lot of speed per dollar. Many have therefore been modified, driven hard and racked up a lot of miles. Other than quite reliable mechanicals, general build quality is also to the typical standard of 1990s General Motors, meaning that squeaks and rattles are almost a given in the interior.
In many ways, though, the fourth generation Firebird is like a Corvette that costs less and has four seats. It also arguably looks a lot more exciting than the equivalent Camaro, and with numerous engine and gearbox options, paint colors, trim packages and special editions as well as coupe, convertible and T-top body styles, there is a lot of choice as well.