For decades the battle between Ford and General Motors to build the hottest pony car seesawed back and forth, with neither side holding the advantage for very long. But that changed when the current generation of pony cars arrived a few years ago. While GM, especially Pontiac and their brutish Trans Am, stuck to the tried-and-true, Ford opted for a more refined approach, and to many enthusiasts, conceded the factory hot rod crown. So with its biggest competitor offering less in the way of competition, have the troops at Pontiac lost their will to fight?
Well, if they have, then how do you explain the latest Pontiac Firebird Trans Am?
Substantially revised for 1998, this back alley bruiser is more aggressive than ever before. And it shows! Its shark-like features are even more menacing, thanks to an all-new front end. It features a more muscular twin-nostril hood, and deeper fascia with new headlights, fog lamps and turn signals. The deeply dished-out door panels remain unchanged, but heat extractors have been added to the front fenders. While the back end carries new honeycomb tail lights, round back-up lights and oval-shaped exhaust tips.
Which connect, via the new one-piece welded exhaust system, to the biggest, baddest, Trans Am V8 since 1970. Code named the LS1, this J-body-only version of the Corvette’s 5.7-liter all-aluminum small-block pumps out 305 horsepower. Torque output is a crushing 335 pound-feet, at a mid-range heavy 4,000 rpm. Which translates to a 0-to-60 time of only 5.5 seconds. And a quarter-mile that flashed by in 14 seconds flat at 100 miles per hour.
Power off the line was as gut wrenching as ever, but with peak torque at four grand, passing power was especially strong. Stirred along by the standard, but stiff, 6-speed manual transmission and a new, smoother clutch. A 4-speed automatic is also available.
The Trans Am is a heavy hot rod that’s easy to manage in corners. The latest WS6 handling package features re-valved shocks for more bounce control, and greater high speed stability on coarse pavement. While specially developed Goodyear 275/40-series tires on 17-inch alloy wheels deliver impressive grip in both dry and wet.
Braking has also been upgraded, stopping the Trans Am from 60 in an average of only 104 feet. The upgrades include larger discs at all four wheels, as well as new calipers and beefier pads. Trans Ams also benefit from a new solenoid-based Bosch ABS, and GM’s Electronic Brakeforce Distribution system that balances brake pressure front to rear during non-panic situations.
Out on the street, the revamped suspension delivers, dare we say it, a comfortable ride, and that’s a far cry from the spine- pounding feel of last year’s car. Optional all-speed traction control now helps keep the tail in line during daily driving.
While 22% larger mufflers take the edge off this engine’s once raucous exhaust note, without losing its distinctive small-block sound. Something pedestrians will also appreciate.
But while the Trans Am team made plenty of mechanical changes for 1998, they thankfully left the car’s interior well enough alone. And with good reason. Plastic quality remains a bit on the rough side, but this is still the best dash that GM has ever installed in a pony car. The only significant changes are to the firm, supportive front bucket seats. Both leather and power adjustments are now standard.
As with all pony cars, rear seating is far too tight for adults. Better to just fold the rear seatback for more cargo space. But utility isn’t what most folks buy the Firebird Trans Am for. Pontiac reports that most customers choose Trans Am for styling, driving fun, and value.
And as performance cars go, the Trans Am value is quite impressive. Base price is $26,500. Our test car, with only one option, totaled $26,950. That’s Corvette performance, for a minivan price!
The 1998 Pontiac Trans Am remains the quintessential American pony car. Tough, powerful, and just a little rough around the edges. And there’s more to come. A 320-horsepower Ram Air version arrives soon.
So while its strongest opponents may have gone down for the count, just one drive will show you that this bare knuckle Trans Am street fighter has lost none of its sting.
Engine: 5.7 Liter V8
Torque: 335 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.5 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14 Seconds @ 100 MPH
60-0 MPH: 104 Feet