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The age of the dinosaurs finally has come to a close. The 2002 model year is the last for Pontiac's fabled Firebird. (The same is true for its close cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro.)
But this front-engine, rear-drive scorcher isn't going away without a final flourish. There's a special Collector Yellow edition that features the famed screaming chicken graphics package.
The engine in the base Coupe or Convertible is the 3800 (3.8-liter) V6, yielding 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque. The 5.7-liter V8 (overhead-valve LS1 with aluminum cylinder block and heads) comes in the Formula and Trans Am in two versions: 310 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque or, with the WS-6 Ram Air package, 325 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque.
Driving relatively easily, the Trans Am is a gem. Macho drivers, and there will be plenty with the WS-6, will abuse the car and push it to its limits, but when it's driven reasonably and within the law, it is highly rewarding and not the least bit uncomfortable or difficult.
The biggest problem is the perception of size, from behind the wheel, though drivers of smaller stature find it manageable.
The power steering is not heavy, but it is a compromise; it's not as light as most sedans for parking. At speed, the steering is direct and steady, no roaming or twitching at all, both in the curves and on the freeway.
Cowl shake has been a bugaboo with Firebird and Camaro convertibles, given the lack of chassis stiffness without a steel roof and a suspension that isn't designed to simply soak up bumps. During our test over fairly smooth roads, the cowl never reared its shaking head. This is a significant advancement, a true character change.
The suspension performed admirably. Never once were we jarred, which is saying quite a lot. And never once did we feel the car undulating, even slightly. We suspect that extremes in both road conditions and driving aggression could indeed produce those responses from this Trans Am, at least we hope so, because the suspension wouldn't be correct if they didn't. All Firebird models received re-valved shock absorbers for the 2001 model year.
The six-speed gearbox with Hurst linkage feels solid, though not quite buttery. It might be overstating things to call it quirky, but it requires some understanding. The pattern is closely spaced for quick shifting, which means you sometimes find yourself in third gear instead of first, when pulling out. There is a lockout of second gear at certain rpm and at a certain pace of acceleration designed to save gas for EPA ratings. Accelerating slowly causes the computer to force you to shift from first gear into fourth. Basically, it won't let you drive sharply and casually at the same time. You either accept it or you learn how to get around it. There is a way to get into second gear, when you want to; we could explain, but it would take two paragraphs. The good news is there's so much torque that you actually can go from first to fourth gear, even at a tame 2500 rpm, without bogging the engine.
Sixth gear will save you more gas, because the ratio is so tall. It might also get you a ticket. Sixty-eight miles per hour is only about 1500 rpm, and because there is so little engine compression to slow you down when you lift off the throttle in sixth gear, the car wants to keep rolling on into the 70s and 80s. With such low rpm, you don't hear it or feel it. You really need to use cruise control in sixth. On an open highway, it does indeed save gas.
As for power, well, you've got 325 horsepower with the Ram Air system to go with the manual transmission. It's smooth, not really neck-snapping, and the exhaust note is deep but not loud. It's as much power as you'll ever need, and probably as much as you'll ever want, but it's not scary. It's eminently controllable.
Pulling away in first gear does call for some attention, however. It's easy to stall the engine if you're too casual with throttle application, especially at red lights on the steep streets of San Francisco.
Trans Am is no BMW, but it's a better car than many people realize. You just have to appreciate it for what it is, a brutally fast pony car.
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