Meet the first and only mass-produced mid-engine sports car by an American automaker.
What is it?
The Fiero is a mid-engined sports car Pontiac introduced in 1983. It was a highly successful model in terms of sales, despite its image of unreliable car.
When and where was it made?
A total of 370,168 units were manufactured in a production run of five years. Pontiac’s plant in Michigan was responsible for the assembly process.
The Fiero utilizes a rear mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout with two petrol engines available – a base four-cylinder 2.5-liter motor and a 2.8-liter six-cylinder unit. Three different transmission were available – a three-speed automatic, and four- and five-speed manuals.
The suspension of the 1984-1987 Fiero was based on the chassis of the Chevrolet Chevette and used a double wishbone design. With the 1988 model year came a completely new suspension featuring ventilated disc brakes at all four corners. The body of the car, developed by Pontiac and Entech, was the so-called “space frame” concept, a welded steel unibody with bolt-on plastic panels.
Was it that bad?
On paper, it was a killer car – small, relatively light, and entertaining. At first, it was very well accepted by customers, who praised it for its handling and affordable price. It was sexy and economical, and – most importantly – made in America. But after a strong first impression, it took only about two years for the car enthusiasts to literally begin hating it. In a decade full of lovely sports cars from many manufacturers, the Fiero felt like an imprecise mixture of parts that were available at General Motors’ development center in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
That’s not all, of course. The Fiero was very expensive for maintaining – especially its complicated independent suspension due to the use of multiple suspension pivot and attachment points. The cooling system was also very capricious – it was vulnerable to air bubbles thanks to its long pipes connecting the front-mounted radiator and the engine.
Speaking of which, initially Pontiac wanted to equip the base model with a high-revving 1.8-liter engine, but in the end the cheap 2.5-liter Iron Duke unit was selected just because… it was already available and required no further investment from General Motors – after all, the Fiero was supposed to be an affordable sports car. And this engine was awful – heavy, noisy, slow-revving, and underpowered. The bigger V6 variant was quite a performer, but it started at $13,489 for the 1987 model year – about $5,000 more than the base model.
Next problem – the car’s innovative body structure with space frame and plastic panels was expected to keep the weight under 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms), but the complete structure ended up just as heavy, or even heavier than, a similarly sized car with steel monocoque. Thanks to its weight of more than 2,500 lbs (1,135 kg), the Fiero was slow, really slow. Real road tests performed by Car and Driver in December 1983 showed an uninspiring 0-60 miles per hour (0-97 kilometers per hour) acceleration in 11.3 seconds and a top speed of only 105 mph (169 kph) for the base model.
And then Fiero’s nightmare came to life – the Honda CRX with its super light body, compact sizes and engines, and simple structure. Despite being less powerful than the entry-level Pontiac, the CRX was faster from a standstill, had the same top speed, and was more pleasant to drive. With a drag coefficient of 0.33 versus 0.377 for the Fiero, the Japanese car was also more fuel efficient.
Early Fiero models were also famous for their flammability – according to the NHTSA, a total of 135 cars were reported to have had engine fires with 122 of these occurring during driving. Shockingly, Pontiac engineers were allegedly familiar with the problem shortly after production started in 1983 – and GM eventually admitted in 1988 that test have shown that running 1984 cars with low engine oil level can “cause connecting rod failure which may lead to an engine compartment fire.” Ten minor injuries were reported in connection to this issue.
We don’t all agree
I have a family history with the Fiero to such and extent that a year-one car – 1984 2M4 in red, with six figures on the odo and no broken headlights – sits in my driveway. So I’m hardly impartial. And as a car guy, of course, I recognize this machine as slow, overly complex where it doesn’t need to be, hideously under-engineered in other respects.
What I love about it is more emotional than practical. This was a moon-shot car for GM when it was conceived of in the late ‘70s. For one of the world’s most massive corporations – bleeding market share and utterly unequipped for the gas crisis – to have the hutzpah to build a mid-engined and economy-focused sports car, was nuts. And even though the final iteration was a far better driving machine than my ’84, I like to think of the original as a final bridge between the daring days of American cars past, and what became the banker-driven, bleak reality of the 1980s.
– Seyth Miersma, Motor1 Executive Editor