Pontiac Fiero (1984)

American car makers rarely showed interest in making mid-engined sports cars because they believed these cars lack potential for mass production and component sharing. However, Fiat proved such believe was wrong by introducing the revolutionary X1/9 in 1972. It successfully combined mass production parts – transverse engine and transaxle from Fiat's production FF cars – and clever packaging to realize a really fun to drive yet affordable sports car. It opened a new way for others to follow. After 12 long years, American and Japanese finally came up with their similar designs. They were Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2 respectively.

In a country where people buy more sports cars than anywhere else, apparently there is plenty of demand for an affordable mid-engined sports car. Nevertheless, the bean counters at General Motors gave its Pontiac division a tight budget for the Fiero program. This mean the car had to source its double-wishbone front suspensions from Chevrolet Chevette and the whole engine / transaxle / MacPherson strut rear suspensions from GM's X-body cars – like Fiat, the whole powerplant and rear suspensions were transplanted from the front end of the X-body cars to the rear end of Fiero.

The chassis was quite innovative, however. It was a steel space-frame clad with injection molded plastic body panels – a technology eventually benefited Saturn. This gave it two advantages: 1) the body never rust; 2) facelift was easy, just like changing clothes. In fact, the later Fiero would be reshaped to a fastback-like design with flying buttresses without altering its space-frame chassis. To isolate the road harshness and engine vibration from the chassis, the engine, transaxle and lower control arms of rear suspensions were mounted on a sub-frame, which was then attached to the chassis via rubber bushings. The fuel tank was located inside the transmission tunnel so that the level of fuel load would not influence handling. The radiator was mounted at the nose and had its coolant running through the transmission tunnel to the engine.

Compare with X1/9 and MR2, the Fiero was much larger (especially wider)
and heavier (by around 200 kg). It was compact by American standard though. Big American drivers complained for cramped cabin, but in fact it compared favourably with its mid-engined rivals. The downside was luggage space. Its front boot was almost fully occupied by the spare tire, leaving only a very short rear boot to accommodate a couple of soft bags. In comparison, X1/9 was considerably smaller outside but it provided twice the luggage space of the Fiero. Once again prove that American car makers had never cared about space efficiency.

Unquestionably, Fiero's beautiful design was a strong selling point, although you can say the same to most other mid-engined sports cars. In fact, its beauty successfully hid its shortcomings in dynamics and build quality and attracted some 137,000 customers in the first production year - that was more than the number of X1/9 Fiat sold in the first 6 years ! However, as the American fever cooled down and customers started facing the reality, they found the car poorer to drive than both its rivals and even poorer to own. A ma
ssive recall due to engine fire didn't help its reputation, too. As a result, sales dropped dramatically from the second production year and down to only 26,400 units in 1988. By then GM had no way but to pull the plug.

The biggest problem of Fiero was performance. At launch, it was powered by the poorest engine of the class, the 2.5-liter "Iron Duke" push-rod four-cylinder engine from GM's cheap sedans. It was heavy and reluctant to rev. It produced a miserable 92 horsepower at 4000 rpm, sounded noisy above 4500 rpm and needed 11 seconds to take the Fiero from 0-60 mph, partly due to the outdated 4-speed manual gearbox it paired with. This sounds two generations older than Toyota MR2, which was launched the same year in Japan. The little Toyota employed a twin-cam 16-valve 1.6 engine to produce 112 hp in Federalized form and push the lighter car from rest to 60 mph in merely 8.4 seconds (according to R&T's test). As for top speed, R&T measured only 103 mph for the Fiero, versus 121 mph for MR2. How could people satisfy with it ?

The sluggish performance seemed to be solved by adding a 140 hp 2.8-liter push-rod V6 in 1985 and then a 5-speed manual gearbox for the V6 in 1986. Combining them improved 0-60 mph to 8-second range and raised top speed to 125 mph. Nevertheless, the low-revving character of the V6 might work fine in GM's sedans, but in a mid-engined sports car it left something to be desired. Moreover, by 1986 Toyota MR2 had been added with a supercharger to raise the performance standard again to 132 mph and 0-60 in 6.4 seconds. Fiero always lived under the shadow of its Japanese rival.

The dynamic problems of Fiero was not limited to performance but also handling. In theory, its wide tracks, 43.5:56.5 weight distribution, all independent suspensions and all-wheel disc brakes seemed perfect for a sports car. But as we all know, whether good ingredients translate to good results depends very much on tuning. Unfortunately, this is where the Fiero so lacked of. Because of the tight budget and the use of unremarkable suspension parts from GM's cheap sedans, the Fiero was seriously underdeveloped. A mid-engined machine should steer neutrally and responsively, but the Fiero was a born understeerer. It approached cornering limit with moderate understeer. Lift off the throttle in mid-corner would swing it back to neutrality or even oversteer. This mean you have to fight hard against understeer and oversteer in the twisty. Because of the use of soft bushings on the sub-frame and soft spring rates, the handling felt imprecise and there was excessive body roll. The unassisted steering was hampered by a lot of kickback and too little communication. It was also painfully heavy for parking. High-speed stability was also a problem at above 80 mph due to the front end lift it generated.

Post-1986 Fiero GT got "fastback" rear end, now even more like a mini-Ferrari.

Perhaps more telling is Motor Trend's comparison test with Bertone X1/9 in 1984. In that review, the normally patriotic magazine criticized the handling of Fiero for being imprecise and difficult to drive. "Ultimately, driving the Fiero quickly, at least at full chat on a race course (let alone some unknown roads full of decreasing radii and capricious cambers), is a tiring and frustrating experience. Tiring because you have to work so hard at it, and frustrating because you know that with the proper tweaks from Pontiac in the form of aggressive suspension pieces and more power in the engine box, the Fiero should be able to fly. But as it stands now, we have a 12-year-old car (X1/9) outshining a thoroughly new entry in this area of handling feel and precision." So hurt !

Admittedly, since then Fiero improved year by year, especially the last 1988 model with new suspensions. However, that was too late to save its reputation. Frankly speaking, GM was wise to terminate the Fiero, because another great creation - even more so than MR2 - was just around the corner. That car would be known as the spiritual successor to the original Lotus Elan. It came from Mazda and was called MX-5 or Miata.

Now looking back, Pontiac Fiero cannot be described as a great car. However, it was the first American mid-engined production car and still the only one until today. This unique status earned it a place in our memory.


Pontiac Fiero
Pontiac Fiero GT
Year of production
No. produced
All Fiero: 370,168 units
All Fiero: 370,168 units
Layout, Gearbox
Mid-engined, Rwd, 4M
Mid-engined, Rwd, 5M
Size (L / W / H / WB)
4072 / 1750 / 1191 / 2372 mm
4193 / 1750 / 1191 / 2372 mm
Inline-4, ohv, 2v/cyl
V6, ohv, 2v/cyl.
2471 cc
2837 cc
92 hp
140 hp
134 lbft
170 lbft
1170 kg
1265 kg
Top speed
103 mph*
125 mph*
0-60 mph
10.9 sec*
8.0 sec* / 8.7 sec**
* Tested by R&T
** Tested by Motor Trend

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