Uncommon Performance: 1984-1988 Pontiac Fiero

The Pontiac Fiero. Is there a more-maligned 80s example of GM sports car experimentation? On the face of it, a mid-engine, two-seat coupe built in America rather than Japan or Europe sounds like a home run for the General’s erstwhile performance brand, but internal politics that hamstrung the car’s performance from the start (so as not to interfere with Chevrolet Corvette sales), plus a few initial quality snafus (that were quickly corrected), made for a rocky debut.

Still, true enthusiasts were not to be deterred from what they perceived as one of the most exciting affordable cars to have borne the Pontiac badge in years. As a result, the Fiero gathered a cult following that persisted even after it had been quietly led behind the barn by GM executives, and although it might have faded from the forefront of automotive pop consciousness, it continues to enjoy a healthy, and unique, place in the pantheon of inexpensive-but-fun performance options.

From The Factory

There were two basic flavors of Pontiac Fiero available from new. The first was 1984’s base four-cylinder edition blessed with the ‘Iron Duke,’ a 2.5-liter pushrod engine that generated 92 horsepower in the first generation of the car, and 98 horses just prior to the coupe’s 1988 refresh-and-swan-song. Transmission choices for this version of the car included a four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic. Despite the marketing efforts around the Fiero prior to its on-sale date, the four-cylinder model was best enjoyed as a stylish, fuel-efficient commuter car, especially if one chose the 3.32 rear axle ratio versus the 4.10.

The following year the Fiero got tongues wagging with an optional 140 horsepower, 2.8-liter V6. Also rated to produce 170 lb-ft of torque, it was hardly a screamer but the motor represented a significant upgrade over the Iron Duke in a straight line. A four-speed Muncie-sourced manual gearbox accompanied the V6, while in a cruel bit of sibling inequality the four-cylinder was gifted with a five-speed. The six-cylinder would see its output drop to 135 ponies in 1986, but at the very least it gained a five-speed Gertrag transmission.

From a handling perspective, Fiero GTs all received a WS6 suspension package, but a complete redesign of the car’s handling was introduced for 1988. This included new control arms and knuckles (with the latter intended to reduce the notorious steering effort associated with early cars) along with better braking (revised WS6 cars also got staggered wheels). It was a big step up over the Chevette-derived front end offered to that point, but it’s worth noting that all versions of the Fiero come with an independent rear suspension.

1988’s improvements wouldn’t be enough to save the car. Despite strong early interest from buyers, the rocker arm issues and oil leak-related fires had put a serious damper on GM’s enthusiasm for the Fiero. Still, the final model year is widely recognized as being the best version of the vehicle available, if also one of the rarest.

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From The Aftermarket

Perhaps the most surprising thing to discover when trying to make your Pontiac Fiero go faster is that the aftermarket has almost completely moved on from producing parts for the car, for one very good reason: swaps. There are so many widely-available, inexpensive engines that can be easily stuffed in the back of a Fiero that it made little sense for tuners to keep supporting even the 2.8-liter V6 edition this far past its production date.

“There was a time when we were selling bolt-ons for the car, but that slowed way down after the market moved to Quad 4 swaps, followed by supercharged 3800-series V6s, and even V8 engine swaps,” says Justin Cote of The Fiero Store, which focuses primarily on restoration and factory parts support. “15 years ago we used to sell a lot of cams, headers, computer chips, that kind of thing for the V6, but given that swaps are now the focal point for most owners that business has shrunk considerably.”

It’s easy to understand why. Cote explains that with the introduction of the GM 3.4-liter cast iron V6, which was available in vehicles like the Camaro or in crate motor form for as little as $1,600, owners suddenly had an upgrade that could bolt on directly to existing Fiero fuel injection and exhaust components, requiring only that the starter be moved. Rated at 160 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque out of the box, it was a clear step up over the 2.8-liter unit.

Of course, the 3.4 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Fiero swaps. In addition to its smaller 3.1-liter cousin, the V6 is joined on the list of popular options by the previously-mentioned Quad 4 and supercharged 3.8-liter V6, the cantankerous Cadillac-sourced Northstar V8, or even small block Chevy and LS V8s. The latter add about 150 lbs to the Fiero’s curb weight, and are well-supported by kits like those offered by V8 Archie. Cote is fond of the 3.8 SC swap, with a Series II or Series III unit borrowed from Pontiac’s larger Grand Prix GTP able to push the car into the 400 horsepower range without much effort while still preserving a factory look and offering a smooth power band.

From a suspension perspective, Justin recommends the basics: lowering the car, adding a rear swaybar for pre-88 cars, and a set of sport shocks and struts. “Tubular control arms used to be big, but you’ll have trouble finding them now outside of the kit car world,” he says. “In any case, most of the Fieros you are likely to come across today have already had most of their suspension needs addressed, which is part of why Fiero-exclusive speed parts have become more difficult to find.”

From Left Field

If swaps are the mainstream for those seeking to build a high performance Pontiac Fiero, then what constitutes ‘left field?’ Why, let us introduce you to the wild and woolly world of Fiero kit cars!

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If you’ve ever had more than a passing interest in the Fiero then you’d most likely noticed the astonishing number of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and, well, whatever this is kits built on the Pontiac’s platform. There’s a simple reason for this, and no, it’s not only a factor of the coupe’s mid-engine design or proportional wheelbase.

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You see, the Fiero makes use of a unique space frame unibody platform with bolted-on ‘Enduraflex’ plastic panels. Pontiac designed the Fiero so that its entire body could be removed and replaced in just five hours, which made the vehicle an astonishingly attractive option for kit car companies looking to transform it into a knock-off version of 80s Italian exotica. Pontiac even got into the game itself with the dealer-sold Mera, a totally-not-Ferrari that was totally-enough-of-a-Ferrari to spark a lawsuit that limited production to less than 250 examples. If you’ve ever seen a not-quite-right Murcielago, GT40, or Ferrari 308 for sale at a suspiciously low price, you’ve got GM’s plastic fantastic innovation to thank.

Where can you start your Pontiac Fiero’s journey from ‘meh’ to mega? Pennock’s Fiero Forum is the liveliest online spot for Fiero enthusiasts, but don’t forget to check out resources like the Georgia Fiero Club as well as various GM-specific forums if you’re interested in engine swap info. In addition to The Fiero Store and V8 Archie, shops like Sinister Performance and West Coast Fiero also enjoy a good reputation among owners.

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