Fiero. It means “Fire” in Italian. That’s actually not true, it means “Proud,” but a lot of people think it means fire, perhaps because the early Pontiac Fieros had a disproportionate tendency to alight into what the Italians would call, “a fuoco.”
The inaugural year for the Fiero was 1984, and it is indisputably the worst. Aside from the aforementioned fire thing, the car’s sporty styling was writing checks its engine and chassis couldn’t cash. The only available engine was the Iron Duke 4-cylinder with horsepower figures that did not even break into triple digits. It lacked power steering, making its mediocre handling also kind of a chore, and the brakes would sometimes lock up unpredictably. It also had shitty aerodynamics resulting in unimpressive fuel mileage. But the real killer was the parts bin engineering that mated excessively heavy components and systems to the car. The front suspension was from a ‘Vette—a Chevette, that is. The Fiero’s rear suspension came from the front suspension of GM’s X-platform with the steering tie-rod secured to the engine cradle.
The early Fiero feels like a lie; it had the styling and mid-engine design of much faster cars but couldn’t keep up with the Honda CRX. The 1984s sold well enough, and they now seem to be the most common model for sale, often accompanied with peeling paint, cracked plastic, and words like “kit” or “potential.” Pontiac should get credit for trying something different, and the cars had some things going for them, but they really ended up being one of the worst cars of the 1980s.
(Also by Matt Brown)
Judging the Fiero by the 1984 model is like judging David Bowie by David Bowie, his debut album. It’s hard to come out of the gates with something that is very different and also very good. Sometimes it takes some stumbling around to find the right place to be.
Despite its freshman debut as an overweight sports car with less horsepower than a 1984 Kawasaki Ninja, the Fiero sold well and improved every year of its five-year production. The desperately needed V6 option was added in 1985, the fastback GT came a year later, and the 5-speed manual showed up in the middle of 1986. The 1988 models came with a new suspension design and vented disc brakes all around, giving the car handling and performance that better matched its sporty looks.
By the time the ‘88 GT and Formula trims came around, the Fiero was better in many metrics than the Ferrari 308 it was often compared to (and sometimes transformed into). Also, less likely to catch on fire. It was a nimble, fun, good looking sports car that really was different. It is a shame the car didn’t make it a few more years to get the 3800 V6 (though if you’re handy, you can (and should) swap one of these in.)
Pontiac did something different with the Fiero; It had radical styling, plastic body panels, and if you threw a belt, the repair cost was “Pontiac” and not “Molti soldi.” It was the first mass-market mid-engine American car, and still the only one until the C8 starts production in a few weeks.
Like many things new and different, the Fiero took some time to find its place. But once it did, it was exciting, inexpensive, and different in all the right ways, making it one of the best cars of the 1980s.