Long-touted '84 Fiero could restore Pontiac's sporty image

By , Charles E. Dole is automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

A 90-year-old man buzzes into Arrow Pontiac, Arlington, Mass., plunks his money on the table, and drives off in a 1984 Pontiac Fiero. ''He hadm to have that car,'' says Bill Marley, the dealer.

That's the kind of enthusiasm the innovative, 2-rider, mid-engine Pontiac Fiero coupe, with a base price of $7,999 (although it can go much higher), is generating these days.

The long-touted, on-again-off-again Pontiac Fiero has arrived on time - and inside its $700 million developmental budget, despite the Pontiac division's red-knuckle fight with the General Motors ''money counters'' to build it.

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The aim - crucial to Pontiac division's survival - is to recapture the ''Pontiac image'' for excitement. This image was lost in the shuffle as the American auto industry over the last few years concerned itself almost entirely with the unexciting business of fuel economy, emissions, and safety.

The Pontiac image today is essentially neutral, says Pontiac general manager William Hoglund, who carried the ball for the new 2-seater automobile. The Fiero , as well as the Europeanized Pontiac 6000-STE, is part of the plan to change it.

The Fiero (the car I'm driving is bright red, has the special WS6 performance package, and a sticker price of $11,914) looks a little bit like a Fiat X1/9, or even a Ferrari from a distance, uses independent front and rear suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and disk brakes all around. The componentry is largely ''off the shelf,'' adapting the 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder transverse engine and drive line used in GM's compact X-car.

The Hoglund team's job was to make it all work and hold the line on costs. The happy ending is that they won the war.

The Fiero, with a wheelbase of 93.4 inches, is 160.7 inches long and has a track that is especially wide in the Pontiac tradition.

Handling and ride are noteworthy, that's for sure. And the environment inside the living compartment is tops. The car holds its place on the road till you want to change it, and it can get out of its own way with little dispute. Yet the Fiero is no barn burner on pickup. With automatic transmission, it jumps from 0 to 60 miles an hour in just over 13 seconds - maybe two seconds faster with the manual 4-speed.

The dashboard is high and the seating low. Some people may not fit easily, particularly if they are short-waisted and on the low side in height. Also, dropping into the driver's seat - it's so low you really do drop into it - isn't particularly easy because the edge of the dash gets in the way. While the storage space inside the cab is tight, however, there's plenty of leg room for the riders.

But don't count on carrying much luggage if you take the Fiero on vacation. The narrow slot that is called a trunk, between the engine and the rear edge of the car, may carry a golf bag or two, plus an attache case. But where to put next Saturday's grocery shopping could be a problem. The spare tire lies beneath the hood lid in the front.

The grip handle on the automatic transmission is angled for maximum comfort and control, the console is high, and the seat backs have a 10-notch adjustment for comfort.

As to gas mileage, in a few days of commuting, I averaged 22.1 miles a gallon with a 3-speed automatic with lockup converter and 3.18:1 final drive, far below the Pontiac division's figures, although the mileage should get a lot better as the car is broken in. Right now it has under 500 miles on the odometer. Also, it would do a lot better on a steady-speed run on the interstate. I shall soon check out the 4-speed stick shift.

Look for a lot more firepower in 1985. A new 2.9-liter aluminum V-6, including optional turbocharger, will offer takeoff times of 0 to 60 in a reported 6 seconds. That, for the uninitiated, really is a barn burner.

How about a power-assisted steering option for '85 as well? It could widen the car's appeal, and the sports buff wouldn't have to order it. Parallel parking now takes some effort, especially if the available space is tight. Power-assisted steering makes control of the highly touted Honda Prelude a breeze. Why not the Fiero?

Also, how about a keyhole light on the doors as well? Locating the keyhole is a major operation in the dark, because it's situated in the molding just left of the door handle. If not this, then how about a built-in light in a key holder, such as is used by the West German carmaker BMW? And how about a 5-speed transmission?

Pontiac sees the Fiero as essentially ''a driver's car,'' and the description fits well. Originally conceived as a high-mileage commuter car, the Fiero hits the road with rakish lines and sporty characteristics that make it a ''fun car'' and a crowd collector in the parking lot.

Yet it won't win any awards for aerodynamics. With the headlights down, the Fiero earns a drag coefficient of just under 0.38, but with the lights up, forget it.

The snappy Fiero is breaking new ground in how a car is built. Utilizing a ''space frame'' - the first ever on a production car, according to Pontiac engineers - the body is built as a skeleton and includes the sheet-metal front compartment subassembly, floor pan, engine compartment, body sides, roof, and doors. Then the exterior plastic panels are attached to it.

It is the first full-scale production for rigid and soft plastics in major body panels and hints at future plans - not only by GM, but other automakers as well.

Yet, at 2,450 pounds, the midengine Fiero is far from the 2,200-pound car Pontiac originally had in mind.

Pontiac spent $200 million to upgrade the old Fisher body plant in Pontiac, Mich., to build the Fiero. Capacity of the plant is 120,000 cars a year. Bill Hoglund, as well as the hierarchy on the 14th floor of the GM building in Detroit, are hoping they made the right ''guess.''

It took a long time to get the Fiero onto the road. If other motorists have as much fun driving it as this auto writer, the guess was a good one. The car has the looks, quality, and comfort of a winner.

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