Latest Pontiac Trans Am is a performance car worthy of the name

I've never been particularly excited about the Chevrolet Corvette, Pontiac Trans Am, and the like. They're great for those who want that type of car -- flashy, attention getters, but not to my taste. They might appeal to the younger driver, which is just fine. The latest version of the rear-drive Pontiac Trans Am is something else again. The car, in fact, has undergone a major overhaul, including the inside environment of the Trans Am. It still has mystique -- a lot of it -- but it now has the performance to back up the name.

Equipped with a 190-horsepower, 5-liter V-8 and Pontiac's optional WS6 special handling package (including gas-pressurized shock absorbers), the car corners neatly (no hopping) and sticks -- really sticks -- to the road. This is a fleet-footed car you can live with and enjoy, no matter what your age.

It accelerates fast, yet is easy to control if you prefer fast startups. Steering is super quick, but not frightening, if you take your time to digest it. Be especially wary on wet roads.

Guiding hand behind the new Trans Am is the former general manager of the Pontiac division, William Hoglund, who now has leaped into the presidency of the General Motors Saturn Corporation. Mr. Hoglund was also the man behind the Fiero, Pontiac's distinctive 2-seater with the plastic skin.

The Pontiac Trans Am is no lightweight, to be sure. Built on a wheelbase of 101 inches, it checks the scales at more than 3,200 pounds. That, plus the potent engine, contributes to its heavy appetite for fuel.

The upgraded 5-speed manual transmission is smooth and shifting is a breeze. Braking is quick and assured.

Like the Fiero, however, inside space is tight; don't expect much storage room. A Velcro-equipped ``envelope'' on the right hand of the dashboard holds a few papers, perhaps a map, but not much more, while a side-hinged covered bin sits between the two front seats.

Headroom up front is minuscule, definitely, but it's a lot better than in the rear. This Trans Am is a performance car, remember, not a family sedan. As for the sound system, this car has ``button-mania,'' which makes it hard to operate the radio and tapes while moving down the road.

Why not simplify the system with a lot fewer control buttons?

Surprisingly, while the car is swift in itself, it has what may be the laziest power windows on the road. They move so slowly it's almost painful. Keep the windows up and use the air conditioner, I guess. But then you have to pay the tolls, don't you?

Because it's a hatchback, there is no trunk. The rear seats, however, fold down to extend the cargo area. Cargo is definitely not the purpose of the Trans Am. Zippy handling and an exhilarating ride are its main reasons for being on the road. And if you like Recaro seats and the kind of support they provide, the test car had them.

To sum up, there is no doubt that Pontiac has a winner on its hands, although it may not attract many Porsche buffs. Obviously, the Pontiac Trans Am is not for everyone, but for those in the market for this kind of car, this ``highway sport'' is certainly worth a look.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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