Cars We Love: 1988 Pontiac Fiero

The 1988 Pontiac Fiero should have been a success. It had everything an owner could want in a two-seat sports car: a futuristic plastic body that was impervious to rust; a sweet 2.8 liter V6 making 135 horsepower mounted between the spacious cabin and the rear wheels; a new suspension engineered by Lotus; and a reasonable asking price. Unfortunately, previous years of the Fiero gave it a troubled reputation that the 1988 could not outrun – numerous engine fires; faulty internal engine parts; and a mandated safety recall for all 1984 models. Instead of handing out commendations at the end of the model year, General Motors cancelled the Fiero program.

1988 Pontiac Fiero: The Answer to Pontiac’s Dream?

By the 1988 model year, the Pontiac Fiero had completed its metamorphosis from an economical commuter car into a full-fledged sports car with a redesigned suspension engineered by Lotus at a cost of some $30 million of General Motors’ money, upgraded four-wheel disc brakes, and available T-Tops for open air driving. Combined with the fastback profile, flying buttress design introduced in 1986, and the 2.8 Liter V6 engine in 1985, the Fiero GT was ready to kick butt and take names in the sports car world. Pontiac also unveiled the Formula model as a performance companion to the GT model in 1988 for spirited drivers who wanted a less expensive car with the mechanical enhancements of the GT.

1964 Pontiac Banshee

The Fiero GT and Formula were built on a common space frame chassis having a wheelbase of 93 inches and with curb weights around 2,790 pounds. The V6 was rated at 135 horsepower at 5200 rpm and came standard with a five-speed manual transmission. A three speed automatic was an available option.  The V6 could push the Fiero from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.8 seconds and run through the quarter mile in 16 seconds with a terminal velocity of 85 mph. The top speed was about 125 mph. The Formula had the base Fiero notchback body and was distinguished by a rear decklid spoiler and ‘Formula’ graphics on the sides. The 1988 Fiero GT and Formula seemed to be the answer to Pontiac’s long quest for a two-seat sports car.

1964 Pontiac Banshee

Pontiac had become a performance brand by the early 1960s, but their hot cars were all based on sedans. John DeLorean, then-Pontiac Division general manager, wasn’t satisfied—he wanted the final piece of the performance market, a two-seat sports car.  The Pontiac team developed a proposal for the Banshee—an inexpensive, two-seat sports car with a fiberglass body powered by Pontiac’s new overhead cam six-cylinder engine and presented it to GM’s senior management, who promptly said “No”. Management thought the appeal of two-seaters was too limited to justify the investment. They had no interest in building another two-seat sports car that would take sales away from the Corvette. The Banshee project summarily died, leaving Pontiac without a two-seater until the Fiero came along.

Fiero Marketed as a High Tech Design Commuter Car

With the disappointment of the Banshee program fading into history by 1978, Pontiac Advanced Engineering Group proposed a high tech design to Pontiac management for an inexpensive plastic-bodied sports car with a mid-engine drivetrain. Pontiac Division chief Robert Stempel and chief engineer Robert Dorn liked the idea, but didn’t believe it would get past GM senior management as a sports car in view of the Banshee debacle. They felt that in view of the times, with rising gasoline prices, a fuel-efficient, two-seat commuter car might be viewed more favorably by the GM hierarchy. And they were right—the commuter car design was approved. But, since it was now to be marketed as an economical commuter car, the approved budget, including the costs for engineering development and plant retooling, was very modest and forced the development team to forage through the GM parts supplies and use whatever existing parts they could to save money.

1987 Pontiac Fiero GT
1987 Pontiac Fiero GT

The design for the Fiero was considered high tech at the time, using removable plastic body panels mounted on a rigid space frame. However, to stay within the strict budget limits, engineers were forced to use rear suspensions and transaxles from GM’s mediocre front wheel drive X-cars and front suspensions from the Chevette, both parts sources generally considered to be among the worst American cars ever built. When the budget shrank even lower due to GM’s abysmal sales in 1980, the Pontiac Team had to use its 2.5 liter ‘Iron Duke” four cylinder engine. The ‘Iron Duke’ engine was slow revving, heavy, noisy and underpowered, and the problems it caused would haunt Pontiac and General Motors until the demise of the Fiero.

The Fiero launched on September 22, 1983 as a 1984 model economy commuter car with a  base price of around $8,000, the same as a VW Rabbit. With an EPA fuel economy rating of 31 mpg and good assembly quality, the Fiero made a strong first impression on the public and an even stronger impression on GM management with first year sales of 136, 840 cars.  Pontiac sought to broaden the Fiero’s appeal by introducing an optional 2.8 liter V6 engine for the new GT model in 1985 and a revamped fastback-profile body for the GT in 1986. Sales, however, fell dramatically and by 1987 only 46,581 Fieros went to new owners.

1988 Fiero Tries to Save a Sinking Ship

Problems with the 1984 Fiero came to light beginning in late 1985 and included the four-cylinder ‘Iron Duke’ engines catching fire without warning; defective connecting rods that were prone to failure and causing catastrophic engine damage; engine bay wiring harnesses located too close to hot engine parts which caused the insulation to melt with consequent electrical damage and mislabeling of the oil capacity in the engine sump on the dipstick and the owner’s manual, causing improper filling and resulting in the engine being driven with less oil than was really required. After receiving numerous complaints, the NHTSA ordered a recall of all 1984 Fieros to address the engine bay problems.

Pontiac pulled out all the stops for 1988 to overcome the bad publicity and make Fiero the car it should have been in the first place, giving it a new suspension engineered by Lotus. The new suspension replaced the hand-me-down pieces from the GM parts bin with revised front suspension geometry, a completely new rear trailing-link suspension, and bigger ventilated disc brakes. The result was a Fiero with greatly improved ride and handling. Coupled with the ongoing improvements of 1985 and 1986, the 1988 Fiero was now a genuine sports car—but it was too little too late. Fiero sales for 1988 totaled only 26,401 cars, not enough to prevent the GM guillotine from falling on the first and only mass-produced, mid-engine sports car built by an American manufacturer.

Our friends at Hagerty estimate the average value of a 1988 Fiero GT to be $8,600, with a range of $16,500 for a Fiero in number one concours condition and $5,400 for one in number four fair condition. Fiero’s value was relatively consistent between May 2015 and May 2017, but has tailed off a bit since then. The data were current as of September 2017.

We’d like to give the fine folks at Vanguard Motor Sales in Plymouth Michigan a big TireBuyer ‘Thank You’ for letting us use their photos of a superb 1988 Fiero GT.

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Photos by: Vanguard Motor Sales (1, 5, 8), Jonrev, Alden Jewell (3, 4), Greg Gjerdingen, Yellowstone

6 thoughts

  1. Poor Fiero never had a chance, GM with the Corvette obsession also doomed the Buick GN because it was to fast… Don’t like GM will never buy from new ever again.

  2. The Fiero is still loved by many Pontiac enthusiasts to this day. There are more than 75 car clubs around the world dedicated to preserving and promoting the passion of the Pontiac Fiero for generations to come. This puts the Fiero right up there with the likes of the Corvette and Mustang. Let’s give credit where credit is due to an amazing little car.

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