Pontiac SLP Firehawk
In all our years of testing high performance cars, we've rarely seen any that offered more bang-for-the-buck than those built by the aftermarket specialist, SLP. Their hotter-than-hot versions of the Pontiac Firebird never fail to light us up. We tested our first Firehawk back in 1992, and have looked forward to each new model year ever since. Well, it's 1997, so let's go have some more fun.
This is our fourth go-around with the rowdy Firehawk. Repeat visits showcased the continual smoothing of the car's rough edges and raucous nature.
SLP has expanded a bit since we last checked in on them, adding to its resume the Chevy Camaro SS, a rough and tumble street fighter for a new generation. That expanded product line has allowed the Firehawk to make an easy move upscale for 1997, and we think it has finally found its niche.
The smoothly aggressive look will appeal to mature muscle car lovers, especially when cloaked in our tester's deep black paint scheme.
The functional hood scoop feeds an SLP-modified LT-1 V-8. Free-flow exhaust and minor engine tweaks combine to produce 310 horsepower. While this is less than in past Firehawks, the payoff in driveability is well worth the loss of five ponies.
We are not normally fans of the new trend towards chrome wheels, but in this case, we're willing to make an exception. The lightweight 5-spoke alloys add just the right amount of flash to the otherwise subdued styling theme.
Inside the refined look continues, with SLP retaining much of the Pontiac's excellent interior fitments. The most noticeable change is the short-throw Hurst shifter, adding a functional retro touch.
The Firehawk's ride has never been supple, but a refined suspension setup and optional Bilstein shocks give this latest version a street ride on par with pricey European touring machines.
But don't get the idea that the Firehawk has gone soft on performance. It took but one lap of West Virginia's Summit Point Raceway to prove the opposite to us. Bitter cold weather had our drivers fighting to produce traction from the frigid Firestones, but steering inputs produced quick transitions and only modest understeer.
Pointing the car with the throttle offered the most success, and was easy thanks to a responsive pedal and gobs of low-end torque. Driving any car fast under such slick conditions is not easy, but taking the track out of the equation allowed us to drive in a vacuum, so to speak, and fully explore the car's pure handling traits, and we were impressed.
At our equally chilly dragstrip, the free-revving engine was again hampered by a lack of tire grip, and we soon abandoned our acceleration runs as ludicrous. Still, SLP claims 0 to 60 in 5.3 seconds, and quarter mile times of 13.6 seconds at 104 miles per hour, and we see no reason to disagree.
The basic SLP package adds $4,595 to the price of a properly equipped Pontiac Firebird Formula Coupe or Convertible, for a total of $24,646 to start. A la carte performance and appearance items can add another $4,000.
If we had to limit our description of the 1997 SLP Firehawk to two words, they would undoubtedly be "polished performance". A boy-racer no more, the Firehawk has grown up, and in the process redefined what pony car performance is all about.
© 1998 Maryland Public Television