Car Corner
98 Trans Am

November 1, 1997
By Scott Lewis

For those of you that have visited this site in the past, you should be aware that I am an avid car nut. I especially like the American Pony cars. I have a 1993 Z-28, and recently test drove a 1998 Pontiac Trans Am, and I thought I would give you my take on the vehicle.

1998 Pontiac Trans Am

This is by no means a full road test to the new Firebird. I could not possibly do that with a dealer sitting next to me in the car. However, since the car has not changed drastically since the 1993 model year, of which I own a near duplicate in the Z-28, I should be able to give you a good idea what this car is like. What I plan to tell you is sort of like a dual short term & long term test drive. I can give you my long term review of my 93 Z-28, and tell you the changes I have noticed in the 98 Trans Am. Alas, I have not driven a 98 Z-28 because the local dealer by my house does not have any yet. Maybe I will review one for a future column.

The Trans Am I test drove was pretty much loaded. It had a sticker price of $27K plus. This includes T-Tops, leather interior, 500 watt - 10 speaker sound system, and the usual power everything. This particular model was also equipped with the the 6 speed manual transmission. As a comparison, my Z-28 has an automatic and had all options available at the time except rear window defogger.

All 98 Trans Ams get T-Tops, leather, and the "bigger" spoiler. If you have noticed in the past, Pontiac has jumbled the spoiler around on the Trans Am, Formula, and standard Firebirds. It was possible in 94 - 97 to get a Trans Am with the "smaller," standard spoiler. There was a higher level of Trans Am (read more expensive) that came with the bigger, protruding spoiler. The Firebird and Formula always get the smaller spoiler. For 98 all Trans Ams will get the bigger spoiler to differentiate them from the other models.

So how did it drive? Or more importantly how much better did the new 305 hp LS1 engine compare to my 275hp LT1 engine? The answer is noticeably better. The new engine feels especially strong in the 2000 - 3500 rpm range. I was very impressed by the extra torque available to accelerate out of low speed corners. Spinning the tires, even from 5 - 10 mph is easy. However, I was not as impressed with the top end power. Don't get me wrong, the car is very fast, and has lots of power. I just didn't feel that much of a difference in power from the 93 car above 4000 rpm. It still pulled strong to over 5000 rpm (the highest I would take it with the dealer sitting next to me). So I cannot tell you how well it pulled right at redline.

The 6 speed transmission was amazingly civilized for the amount of horsepower it has to handle. The clutch was as smooth as any car I have owned, and as smooth as any other car I have taken for a drive. The shifter takes a little time getting used to. This was the first 6 speed car I had driven, and found the gears a little close together. This should not concern any potential owner. I got used to it in about 5 minutes, and would not think twice about it after driving it to work for a couple of days. The shifter could be a little smoother considering the shifter sticks right out of the transmission. It shifts as good as any front wheel, or mid-engine car I have ever driven. So I would consider getting a Hurst shifter for it.

Other than the small complaint about the shifter, the car's drive train performance was flawless. As far as the rest of the car goes, not much has changed. The Trans Am feels so close to my Camaro that I would be hard pressed to tell the difference with a blind fold on. Steering, braking, and ride are exactly as I remember my car when it was new. I now have 40K miles on the Z, and the rear shocks squeak. With a new set of shocks, and the bigger 17" wheels and tires, I think the cars would handle virtually identical.

Fit and finish on the Trans Am was at least as good as my Camaro, which is to say very good. But not excellent. If you are driving a Lexus LS400, you will find the Trans Am a little ruff, but then you are probably not in the market for a muscle car either. My Camaro impressed a close friend of mine when I first got it. He was very surprised that it didn't rattle. His father owns a Chevrolet dealership, and he says that all Camaros rattled when new. So it looks like GM did a great job with the new techniques for building the f-body cars.

Should you by one? Yes! I am not a fan of T-Tops, so I would consider getting a Formula Firebird without them. You still get the same great engine, and the Formula can be had with enough options that you won't care about the Trans Am name. If you like T-Tops then definitely get the TA.

In the future I am going to try and get a test drive in a Mustang Cobra. It has 305 hp as well, yet in a smaller, higher winding engine. It should make an interesting comparison. In the mean time, the Trans Am with the new LS1 engine, and its cousin the Camaro Z-28, are the best performing cars you can buy for the money. Highly recommended.