From the February/March issue of Car and Driver.
When it was introduced in 1984, the Pontiac Fiero was not marketed as a sports car. Although it was General Motors’ first mid-engine production vehicle, the automaker designed the Fiero to be “commuting and efficient,” says John Schinella, the project’s lead designer.
But over the course of five years, the Fiero became sportier, adding V-6 power, more aggressive styling and a redesigned suspension. It was a hit, selling nearly 300,000 units in its first three years, allowing Schinella — a veteran designer of the 1965 Cadillacs, the first-gen Camaro and the third-gen Corvette — to begin work on a successor .
The Fiero used an innovative metal unibody skeleton with a plastic skin. The structure, chosen primarily for its cost, had a side benefit. “It was like a rigging kit. You build the frame and then you could put any body you wanted on it,” says Schinella. “So we were excited because we could go after a car that looked more sporty and we could do whatever we wanted with the skins.”
As with the first-gen Fiero, the team ended up creating a pair of distinct models: a base car with a more subdued wedge design and a GT with a sportier Ferrari fastback profile and flying buttresses. “We were all hands on deck on that one. Let’s make it the best we can for whoever it was,” says Schinella.
GM upgraded all relevant components and considered proper performance powertrains, including the Quad 4 16-valve inline-four and (allegedly) a turbocharged V-6. Porsche Engineering helped with dialing in dynamics. There was even buy-in from the higher groups. “Nobody got in our way,” says Schinella.
But over time, the Fiero revealed its limitations. Poor build quality and engineering defects resulted in major problems. Two-seaters were on the decline overall, and superior vehicles like the Honda CRX Si and Toyota MR2 ate up what was left of the category.
Sales have fallen. “In 1987, the Fiero’s dedicated plant built just 46,581 units, about 20 percent of capacity, which made no economic sense,” says veteran auto journalist Gary Witzenburg, who literally wrote the book on the car. Fiero: Pontiac’s powerful mid-engine sports car.
Despite the handsome new looks and monster-killing performance potential, these limited prospects sealed the Fiero’s death sentence. This made the team sad. “It was heartbreaking for us in the studio and for Pontiac when it left,” says Schinella. But it wasn’t exactly surprising. “I spent many years with GM,” he says. “It seemed like we’d just get something nice, and then we’d get rid of it.”