In-Motion Classic: 2001 Pontiac Firebird – Flameout

2001 Pontiac Firebird base coupe. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, September 3, 2022.

The newest Pontiac Firebird to roll off the assembly line is now twenty years old.  As I traced this one with my camera as it passed the bus stop where I was waiting, it occurred to me that I will always think of the Firebird as iconic.  This penultimate-year example was built over two decades after the Firebird had reached its pinnacle of popularity with an astonishing 211,500 units sold for peak ’79, but I’ll forever think of the Firebird as belonging to the pantheon of memorable American cars.  Even if its name recognition was eclipsed by that of its high-performance Trans Am variant for much of its life, it seemed like most people knew what a Firebird was, or at least had heard of one.

2001 Pontiac Firebird base coupe. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, September 3, 2022.

By 2001, only about 21,400 Firebirds were sold, of which this base model hatchback was one of about 7,200.  This was the sporty Pontiac’s second-to-lowest annual sales figure over its thirty-six model year lifespan, with the redesigned ’93s finding just 14,100 buyers.  For final year ’02, sales would rebound by 43% to about 30,700 units.  The Maple Red Metallic color of this specimen was one of eight colors available for ’01, with some of the other, more interesting choices including Sunset Orange Metallic and a teal color called “Blue Green Chameleon”.  Thinking back to when more fourth-generation Firebirds were on the road, I remember most of them to be red, followed closely by silver and white.

Silver 1998 - 2002 Pontiac Firebird. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Wednesday, November 14, 2012.

Another latter-day example, appealing in silver.  Wednesday, November 14, 2012.

A 3.8 liter V6 with 200 horsepower provides the power in the 3,400-pound, burgundy base car, which is a 2+2 for all intents and purposes.  Rear legroom, at 28.9 inches, is not generous, as would be expected for a this type of car.  If there’s more than one passenger, one of them had better be quick in calling “shotgun” to ride in the front seat… which still has that intrusive catalytic converter hump built into the floor on the passenger’s side.  An ’01 Ford Mustang had just an inch more legroom in the back, which would be a minor improvement, but still very welcome.  Compared against the 35.5″ of legroom in the back seat of a same-year Toyota Camry, it’s clear that with this kind of domestic sports / sporty car, the comfort of rear passengers wasn’t even a consideration and not the point of owning a car like this.

2001 Pontiac Firebird base coupe. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, September 3, 2022.

Coincidentally, the ’01 Firebird, at 193.4″ from bumper-to-bumper, was almost five inches longer than the Camry (and about ten inches longer than a Mustang).  Probably no one, ever, had cross-shopped a new Firebird against a Camry, but on the secondhand market, it’s entirely possible that a graduating high school senior from ten years ago who was presented with a choice of used car as a graduation gift might have gone for the style of the Firebird over the practicality, reliability, and utility of the Camry.  I would have been one such individual who would have been completely okay (at least at first) with a sporty Pontiac that could carry one other individual in relative comfort and whatever could fit into that ridiculously shaped and sized trunk (13 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seat up; 34 cubic feet with it down) under that large glass hatch, especially if mine had t-tops like this car.

2001 Pontiac Firebird base coupe. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Saturday, September 3, 2022.

By 2001, the sales of the related Chevrolet Camaro weren’t exactly setting any charts on fire, with just over 29,000 units sold.  This was about 35% over the Firebird’s figure, but far below the 161,000 Ford Mustangs that found favor that year.  The base Mustang’s 3.8 liter V6 gave up only 10 horsepower to the Firebird’s 200, and the ‘Stang weighed about 300 pounds less.  The Mustang also didn’t have the dramatic exuberance of the Firebird’s exterior styling.

I like both cars, but there’s something really appealing to me about a production model that resembles the show car that inspired it, which in the Firebird’s case was the 1988 Pontiac Banshee IV.  For a car with as many sculpted exterior surfaces that suggest a human-like or animalistic physicality, the Firebird’s disappearance after 2002 seemed so inconspicuous, like the flame of its wick had simply gone out with a brief wisp of smoke.  This is why I’ll probably always stop to photograph one of these pretty ‘Birds in the wild.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, September 3, 2022.
Labor Day weekend.