Trackside Classics: 1972 Pantera + 1988 Fiero + 2015 Fit (Jazz) – Eclectic Entrants at AutoX

Those of you who have been reading CC for a while may remember my brief fling with a 2013 VW Beetle TDi Convertible, which was succeeded by a 2015 Honda Fit (seen photobombing the Pantera above), which I purchased in September 2014. I’m happy to report I’m still with the car, nearly 40K miles later. It’s been ‘Honda-reliable,’ has returned a hand-calculated 37.6 MPG since new, and has all the utility of a Swiss Army knife (the car is like the Tardis – bigger on the inside than it is on the outside).

Which brings us up to the title of today’s post. I’d always wanted to get into autocross (“AutoX”) when I was in college, and had begun converting my ’82 Chevrolet Cavalier Type 10 hatchback for that purpose. But then I met and married this girl and got a bit distracted for the next few decades rearing a family. The Cavalier’s long-gone, and now that our sons are, too (empty nesters, rejoice!), it was finally time to revisit my dream, albeit with two additional doors.

The Fit is actually known as the Jazz in markets other than Japan, the Americas and China. While considered a sub-compact here in the US, it comfortably seats four (North American-sized) adults with plenty of rear seat legroom. With the rear seats folded flat, it can easily haul a new ‘in-the-box’ dishwasher home from Lowe’s, or alternately, you can flip the rear seat bottoms up and haul bulky, tall items. Front seat backs can be lowered almost flat to the rear in what Honda calls “Refresh Mode.”

The US-market Fit is powered by Honda’s 1.5l “Earth Dreams” i-VTEC® direct-injection engine that makes 130hp/114lb-ft torque, despite the dorky name. A 6-speed manual transmission is available, but I was really disappointed with the gear ratios when I test drove one – the engine was disturbingly frantic at 70 mph, and 5th gear was usually the best selection for in-town driving, which meant a *lot* of rowing between stoplights. I ended up getting the CVT-equipped EX trim, which was my first automatic DD purchase ever. While I miss the more-engaging manual transmission experience, the CVT (adapted from the Civic) has worked out fine, especially on long road trips, where the engine note is barely noticeable (1,000 RPM slower at 70mph than the 6MT). There’s no ‘rubber-banding’ effect, and in ‘Sport mode,’ the transmission simulates seven “gears,” which can be engaged manually with paddle shifters. The computer automagically shifts for you at redline or if you start bogging the engine to prevent expensive noises from ensuing.

The Fit has a bit of a following among hyper-milers, and I’ve seen folks report hand-calculated long-term averages in the 50+ mpg range. The pic shows my personal best single trip (not tank) mileage – it was mostly downhill and had few stops over about 15-20 minutes driving with an already-warm engine. The computer does tend to be a couple mpg optimistic. My biggest complaint with the car’s fuel economy is the small tank: 10.6 gallons, which effectively makes this about a 350 mile car (300 in Winter). For my use case, I end up topping off at least once a week, where my previous TDI New Beetle and TDi Beetle Volkswagens easily went two-plus weeks between fill-ups.

While I don’t go out of my way to achieve high economy, the car does its best to encourage it, with glowing lights to either side of the speedometer. Green = “Look at you, you’re doing so great, saving the Earth and all!” Blue-green = “Back off a little, there, bub…”, and Blue = “What do you think this is – a dump truck?”

The previous two generations of Fit are reported to have had a more ‘go-cart-like’ ride (I’ve never ridden in either), and the third-gen (GK) Fit was softened up a bit. I personally found the car to have more roll and understeer than I cared for, but this was to be expected for this size- and price-class of vehicle. So after getting used to the car and successfully making it through my first Winter (with no frozen doors or intercoolers), it was time to whip out the checkbook!

New wheels and tires, springs, rear roll bar, camber bolts and rear axle shims were fitted, and after a custom alignment, it now handles crisply with neutral characteristics through the twisties. While I was writing checks, I also fitted a JDM rear bumper cover and LED brake lights, Mugen-style front chin spoiler, an axle-back exhaust, cold air intake and finally, rebadged it as a Jazz.

Now right outside my office window at work is a large parking lot that our local SCCA group uses once or twice a year in their AutoX schedule. When four of my coworkers indicated they were signed up, I figured it was time to join the fun. All five of us are industrial designers, but I’m the odd man out, as three own Mazda Miatas and the fourth owns a Mazda 3. The night before the event, I stripped my car of any potential interior missiles and mounted magnetic gumballs with my number and vehicle class on the hood and doors: I was ready to race.

Track day arrived clear and blue with light winds and coolish temperatures. I pulled into the facility, signed in, and was directed where to park. Imagine my surprise when, amidst the sea of Mustangs, Corvettes, Miatas, BMWs and Nissan 350zs, I caught sight of a very familiar profile – a 1988 Pontiac Fiero, which was about as ‘hoopty’ looking as I think I’ve ever seen (well, maybe not as bad as these). Missing panels, mismatched wheels and tires and (probably rattle can) matte black paint gave the car the appearance of having recently been rescued from the local U-Pull-it yard.

The new-for-1984 Pontiac Fiero made Paul’s “Deadly Sins” list for a number of good reasons, and in typical GM fashion, they pretty much got it right by 1988, then immediately killed it. Part of “getting it right” included a very expensive ($30 million) program to finally put a competent multi-link suspension under the car. While our topic car is powered by a 2.5L 98 hp “Iron Duke” four-cylinder engine, a 2.8L 135 hp V6 was also available.

Four trim levels were offered in 1988; the base Coupe, the Formula, the GT and the very rare, dealer-only Fiero Mera – a Ferrari 308 look-alike that was the result of a conversion by Corporate Concepts in Capac, Michigan. A total of 249 Meras were converted during 1987-88, until a lawsuit from Ferrari put a stop to things. It’s difficult to pin down the trim level of our track car, though. The Iron Duke would indicate a base model Coupe (higher trim levels all received V6 engines), but it sports a Fiero Formula nose (not to mention an aftermarket hood trunk scoop), plus the Formula’s crosslace wheels, at least at two corners. No Formula spoiler on the rear deck, though. It does have a sunroof, but it was permanently caulked shut!

I did get a chance to chat with the driver briefly in-between runs, and he indicated he had done quite a bit of work “under the skin,” so there was more “there” there than appeared at first glance – he was turning in quite decent times for his class, too.

But! (queue the angelic choir music)

Up at the end of the paddock was the complete antithesis of the Fiero (and yet, also mid-engined!), a genuine 1972 De Tomaso Pantera, which turned out to have quite an interesting story behind it. It seems it was purchased as a non-running basket case by an older gentleman who was later diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that left him unable to do further work on the car. Two friends (who brought the car that day) took over the project, bringing it to completion. The AutoX event was only its second time out on the road since being restored (and you’ll note from the photos there were a few areas still needing touchup).

The Pantera was introduced in 1971 as a replacement for the De Tomaso Mangusta, and was designed by American-born Tom Tjaarda at the Italian design firm of Ghia. The initial European car was powered by a Ford 351 cu. in. (5.8L) V8 rated at 330hp, but more likely made close to 380hp.

1972 brought a number of modifications for US-market cars, including a new 351 Cleveland engine derated to 266 hp (net) to meet US emissions standards.

A review of the Pantera by Car and Driver at the time pointed out that the Pantera was one of those cars where observers on the outside got a much better deal than those on the inside. Evidently, the driving experience wasn’t too great with poor ergonomics and visibility. 1973 cars had a redesigned dash that unified the two separate ‘pods’ seen here.

Starting in late 1971, Ford imported the Pantera into America to be sold through Lincoln Mercury dealers. Initial cars were simply European imports, and like most Italian cars of the day, had minimal rust-proofing and poor fit and finish. Ford intervened and after introducing precision stampings for body panel production, brought overall quality up markedly. The car would go on to enjoy a twenty year production run.

The Pantera not only provides a visual and auditory treat, but also an olfactory one, as, with no catalytic converters, every pass left a delicious perfume of unburned hydrocarbons! They started out going pretty easy on the car, but were laying down some major rubber by the end of the heat!

So getting back to the event, the nearly fifty entrants were divided into two heats, one of which ran in the morning and one in the afternoon. Drivers not driving worked the event; I was in charge of uprighting cones in Turn 1, for example. The benefit of working track in the morning was A) it was cooler, and B) I got to watch other’s techniques for getting through the first half of the track.

Finally, it came time for my heat to run after lunch. Following advice, I positioned my car on the grid so I would be one of the last cars to drive, in order that I could ride with one of the experienced drivers before it was my turn. I ended up in a 1994 Corvette, whose driver finished the day only two seconds off the fastest time of any car. I now know what a bullet feels like at the moment the trigger is pulled – my brain was barely past the first turn when he flashed through the timing lights at the end of the course!

As soon as I had recovered (no-one warned me about the physiological effects of AutoX), it was time to drive. I was the only Fit in attendance, had the only CVT (or automatic of any kind), was the tallest car on the track, and fielded the only vehicle with REAR DRUM BRAKES! I got seven runs in, and my time dropped from around 65.8 down to 62.9 seconds for my best run. One thing I learned from my ride in the ‘Vette was that I had not even begun to plumb the depths of the Fit’s braking capacity (which I now know is surprisingly good). I also learned that with my suspension setup, throttle-off hard braking in a turn makes for a very tail-happy Fit! I forgot to turn off stability control, and felt it doing its job numerous times (which probably cost me a second or two). Folks thought the CVT sounded “strange, but good”. Driving the CVT is like driving a turbo, though – there’s a bit of lag you have to plan for, but the advantage is that once the engine is spooled up, it pretty much stays in the peak HP band until you need to slow down for the next turn.

Bad pic, but I was trying to capture my MPGs while racing: 7.3 on this run! I got about 40 driving home, which I suspect is more than I can say for anyone else on the track.

So how did the Fit acquit itself? Well, after the handicap adjustment each car receives (I was running against Mustangs, a Corvette, etc.), I was surprised to learn I took first place in the Novice class!