Pros: Seating position, suspension, audio system, looks
Cons: Engine, transmission, interior fit and finish.
In 1996 I was looking for a 87-93 Mustang GT to replace my 1987 Ford Tempo when I found a mint looking, black 1994 Firebird 3.4L V6 auto with 32K miles. After much research and discovering that the insurance for a 19 year old on a GT would cost almost as much as the payment, I decided on giving the Pontiac a serious shot. The body style was only two years old at the time, yet the price was comparable to a 5 year old Mustang GT, and with much cheaper insurance.
I was initially impressed with its smooth looks. Sitting in the driver's seat gives you a nicely framed view of the red backlit instrument cluster. The speedometer was labeled all the way up to a blistering 110mph (compared to 85mph on my less sporty Tempo). The view through the side mirrors reflected the rear fenders bulging from the sides of the car. All the windows were steeply raked to connect from the wide doors and hatch to the small roof. Being only a two year old body style at the time, this car got looks everywhere it went. The concealed headlights combined with the aerodynamic body style, looked much more modern than the Mustang I was originally looking for. The only thing people seem to not like on the car was the rim design (available on 93-94 V6's only) which looked like unidirectional wheels, but appeared to be traveling backwards on the other side of the car.
As far as interior styling, I learned to live with the 90's era, Pontiac style of huge gray plastic buttons adorned on the radio and doors. The door buttons were not backlit (except for a small red light on the door handle bezel) and the paint on the buttons wore off with time. In 1994, the steering wheel audio controls were of a cheaper (and less ergonomic) quality than they were in 95 and up models and broke often. By 43K miles only 3 of six buttons worked. Their layout made controlling the radio from the steering wheel more of a hassle than controlling it from the head unit. The plastic hinge on the center console was placed at the rear of the console and was very prone to breaking. The console lid itself could shift from side to side while closed, giving the car a very cheaply put together feel. The radio was a 500W Monsoon 10 speaker system and sounded better than most after market systems. The door speakers required frequent replacement however. The window motors went out several times over the course of the car's life (at least 2 window motor replacements per door in 70K miles). I had the power lock actuator on the driver's side fail at 40K miles. Passenger's complained about the catalytic converter hump on the passenger side floor board, but the seating position from the driver's side was better than most car's I had ridden in with all controls well placed (except for steering wheel audio).
The suspension was great on this car. It felt well balanced and comfortably stiff, however being my only car, I started taking a beating in it during city driving over potholed streets. By today's standards, the rear suspension was a little outdated with a 3-link rear suspension and solid rear axle, but it performed the job well and added to the sporty feel of the Firebird.
The brakes were less impressive, but still managed to stop the car when needed. There was noticeable brake fade after high speed stops. The rear drum brakes were also a little outdated in a time when they were putting rear disc on minivans. The ABS was a three channel system (not four channel like most of today's system) but still managed to get me out of a jam more than once.
The acceleration was initially impressive compared to my 87 Tempo (165 hp vs. 100hp). However over time, I realized that in the big scheme of things, it wasn't really all that fast. There were four cylinder cars that could easily take the Firebird. With four adults in the car, the acceleration dropped to moving van like status. While being a convenience in bumper to bumper traffic, the automatic transmission was annoying. Dropping it in gear had a few second delay before the tranny would actually respond. It would frequently downshift, followed by an immediate upshift when trying to gently accelerate to merge with traffic along with the accompanying high revving engine noise. Most passengers in the car thought I was trying to race or something. As far as maintenance, the engine was a big problem. From 32K miles till I sold the car at 98K miles, the engine had to have frequent tune ups (every 30K miles or so) compared with the 100K mile tune ups of today's cars. The O2 sensor, camshaft position sensor, distributor packs, alternator (twice) all had to be replaced along with the radiator. During a mass hurricane evacuation, my freeze plugs began leaking (the one that requires a transmission removal). By the time I sold the car, it was evident another freeze plug was on its way out. I had an EGR gasket leak that filled the car with exhaust whenever the engine was revved. The 3.4L has to be one of the worst engines made by GM. I guess GM realized it too, and by 1996 it was replaced by the much more successful 200hp 3.6L (an option in 1995).
Daily driving the car could be a hassle at times. The air dam scraped frequently in driveways and gas stations and parking was tricky as well as getting out of the car with the large, thick doors. The hatch struts went out soon after I bought the car and at the time were over $75 a piece. I had to live with a broomstick to hold the hatch open till I found cheaper replacements. The headlight motor went out, but I discovered a quick fix for it that required a small modification and no money. The steeply raked windows meant that turning on the windshield wipers (24" long windshield wipers) to clear dew off the windshield with windows down dumped about a quart of water in your lap.
Despite all of the inconviences, I really got to like the Firebird (and learned a lot about the mechanics of a car from its constantly failing parts) and chose a 1995 Trans Am for its next replacement. With that trade, I got to keep its nice seating position, I got the upgraded steering wheel controls, leather interior, t-tops, fog lights, 5 spoke wheels, 160mph speedometer, rear disc brakes, and most importantly, a proper V8 and 6-speed. Basically everything I didn't like about the Firebird was improved on the Trans Am.