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"In Praise Of The Hated GM Small Cars Week:" 1986 Fiero 2M4

006You know, any used car can be good or bad. And people sometimes ask, "What's a good used car?" Well, I think that depends on lots of things... first, how good the car was when new, and second, how the previous owner(s) maintained the thing.

The best used GM car I ever had was a red 1986 Pontiac Fiero 2M4. Of course, "2M4" means "2-passenger, Mid-engine, 4-cylinder." It was four years old when I got it, had 40,000 miles, I gave $4,000 for it, and it had four new tires.

The car had cost the seller about $12,000 when new, so I figured if they had already lost twice what I was paying for the car, plus the price of 4 new tires, I was coming out ahead.

216I went from a 1984 GMC ½ ton full size pickup to a Fiero because I wanted to feel "sporty." I was also a "Returning to college student," and every hundred dollars counted. So not only did the car get considerably better mileage than the pickup, it was also easier to park in those tiny campus spaces.

The 2M4 also came along as I started working on the Road Test Magazine show. That was a fun time, and the red and white license plate matched the car perfectly.

History repeated itself when I got the Miata 6 years ago, but that time I kept the pickup.

The best thing about any Fiero, in my opinion? The styling. So much so that it served well as an image car while I worked on the show. Heck, Reeves Callaway liked it... so I suppose that was good enough for me.

BMW M1

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I always thought the Fiero was styled after BMW's M1, or at least shared many styling elements with it. They both had flip-up headlights, a thin black piece of body side molding, both were mid-engined, and they were low to the ground. Way low. The M1 beat the Fiero to market by about six years, so there was plenty of time to copy the Teutonic technocar.

I never minded when "Kitty" walked on the car. Her paw prints were tiny (When there were any), and quickly wiped off. She was my pet for 16 years, and sometimes I still think I see her lounging around the old place.

016On another note, one evening I went out to the car, fired it up, turned on the lights, and not much happened. It turned out that some ice had formed over the headlight covers, and they could not open. So I took that as a lesson, and after they thawed I turned them on, they raised, and I pulled the plugs on both headlight cover motors.

This did two things well: first, the lights would always work in the frozen stuff, and second, it saved the lift motors from working for about five months out of the year. Hopefully this prolonged their life a bit, but I'll never know for sure.

219This car really didn't have too many options, but that's OK. No V-6, no power windows, door locks, or sunroof (The sunroofs weren't very good anyway). But it had tilt, which is mandatory for easy access into a Fiero. Add alloy wheels, intermittent wipers, a rear luggage rack which of course never got used, plus the mandatory air conditioning for here in the South.

It also had a standard 5-speed (The V-6 had a 4-speed), an AM/FM/cassette radio, and the Courtesy Light Package (Under dash, ash trays, trunk light); I think that was about it.

All Fieros had a high level of trim inside and out, they were and are unique, and I'm sure that has helped keep them as popular now with some folks as when they were new. And maybe that's another reason they've been called the poor man's exotic car.

Being a 1986 model, it was in the third year of Fiero production, and many of the early bugs had been worked out. At least it never caught on fire, though it was recalled once for further fire prevention repairs. I think they wrapped some wires and replaced the dip stick so it would "hold" an extra quart of oil to help it run cooler.

It came with a black Fox bra (After all, this was a car of the 80s), and had a slightly ripped driver's seat bolster area. The owner's husband got it in with a screwdriver sticking out of his pocket, and, well, the rest is history as they say. But right after I got the car, a local upholstery shop replaced a small cloth section for $40, and the seat looked as good as new

The car came with one mechanical ailment, which was quickly resolved. Seems one of the FWD (Excuse me, RWD) bearings was bad... you could actually wiggle the rear tire a little. The local Pontiac dealer wanted $240 just for the part, plus their time to put it on. Sensing I was getting ripped off here, I went to a national auto parts chain and got a bearing assembly (with a lifetime guarantee) for $81. Installation was easy.

This brings up some old memories. When they say, "Keep that great GM feeling with Genuine GM Parts," I have to wonder why I would replace a part that wore out early (40,000 miles or less) with a pricey part from the same parts manufacturer. I also had trouble at that dealership later, when the A/C system mysteriously failed after having a recall service done there.

That dealership is now closed, by the way, and currently the facility sells and services KIAs. And the $81 bearing assembly never gave a moment's trouble the rest of the time I had the car.

019More than once, like at a gas station, somebody came up to me and asked how I kept the car so clean. But I guess since "Fiero" means "proud" in Italian, keeping the car shiny just came natural. Plus, as small as it was, there wasn't a whole lot to keep clean. I remember that it took half as much time to give the Fiero a sponge bath as it did the long-bed pickup.

People even asked me if I could detail their cars. I guess I could have picked up some extra change doing that, but I really didn't want the responsibility of touching their vehicles in case something bad happened.

011But after just four years with the Fiero, bits and pieces were starting to age. At 80,000 miles the washer fluid tank had dried and cracked, the headliner had dropped, the electronics in the radio had fried, one of the horn buttons kept breaking off, and the A/C system was going south. And those Dunlops weren't brand new any more.

So the decision was made to replace the car with a new 1994 Ranger pickup. Of course, now I wish I had kept the Fiero and maintained it, but I didn't know of any support clubs or forums at the time (Or if there even were any), and I really didn't want to pump any real money and time into an 8-year-old car. Been there, done that.

The Fiero may have started off as a high-mileage commuter car, but to me, it had all of the necessary sports car ingredients. Compared to many British roadsters it was a rocket, and had comforts they never offered.

Sure, it had the front end out of a Chevette and the J-Car powertrain brought up the rear. The seats were from the Sunbird and the wheels came off of a Grand Am. So was the steering wheel, I think.

The 90-hp Iron Duke never set any land speed records in it, but the red spark plug wires looked cool. And speaking of engines, I always thought the Twin Cam Quad 4 was the perfect engine (180 hp) for a Fiero, but that's another story.

015What would I do differently if I had the Fiero all over again? Well, since the body panels basically can be removed with a screwdriver, I'd find a salvaged car and get the sunroof pieces. Yes, I said the sunroof system in the Fieros wasn't very good... there wasn't even a cover shade... but since it was probably a 2-hour job to remove the outer roof panel and headliner, then install the new bits with the sunroof, I could have the glass panel all Winter, and not worry as much about the sun's harmful rays cooking the interior... and its passengers.

When I sold the Fiero, I couldn't watch the buyer drive off in it. Yes, the money and title had changed hands, but it was still my car. Every mile I had spent in it was a pleasure, and it was a gift to have that car during a very special time of my life.

And that's why I can never have another one.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

Image Credits: I took all of these pictures of the Fiero during its 4-year time with me. The BMW M1 image is from BMWDrives.com.

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I have long been of the opinion that it is a shame the quality was so poor on the Fiero because I loved the looks of the car.

Nice.
I must say the pics look great, and it never dawned on me the eerie similarities of the Fiero's and M1's design.

Also, if I ever live in a snowy country with a vehicle with pop-up headlights, I know what to do. Thanks for the tip. ;)

Thanks. That first pic shows green leaves reflecting in the red paint. If that ain't shiny, then what is?

Some vehicles with flip-up headlights have a position where the lights go off, but they don't go down. Sadly, GM's "parts bin switch" did not have this feature, so when the lights went on they went up; when they went off they went down.

Some of the time, anyway.

Nice story...it's great when a car means something to you.
I loved the looks, I looked at it when new but as a single guy I needed a car with more room to occasionally haul stuff.

Too bad nobody builds something like it today at a reasonable price.

I used the luggage rack on my '86 just once - taking my girlfriend back to college. Eventually I took the whole thing off, I always meant to patch the little holes in the trunk lid but never got around to it. Actually put it back on before I sold the car. I bought mine new, drove it daily for 9 years, kept it 12. It was a tremendously comfortable commuter, but the clutch feel was poor, the loose cable-operated shifter was annoying, and all the interior vinyl pieces warped almost immediately.

...i've long been tempted by a matched fiero/solstice pair; despite and perhaps even because of their their deficiencies, they just seem like such bond-worthy keeper projects...

"And that's why I can never have another one."

...i know exactly what you mean: you can never go back to the ones you let go, though i've spent hours perusing some of my previous models online...they're often terribly ragged but occasionally marvelously well-kept, and i've entertained fantasies of how much easier maintenance would be now, in terms of my means as well access to information and parts, but i'd never really succeed in recreating any of my old cars as their era, their circumstances, and even their individual quirks are gone forever, lost to time...

The Fiero like the Solstice are examples of GM answering the competition (MR2 for the Fiero and Miata for the Solstice) by changing the things that were right while adding too much wrong. The Fiero should have never had the Iron Duke, but like you mentioned, the Quad 4. So what GM made was an MR2 with poor build quality and a crappy engine, was that an answer to a question no one asked? The Solstice took the Miata concept of rear drive and open motoring and added weight and size which is like taking your wife to the plastic surgeon to get a breast reduction and a bigger nose.
So close GM, yet so far.

But the key to keeping a small-volume niche car affordable is using cheap(er) well-stablshed (i.e. avalable) parts.

Id'd be happy with a fun, sporty two seater even if it had an older drivetrain.
The fun would come not from speed, but handling and "sportiness"...whatever that means...probably a combination of decent performance, good handling and fun looks.

Make it simple, make it cheap, make it fun.
We don't need anopther high tech skateboard like the current Lotuses that sell for $50k plus.

Make it an entry car for young people or a second car for young couples or a third car for older folks who would like a semi-sports car.

MarveH, theoretically you make some good points, but if GM actually HAD gone with a better motor than the Iron Duke (the Quad 4 is out of the question as it didn't come out till '88, the Fiero's final year), a more competent suspension among other things, the base price would have been much higher, probably in Corvette territory - a cardinal sin among the GM bean counters. GM wanted to keep the car affordable, so unfortunately anything better than what they had was out of the question.

I do agree it's a shame, however, that there wasn't a better base engine than the Iron Duke - had the Quad-4 come out some years earlier, it would have been (IMHO) a natural choice. The only other I-4s they had at the time were the equally-underwhelming J-car 2.0 units. I've always wondered why they didn't offer the 2.8 V6 from the gitgo instead of waiting a year - that would have gone a long way in improving out the general public's first initial impression of the Fiero.

Thee was a lot of sharing between GM engines back then. I wonder how the 2.2 Dodge/Omni turbo motor would have done?

Great-looking car, but that dashboard is the most bizarre abomination I've ever seen.

The dash was cool, except for the outboard vents that stuck out so far. They were knee knockers, and I saw many on other Fieros that had broken from being hit.

There was a poor excuse for a glove box (basically a map pocket) on the passenger's dash side; the only real storage was a compartment at shoulder level between the seats. Interior storage spaces was one of the car's biggest shortcomings.

I remember plastic aftermarket bins for the doors, but I didn't want to screw anything into that carpet.

I remember loving the looks of the dash from the ads, when the Fiero first came out. From actually driving a friend's Fiero many years later, I remember that not only were all the dash gauges aimed straight at my navel, they were also all completely hidden behind the steering wheel.

Dumb design. But looked great.

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