Quantum Leaps: The Quad Four Pontiac Fiero That Never Was

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras

To many children of the 1970s and 80s, the Pontiac Fiero is something of a tragic figure. Its mid-engine chassis and clean, sporty lines made performance promises that its 2.5L OHV, 92 horsepower “Iron Duke” could never deliver on. Even later models, with their 140 HP, 2.8L V6 engines were disappointments – albeit lesser ones. Despite continuous improvements, the car was only in production for four years, and ultimately became more sought-after as the basis for a number of ill-conceived Faux-rrari kit cars than for what it was … but it didn’t have to be this way.

Across town, Pontiac’s GM stablemate Oldsmobile had something that could have changed the fate of Pontiac’s Fiero – and maybe the Chevrolet Corvette’s, too – and that’s the subject of this first engine swap fantasy file: the Quad 4.

WHAT THE QUAD 4 WAS AND WAS NOT

As the late 1970s rolled into the 80s, GM was hemorrhaging market share to Japanese brands like Toyota and Honda. GM’s U.S. market share had plummeted from somewhere in the 40 percent range to less than a third, and the company was hurting. GM brass believed that they needed a small, efficient overhead cam engine to compete, and what their engineers came up with was ultimately dubbed “Quad 4” (as in: four valves per cylinder, four-cylinder engine).

In its day, the Quad 4 was a marvel. Where the Fiero’s engine spun all the way to a 5,000 rpm redline, the Quad 4 would spin to 6,800 rpm before reliability concerns drove GM to artificially limit the redline to 6,500. What’s more, the Quad 4 weighed a bit less than the Iron Duke 4 cylinder – and a lot less than the 2.8L V6 – that made it into the Fiero in our timeline, all while making a wholly respectable 190 hp and 160 lb-ft of torque. In 1987, those numbers weren’t too far off from what the Mustang/Firebird V8s were making.

So, the Quad 4 was a great motor. It was, arguably, the most important GM engine design of the 1980s and 90s, serving nearly two decades until being ultimately replaced by the Ecotec engine at the turn of the century. What it was not was readily available to Pontiac.

I know, I know – that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Today, if a car company makes an engine for one brand – let’s say a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder – you’ll probably find that engine in just about every brand of car that company makes. VW? Check. Audi? Check. Skoda? I don’t know – but, probably check. GM in the 80s was a different thing, though. It was like a tiny version of America, and each brand was like a state, greedily snatching at money and resources and sparring over what passed for political power within GM. One of the things that said power could get you, as a brand, was veto power over what other brands could do.

Indeed, if you believe some of the automotive conspiracy theorists out there, GM made sure the Fiero was given crappy engines on purpose, in order to protect Corvette’s position as “GM’s performance car”. That power could also be leveraged by a brand to score a unique platform or, as in this case, a unique engine. As surprising as it might seem today, the Cutlass Supreme was the #1 best-selling car in these United States every year from 1976 to 1983. Because of that, Oldsmobile wielded an entire metric fuckton (fucktonne?) of power within GM in the mid-80s.

What came next looks something like this: Olds wanted the Quad 4, so Olds got the Quad 4.

RIGHTING THE WRONG

In the old sci-fi series Quantum Leap, every episode starts with an introduction that goes like this …

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator – and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap… will be the leap home.”

… so, for this fantasy swap, we’re Sam Beckett. We’re not building some tire-shredding monster or overly styled, stanced, and box-fendered SEMA car. We’re simply putting right what once went wrong and giving the light, nimble Pontiac Fiero the 190 horsepower, DOHC, 6,800 rpm heart that GM should have given it in the first place.

If it had, well – I don’t think the Fiero would have sold any better, to be honest (I subscribe to the belief that enthusiasts don’t buy new cars in sufficient numbers to justify building enthusiast cars), but I do believe that a Quad 4-powered Pontiac Fiero could have been a bona-fide GM performance classic in its own right, spoken of in the same breath as the Buick Grand National and GMC Syclone. And that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t have made sense to chop up a Fiero to make it look like a Ferrari – because the Fiero would have been the car you wanted to begin with.

The car deserved at least that; I think. And, with a Quad 4 behind the seats, it may have gotten it.

[Images: GM]

Jo Borras
Jo Borras

I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.

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  • DenverMike DenverMike on Aug 28, 2021

    With the Quad 4 and decent suspension, it would've sucked less than the Corvette at the time. A lot less!

  • 546 546 on Jun 11, 2023

    All this talk of Oldsmobile and the quad four for Fiero is not realistic. Look I worked for an Oldsmobile-Pontiac dealerships for most of my 20 years as a mechanic. So I worked on both. The Quad Four didn't have many problems m with the Iron Duke mostly coils under that engine cover. Pontiac on the other hand and the Iron Duke design had engine fires from oil leaking from the valve cover on the exhaust manifold and no guts the no guts was that 2.8 v-6 for sure. But when the Fiero GT came out with the 3-1 V-6 it was amazing. That car would bury the speedometer when you shifted to fourth in the Five speed. It was like driving a GoKart on any crooked highway. If I had the money I would not pass up buying one.


    • Eric Eric on Mar 30, 2024

      Lol..3.1 in a fiero..really...well since you were such a great mechanic for 20 Years then you should know pontiac never put a 3.1 in the fiero..only engines were the 2.5 4cyl or the 2.8...chevy didn't even debut the 3.1 until 1989 and by then the fiero was discontinued...unless someone did an engine swap you never drove one because the factory never built one...


  • 1995 SC On the plus side, I found a sedan I want to buy
  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
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