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Turbo Trans Am: How this Buick V6-Powered Pontiac Smoked the Corvette Back in 1989

When you think of high-profile turbocharged performance cars built by General Motors in the 1980s, the Buick Grand National and the even hotter Buick GNX are likely the first things that come to mind.

1989 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo Indy Pace Car

Buick + Pontiac = Legend

After all, with their sinister looks, potent turbocharged V6 engine and genuine muscle car performance—the GN was, and still is, that which defines the "modern" muscle car.

Buick Grand National Black

But GM also built another rare machine using the same DNA that might be even better. GM aficionados and fans of all things '80s will know we are talking about the 1989 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo. 

1989 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo

In 1989 the Firebird Trans Am was celebrating its 20th anniversary and that year Pontiac was chosen to provide the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, so rather than just building a special edition with some unique stripes and badging, things got a little crazy.

To up the performance of this special Trans Am, Pontiac went not with a V8 but with a turbocharged 3.8 liter V6 supplied by their cross-company buddies at Buick.

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo Convertible

V6 > V8

The turbocharged V6 was similar to the engine used in the limited production 1987 Buick GNX but received a few extra updates to make it the hottest of the breed—including new cylinder heads, a reworked turbocharger and more. And like the GN, the only transmission would be an automatic, well-suited to keep the engine under boost.

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo 1989 3.8 Engine

The conversions were done in California, with an outfit called Prototype Automotive Services building the engines and supplying them to the F-Body assembly line. 

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo Interior 1989

Exterior-wise the Turbo Trans Am didn't differ much from the Trans Am GTA it was based on, with only subtle badging to distinguish it from its V8-powered sibling.

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo 1989

Watch Out, Corvette

But when it came to performance there was no comparison. Officially, the Turbo Trans Am was rated at only 250 horsepower, but that figure was strongly underrated, likely to avoid upsetting the Corvette team.

In the real world, output was at least 300 horsepower—and the Buck V6 gave the Turbo Trans Am some serious performance figures, with magazines clocking 0-60 in the mid four-second range.

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo 1989 Burnout

Quarter mile ETs were in the mid 13-second range—impressive by today's standards, and mind blowing for the late 1980s. And being turbocharged, a few simple upgrades could unlock even more performance.

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo 1989 Side View

The Turbo Trans Am didn't come cheap. With an MSRP around $30,000, it was priced around where a Hellcat or Mustang GT500 would be today. 

Pontiac Trans Am Turbo 1989

About 1,550 examples were built in all, but given their rarity and their legendary performance numbers, Turbo Trans Ams are actually relatively affordable today. You can still find a nice example for around $30,000 (2021 dollars)—not cheap for a 1980s Firebird, but a a great value all things considered.

While it might not have the same instantly recognizable persona as the Buick Grand National, the Turbo Trans Am is every bit the street performance icon and might just be GM's most impressive enthusiast cars of the 1980s.

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