On The Road Review: Chevrolet Camaro SS

Funny how a little marketing to an audience loyal to cherished memories can jumpstart sales of a car line that all but disappeared six years ago.

Odd too, that this consumer base lovingly embraces the retro-styling emphasis of a thoroughly modern sporty car design, yet totally ignored the four-door sedan upon which this new car is based. Stranger still is how this latest pony car is helping to revive an automaker desperate for some success stories in the time of its greatest despair.

In the fall of 1966, Chevrolet unveiled a racy two-door model ready to combat Ford’s hot-selling Mustang. Initially code-named Panther, Chevy’s new Camaro came with five different V-8 engine offerings as well as coupe and convertible bodies. When asked what Camaro — a made up name — stood for, Chevy engineers and marketing people said, “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.” The pony car wars were on.

Through the ensuing decades, Chevy’s Camaro almost always bested the Mustang in direct competition performance contests, but rarely led in the all important sales race. The Camaro might have been hot, but the Ford was making money. When the fourth-generation Camaro ended production in 2003, the Mustang continued to endure.

Despite what critics might think of GM, there has always been an enthusiastic group of engineers and product people laboring away deep within the labyrinth of a corporation that doesn’t always see the larger picture. Ten years ago, a small group of these resourceful employees in the States discovered that they might circumvent some of GM’s production restrictions and parameters by utilizing platforms and chassis built by other divisions in different countries — such as Australia for example.

Down under, GM’s Holden subsidiary had a very capable rear drive chassis in production. Former product guru Bob Lutz slyly encouraged further development of this chassis with a Corvette-based V-8 engine for sale in the USA as a reincarnated Pontiac GTO. While the mechanicals were great, the car’s styling lacked the emotional appeal of the initial GTO and sales faltered.

Determined to utilize this inexpensive independent chassis to satisfy rear-drive enthusiasts, a loyal group of customers ignored by GM’s current car mix, Lutz pressed on for a sedan variant. The Pontiac G8 was born, a thrilling car to drive, but a marketing disaster from a brand on its last legs. Strike two.

All along, Lutz and many insiders envisioned a return of the Camaro, especially after Ford’s 2005 Mustang redesign proved that there were literally hundreds of thousands of pony car buyers still in the market. The Camaro project was green-lighted.

About the same time, some folks at Chrysler were working on a similar premise: modern pony cars with hints of the past in their styling could capitalize on “baby-boomer” dollars to increase sales. The Dodge Challenger was also reborn.

Mopar, Bow-tie and Blue Oval fans will always argue about who had the hottest, best-looking and most appealing pony cars in the 1960s and early 1970s, but there is no doubt that the latest offerings available now from Dodge, Chevy and Ford are vastly superior to those previous coupes in every area of dynamic performance.

To many viewers, the Challenger’s retro look nailed the stance and street presence of the first Hemi-Challengers. This car looks great, but it is quite large. The Camaro, the star of the big screen as Bumblebee in the blockbuster movie “Transformers,” is aggressive not only in appearance, but on the street with a bold stance meant to mimic the very popular 1969 Camaro SS. The latest Mustang gets attention for its repeater taillights and improved performance, but sales are sliding as the new competitors are taking market share while many drivers wonder about the Botox-like body design.

The Camaro’s sleek shape masks how large the car is. Using dramatic creases and sharply bent curves, the Camaro’s body is one of the most complex designs that GM has produced. While there are strong intentions to make viewers think that the latest Camaro is similar to the ’69 model, there are also many cues to indicate that this is a very modern interpretation of the muscle car. Painted bright yellow and black, the Camaro SS garners inordinate amounts of attention wherever you go.

At almost 190 inches long and over 75 inches wide, the Camaro coupe (Chevy predicts that the convertible will debut next fall) is slightly larger than the Mustang and almost as wide as the big Challenger. Camaro rides on a longer wheelbase, 112.3 inches to 107.1 inches, and a wider track than the Mustang too, attributes that pay off when you’re exploring the car’s handling limits, or, just enjoying the ride.

The Chevy engineers boast that the Camaro’s chassis might me the most significant advance with this pony car and there is good reason to support their contention. Coil over shocks and a multilink rear independent suspension give the car a supple ride and admirable control. Even when full power is applied, the car never exhibits any nasty tendencies, remaining in control, poised. Modern electronic aids such as defeatable traction control as well as GM’s vaunted Stabilitrak control certainly help the power-addled pilot. Yet, the Camaro’s steering feel and crisp responsiveness are very reassuring.

The Camaro SS uses a very familiar powerplant: the aluminum LS3 6.2-liter V-8 that resides in the Corvette’s engine bay. Equipped with the pleasingly smooth and precise action of a short-throw six-speed Tremec gearbox, the Camaro SS produces 426 hp and 420 pound/feet of peak torque. Weighing 400 pounds less than the Challenger SRT8, the Camaro SS surpasses the spirited Hemi-powered car with minimal strain. The lighter-still Mustang GT falls behind too in any heads-up contest. Ford fans will have to spend almost $50K for the Mustang GT500 to match the Camaro’s productivity — a fact that could be irrelevant if Chevy proceeds with the Z28 model.

The Camaro sounds good too — not quite as vibrant as the Mustang, but still good. Very subdued at low engine speeds, the exhaust note is barely audible. Twist the tiger’s tail, however, and the rewarding wail of a high-performance V-8 spurs you to taste more of a tonic that never seems to get old.

Inside, I found that the presentation is too much a mix of assorted efforts that don’t coalesce into one theme. Taken separately, many components look great, like the console gauge cluster, and work swell. The radio and climate controls are easy to use. But the various shapes, contours and faces of the gauges, instruments, and dials left me thinking that the interior team from the 21st century was forced to make several compromises with the design team left from the 1960s.

If you love the Camaro’s look, recognize that the shape of the car makes for some interesting visuals looking out from inside. Gun-slit windows all around, a high fender line, plus a wide cabin leave a slightly constrained view. I’m sure that your perspective will improve the longer you drive the car.

The new Camaro’s emotional appeal has been translating into showroom sales. Chevy is averaging about 8,000 units a month sold, a pace that is outdoing the redesigned Mustang. The majority of Camaro buyers are selecting the base and RS models, equipped with the direct injection 3.6-liter V-6 borrowed from the Cadillac CTS. Making 304 hp, this model delivers plenty of thrills plus 29 mpg EPA highway estimates.

Camaro SS buyers will obviously relish the stout V-8 version and the car’s performance image. These buyers will have to be disciplined, as the 6.2-liter motor can produce big grins instantaneously.

For pony car fans living in a busy, stressful world, this new Camaro is the release mechanism to visit another era when the world was less confusing, all wrapped in a modern package that promises years of pleasure.


Just the Facts: Chevrolet Camaro SS

Camaro is a rear-wheel-drive mid-size 2+2 coupe. Base LS models start at $22,995 with the 3.6-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is available. The SS coupe with 6.2-liter V-8 starts at $30,995.

The V-6 is EPA rated at 18/29-mpg while the V-8 versions are 16/24-mpg. Both run on regular grade fuel.

SS model is also available with a six-speed automatic, but power is reduced from 426 hp to 400 hp.

SS model comes with: tilt/telescopic steering wheel, limited slip rear differential, rear spoiler, sport suspension, 245/45R20 Pirelli sport tires on 20-inch alloy wheels, XM satellite radio and OnStar, traction control, Stabilitrak, heated power mirrors, cruise, fog lamps, folding rear seat and auto dimming rear view mirror.

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