Early next year Chevrolet is bringing back one of its most famous vehicles ever — the Camaro.
It might seem like exactly the wrong time. High-powered muscle cars like the Camaro could become a tough sell with consumers flocking to smaller, more fuel-efficient models. And the aggressive-looking new Camaro appears as if it's ready to leave a big carbon boot print on the ozone layer.
But appearances can be deceiving. "The truth of the matter is that these muscle cars, even the V8, get good fuel economy," says John Wolkonowicz, senior analyst at market research firm Global Insight.
Though city mileage estimates were not available at press time, Chevrolet says the Camaro with a V6 engine can achieve 26 miles per gallon on the highway. That compares well to other vehicles with the same engine – for example, the larger and heavier Pontiac G8 sedan gets 25 mpg highway.
The V8-powered model, called the Camaro SS, does more damage, at 23 mpg highway.
"The new Camaros will out-accelerate any of the muscle cars of the late '60s, but they'll get better gas mileage," Wolkonowicz says. "You don't have to have a mousy image in order to get good fuel economy."
That said, better mileage might not even matter to muscle-car buyers. Cars like the Camaro are niche vehicles with avid fans waiting to snatch up new offerings, says Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for R.L. Polk and Co. in Southfield, Mich. "That type of buyer who is already predisposed to buy it, do you think they're going to care about fuel economy? I don't think so," Miller says.
The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is slated to go on sale in the first quarter of 2009, and Miller counts himself among those eager to see its return. "The thing has got some wheels,” he says. “I can't wait.”
It's based on the brash Camaro Coupe concept that ran the auto-show circuit in 2006, and it borrows a clutch of design cues from the 1969 model. The first Camaro debuted in 1966.
In keeping with tradition, the new Camaro has rear-wheel drive. Most Chevrolet cars have front-wheel drive, a setup that requires less space in a vehicle and tends to produce better gas mileage.
Rear-wheel-drive, on the other hand, usually creates better weight distribution, which improves driving dynamics.
Initial designs for the new Camaro were done in the United States, but then the design and engineering were passed off to Holden, General Motor's Australian subsidiary.
The Melbourne-based company excels at making rear-wheel-drive cars — Holden helped with the Pontiac G8 and the now-defunct Pontiac GTO, both rear-wheel-drive models. Tapping that expertise has been instrumental for GM's North American efforts, which have largely focused on front-wheel-drive vehicles in recent decades.
In LS and LT trim, the Camaro gets a 3.6-liter, 300-horsepower V6 engine, the same as the base-model Pontiac G8 — with the choice of a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic that includes paddles behind the steering for manual gear selection.
The Camaro in top-of-the-line SS guise comes in two distinct flavors: hotter and hottest. Opt for an automatic transmission and you'll get an all-new 6.2-liter V8 engine that delivers 400 hp and 395 pound-feet of torque. Choose the six-speed manual and you'll get the same 422-hp V8 engine as in a Corvette.
With that kind of power spinning the rear wheels, the new Camaro will be adept at leaving burnout marks all over empty supermarket parking lots. But that's not to say it will be a one-trick pony car, like its predecessors. Its sophisticated independent suspension system should make it fun for impromptu slaloms around grocery carts.
Inside, the new model again looks back to the glory of '69, but with an upscale twist. In a nod to classic Camaros, four round dials set in square housings are mounted on the center console just ahead of the shifter. The steering wheel and instrument cluster behind it also have a distinctly retro look.
Despite its throw-back styling, the 2010 Camaro can be outfitted with many of the high-tech features found on modern luxury cars, like an upgraded stereo system (by Boston Acoustics), Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free cell phone use, MP3-player integration, six airbags and rear parking assist.
OnStar, GM's safety/communications system, will be standard on all Camaro models.
The Camaro competes with two other All-American muscle cars: the Ford Mustang and newly released Dodge Challenger. It also goes up against one model from Japan: the Nissan 350Z, which is based on a classic 240Z.
Some say there will always be a market for cars like the Chevrolet Camaro. "They've got a core group of people who say I want a piece of that," Miller says, adding that GM is realistic about the Camaro being a niche vehicle, and production volume will reflect that.
Global Insight's Wolkonowicz sees the Camaro as a potential substitute for folks in larger vehicles looking to downsize but still drive something distinctive. And like Miller, he believes the appeal of American muscle cars will persist.
"The person buying the Prius will think the person buying the Camaro is crazy," Wolkonowicz says. "But the person who is driving the Camaro who sees the guy in the Prius will think he's crazy, and wouldn't be caught dead in it. That's why there are so many different kinds of cars in the marketplace. No one thing is right for everyone."
That's not to say the muscle car genre won't change with the times, as perpetual improvements for the sake of better fuel economy take hold. "By 2020, the Camaro might be a full hybrid, a plug-in hybrid. And it might have the acceleration of the Camaro today," Wolkonowicz says. "But it won't be a marginalized car. It will be a way to have your cake and eat it too."
Hannah Elliott contributed to this article.