Ponce de Leon spent his career searching the Florida wilderness for the mythical fountain of youth, hoping to recapture his glory days. Car buyers often follow his example, buying the same kind of car they had in their youth, either as a restoration project or in the form of a new nostalgia model from the same manufacturer.
The question now for the domestic car industry is whether such cars can also serve to recapture their glory days, when the car makers commanded huge market share with hot models that future owners sketched in study hall, or plastered on the inside of their lockers.
Ford has remained in this sporty coupe segment since its introduction of the Mustang at the 1964 New York Auto Show. Chrysler jumped back in last year with a recreation of the Challenger that it originally built to compete with the Mustang. And now, after a seven-year hiatus, Chevrolet is returning with the Camaro.
These “heritage” models have a spotty record, with some hits like the New Beetle, Mini Cooper and Mustang, and some misses like the Chevrolet SS-R, Ford Thunderbird and Plymouth Prowler. The quality of the car under the vintage veneer seems to strongly influence the outcome, as the SS-R, T-Bird and Prowler were terrible cars to drive and live with, while the more successful models have been good cars as well as faithful recreations.
Considering this background, Chevrolet’s Camaro is poised for success because it’s both a stunning recollection of the ’69 Camaro and because it’s a fantastic car for driving enthusiasts. GM cut no corners in producing the Camaro, making it the most successful of the neo-classic pony cars so far.
For the Camaro, GM made no compromises. The car enjoys the benefit of top-flight suspension, brake and steering hardware that is derived from the Holden Monaro, a traditional rear-drive car built by GM’s Australian subsidiary. But unlike the Challenger, the Camaro’s engineers were able to push and pull on the chassis dimensions as needed to retain the concept car’s classic lines.
The only departure from the original is the use of a b-pillar (the roof support between the front and rear seats) on the new car. The original Camaro was a hardtop design, with the roof arching gracefully from the windshield to the back-swept c-pillar at the rear. Modern crash safety and body stiffness requirements make pillar-less true coupes too expensive for high-volume, moderately priced models like the Camaro.
Hit cars have supported the domestic manufacturers through tough times in the past, and the Camaro could be a new profit engine for GM. The company took 14,000 confirmed orders from consumers before production even commenced, and had 800,000 inquiries from potential customers through the company’s Web site.
“The Camaro is evidence that GM does indeed produce cars that Americans want to buy,” crowed Troy Clarke, president of GM, North America. Of course the new car faces the dreaded “headwinds” which are blamed for every missed profit target in American business, but what better to counteract a slumping market than a hot product?
Apple doesn’t see iPod sales tanking because of the economy, because consumers want the product. The Camaro is a more costly product, obviously, but if some people feel they have to have it, then GM stands to starting inking some black numbers on its balance sheet sooner than it would have otherwise.
“The buzz that I’ve seen for this car is the most I’ve seen in my career,” observed Ed Peper, Chevrolet general manager. To succeed, the Camaro needs to appeal to not only the die-hard classic car enthusiasts and today’s performance car afficianados, Peper said. It needs to attract people he terms “life enthusiasts” rather than just driving enthusiasts.
That means poaching sales from the Honda Civic Si, the Scion tC, Nissan 370Z and probably intercepting some fashion-conscious buyers who might have previously bought New Beetles or Mini Coopers.
Backing the flash that will appeal to status-seekers is bona fide dash that means the car has genuine street credibility for its performance. The entry-level 3.6-liter six-cylinder model, the kind derisively referred to as a “secretary’s car” in the old days, now has 304 horsepower churning through a six-speed transmission. It accelerates the car to 60 MPH in 6.1 seconds, which is faster than the original V-8 model’s performance.
This is GM’s best V-6, seen previously in the Cadillac CTS, and it includes the latest technology such as direct fuel injection. The financial news network talking head who attended the Camaro’s press introduction dismissively asked the Chevy guys why they would introduce a car like this now, the implication being that stupid American manufacturers only know how to make gas guzzlers. Except that the Camaro scored 29 MPG highway on the EPA’s official test. That’s better than the manual-shift Scion tC’s 27 MPG, for those who insist on tallying the GM vs. Toyota score.
Over time, most Camaros will be six-cylinders, and in the future there may even be four-cylinder versions. But in the immediate future, gearheads are going to buy a bunch of Camaros outfitted with the company’s signature Chevy smallblock V-8s. And they will enjoy them. As with the base engine, the V-8 can also be matched to either automatic or manual-shift six-speed transmissions, but the 6.2-liter V-8 puts out either 426 or 400 horsepower (depending on the transmission) and a sound that is symphonic perfection to drivers whose hearts beat to the music of internal combustion. Both engines, with 24 MPG highway for the manual transmission and 25 MPG for the automatic, score better fuel economy than the 22 MPG of the pocket rocket Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
In terms of practicality, the Camaro features a semi-useable back seat. In some sport coupes it is physically impossible for an adult to sit in the back seat if the front seats are in their normal positions. In others, it is a challenge to enter and exit the back seats, but the space is comfortable when the occupants are in place. The Camaro falls in between. A six-footer can physically fit into the space, but with knees splayed and head firmly against the roof, so the back seat could serve double-date duty for short drives and kids can sit there comfortably, but the back seat is no one’s idea of plush.
That matters little because the Camaro delivers the pitch-perfect driving experience that will thrill both old-timers looking to relive the good old days and today’s young buyers looking to have some good times of their own. So forget about Ponce de Leon’s obsession, if the Camaro is not the fountain of youth, it is the closest thing you’ll find outside a DNA research lab.