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First Drive: The Camaro Concept Car

Suddenly it's 2009 and our piggy bank is getting nervous.

Jim Campisano Sep 19, 2006

Bowtie Bites: When the Camaro first came out in the fall of1966, it was in response to the dominating sales of the Ford Mustangwhich debuted halfway through 1964. Today the Camaro is being rebornunder similiar circumstances, in response to the stellar sales of theredesigned Mustang. Funny how history repeats itself, isn't it? - Online Editor

The rumble of the 400-hp LS2 fills the cockpit. You're sitting behindthe wheel of the hand-built Camaro Concept car, a one-off show specialworth about $5 million; and it sounds righteous, righteous enough tomake your right hand and foot twitch.

Unlike the late and lamented Fourth-Gen Camaro, you see more than justthe wipers when you look through the windshield. The rise in the centerof the hood is plain to see, just like the cowl-induction hood from theFirst-Gen cars that inspired it. The windshield itself is more upright,and though the roofline is low, you don't feel claustrophobic. Theentire interior feels more spacious, again like a '67 to 69 model. Butthe fat wrap on the steering wheel reminds you that this is 2006.

We were about to be unleashed on GM's Milford Proving Grounds in Chevy'swildly popular one-off, which debuted last January at the Los Angelesand Detroit Auto Shows. OK, maybe unleashed isn't the correct term sincethe car was speed governed to 40 mph. Still, this car is close enough inits execution to the now official production version that we wanted aturn in it.

If you don't think Chevy's management is burning every time Ford sellsone of the 170,000 or so Mustangs it builds annually, you are mistaken.Dodge had gone on the record that it would enter the ponycar market withthe upscale Challenger. Chevy enthusiasts were twitching withanticipation. Finally on August 10th Chevy announced it would beginproduction of the Camaro in late 2008 and have them on sale in the firstquarter of 2009. GM stated that this concept is pretty close to thefifth generation Camaro.

In person, the Camaro has a much more dramatic and cohesive appearancethan it did in photos from its Los Angeles and Detroit debuts. It'salmost a cross between the '69 Camaro and the 2006 Corvette. Its stylingis especially strong from the doors on back, where the roof mimics theCorvette's dual humps. It has broad, muscular shoulders over the rearwheels. It's tough and athletic without being gimmicky.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the design is the grille opening,which can appear from some angles as too narrow. Again in person, it'sbold and fits in well in the overall form.

For production GM's global Vice President Ed Welburn said the new carwill be "almost identical to the concept," and will feature an IRS, achoice of manual and automatic trannies and V-6 and V-8 engines. We'dexpect a few alterations. The roofline may be raised to accommodatetaller drivers while aiding ingress/egress. Surprisingly, it doesn'thamper visibility or make you feel like you're sitting in a choppedstreet rod. Don't look for hideaway headlights, which we're told add tocost and complexity while having the potential to be "customerdissatisfiers" when the doors don't line up properly or when they failto actually operate.

The two aspects of the car that are most troubling are the taillights,which don't blend into the overall design, and the decklid opening. Oursources tell us that getting a five-star crash test rating from allangles is paramount, not only for protecting passengers but in helpingto keep insurance rates down. That means a hatchback is out and atraditional trunk is in. The Camaro concept has plenty of space backthere, but the opening itself is rather small, and this could reallylimit both functionality and market appeal. The opening could be madelarger by altering the roofline or shrinking the size of the backlight,but the roofline has been very well received and the latter choice wouldhave a detrimental effect on visibility.


For production, there will most likely be only a fixed roof coupe and aconvertible. The styling of the roof could not accommodate T-tops, andquality control issues mean GM couldn't accommodate all the squeaks,leaks, and rattles they would bring. Still up for discussion is whetherthe rear quarter windows will be functional a'la the show vehicle orfixed, like on the 1999 to 2004 Mustang.

Chevrolet couldn't be happier with the response to the Camaro. "In ourwildest dreams, we couldn't have expected it to be this good. The peoplewho don't like it are adamant about why, which is fine too. I'd say 80percent of people, once they see it at a show, reverse their thoughtsand come around," Scott Settlemire, manager of Chevrolet and HummerShows and Exhibits, said.

"We had people whistling, screaming. There were tears, lots of tears,"Settlemire said of the unveiling in Detroit. "I've been into cars for 30years, and I've never seen such a reaction."

Vlad Kapitonov, who was in charge of the exterior design of the car, iscompletely satisfied with the final product, though for a while he wasnervous.

"She wasn't easy. There was a rough point in the development, and I waswondering if it was even worth it. Other people are working on this carand it's stressful," he said. "You're taking directions from a lot ofpeople, a lot of management, and you're dealing with a lot of peopletrying to get what you want out of it."

Kapitonov questioned if dealing with the added stress was worth thefinal product, he said. It wasn't until he experienced a memorablemoment in the finishing phases of production that he knew all his hardwork was not in vain.

"In this moment when it [the Camaro] was finished up in the shop. We putthe hood down, and that was it," he said. "They set it up, drove it off,and now it's worth it. And then, of course, at the unveiling."

Kapitonov said the new Camaro will offer more than just power, though itdefinitely packs a punch.

"It makes me so proud of it, too, that there's a double punch. Whereit's got a solid exterior there is also a solid interior. Not a lot ofshow cars are that consistent through and through."

In The Belly of the Beast

Speaking of the interior, this is one area where there was nocontroversy--it's a slam dunk. It reminds me of GM's better designs fromthe mid-to-late '60s. It's simple, yet exciting and beautiful, spaciousand airy, as well as thoroughly modern. Sure, the retro touches like theconsole-mounted gauge pods are a bit hokey, keeping with the show cartheme, but it's definitely a case of doing more with less, with plentyof nice curves.

"The overall theme of it was to be super simple with just one strongsimple gesture to it," said Micah Jones, the creative designer forRear-Wheel Drive Performance Interiors who spearheaded the design insideof this vehicle. "And that gesture goes wide and around you on thedoors. Super horizontal."

Except for the obvious show-only touches, the basic theme could beeasily carried over for production, and it should be carried over. Thedriving position is excellent, all the controls are intuitively placedand there's lots of room, even the backseat isn't a complete torturechamber. The rear quarter windows not only help visibility, they add tothe open feel of the interior. Best of all, there's no giant lump on thepassenger's-side floor in front.


In Motion

Anyone who's ever driven a '67 to 69 Camaro will feel right at homebehind the wheel of the new one. It's pure American muscle. Fat-wrappedthree-spoke wheel? Present. Beefy, chrome-handled shifter with roundknob? Check. The tach and speedo are right in front of you, though theyare nonfunctional. It takes all my self-control not to rev the engine tothe moon and sidestep the clutch. ("Hey, you said I couldn't go over 40mph; you didn't say there were instructions on how to get there!")

Of course, you don't want to stall a $5 million one-off, either, so Itake care with the six-speed when pulling away. And you certainly don'twant to drive like a wuss. Let's say we got to 40 pretty quick, and thenthe limiter kicked in. Foot's to the floor, but once you get to the big4-0, that's all she wrote.

The underpinnings for the concept car are Cadillac CTS-V, which give thecar an independent rear. With this foundation and the giant tires(21-inchers fore, 22s aft), it felt a lot more like a real vehicle thanwe expected. The steering was particularly nice. Let's hope they get itthis good on the production model.

In a real automobile, the LS2 with active cylinder deactivation couldprobably knock down 30 mpg on the highway. With the next series of LSengines already on the drawing board, who knows how good it can get?Weight will probably be about 3,650 pounds with a driver, or similar tothat of the 2005-up Mustang GT.

It's no secret that the General is working on a whole line of newrear-wheel-drive vehicles, and we don't just mean Cadillacs andCorvettes here. Rumor has it the next round of full-sized cars (like theImpala) will have north-south drivetrains and differentials mounted outback, like God and nature intended.

In order to justify its existence, the Fifth-Gen Camaro would have tohit a sales bogey of around 100,000 units a year. In the old days, thiswould have been a no-brainer. But considering that Chevy hasn't sold asmany as 50,000 Camaros in a year since 1998, it might be tricky. Fordsold around 158,000 2005 Mustangs and was on target to top that by asignificant amount in 2006. Over 50 percent of those went to women, whoshunned the Fourth-Gen Camaro like the plague, and 70 percent of Mustangproduction was of the V-6 variety.

In order for the Camaro to be a sales success (and ensure its future),the Fifth-Gen will have to appeal to men and women alike, old and young,and most importantly, to those who aren't complete performance freaks.It must be a usable automobile, one that makes people feel youthful, butnot juvenile.

Ford has laid out a pretty simple formula: Fun-to-drive V-6 base model,powerful V-8 mid-level model, followed by a fire-breathing 500-horsevariant on top, all available in coupe and convertible form. We can seehow the Camaro could be a sporty runabout with a powerful V-6, a MustangGT killer with a 400-horse LS3 and Shelby slayer with 500-plushorsepower LS8.

The Camaro concept has the basic ingredients. With a little tweakinghere and there and the right marketing, it could be a runaway success.Let's hope, because if it goes on hiatus again (in GM speak), it'llprobably be forever.




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