The Camaro's six-year absence really did make hearts yearn for a Ford Mustang foil. Dodge's Challenger revival eased some of that ache, but true Chevy fans would sooner pine for the old days than defect. After GM announced that the Camaro concept wasn't a tease, 14,000 believers affirmed their faith by placing orders.
Now that GM's Oshawa, Ontario, assembly plant is cranking out cars, we've test-driven V-6 and V-8 versions of the fifth-generation Camaro. Our first revelation: Chevy has mounted a classic Trojan horse offense. Under its 1969-esque cover, the Camaro is armed with such 2009 weapons as direct injection (V-6 only), an independent rear suspension, and six speeds in every transmission. Chevy's strategy is to reward the faithful and to lure fresh recruits away from imports.
The irony is that true import flavor is part of the Camaro's recipe. Four years ago, Bob Lutz and GM design chief Ed Welburn cooked up this car as a buzz builder and Chevy brand resuscitator. After their 2006 Detroit auto show concept rocked the car world, the business case supporting a production model gained momentum. GM's Holden division in Australia offered two vital resources: a can-do attitude and a global rear-wheel-drive chassis code-named Zeta that arrived here last year beneath the Pontiac G8.
To deliver a Camaro that held true to the Lutz-Welburn inspiration, GM engineers in Michigan and Melbourne hewed a tight coupe out of the large G8 sedan by moving the Zeta rear axle forward six inches. To clear the room needed for twenty-inch wheels and tires, the front suspension was moved forward, track widths were increased, and the windshield was shifted rearward and given a more upright stance. After revised suspension geometries, larger brakes, and other changes were added, the Camaro's Zeta Two underpinnings shared little with the G8's Zeta One blueprints other than common engineering.
Concurrently, the V-8-powered concept was expanded into a full range of meek-to-mean Camaros. The menu includes LS, LT, and SS series with two trim levels, three engines, four transmissions, and two suspensions, plus an RS package consisting of twenty-inch wheels and tires, HID headlamps, and a rear spoiler. Prices run from $22,995 for the stripped LS V-6 to more than $37,000 for a well-equipped SS V-8.
Last year, after driving a Camaro LT powered by the direct-injection 3.6-liter V-6, we concluded that 304 hp serves as an excellent starting point. Now we can report that the six-speed-stick LT squirts to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds - matching Hyundai's hottest Genesis coupe - on its way to a 14.8-second, 98-mph quarter-mile dash. The refined howl under the hood is the entry-level Camaro speaking softly while wielding a decent performance stick, including 17/26 EPA city/highway gas mileage. Equipped with a six-speed automatic, the LS and LT Camaros score an even better 18/29 mpg rating in EPA tests.
The Camaro's cockpit has a bunker vibe inflicted by the high-rise beltline, tall hood, and a roof that curves over your ears. The bucket seats are squishy soft and lacking in both lateral and lumbar support. Releasing one lever allows tilting and telescoping of the dished steering wheel, but a clunky adjuster mechanism takes a bite out of knee room. The uplevel trim is cloth-accented and carefully fitted but not especially luxurious. The few metallic hints are paint or chrome over molded plastic.
Entering the Camaro's rear seats is a chore because of high doorsills and the absence of quick-slide front-bucket releases. There's adequate legroom if front riders are willing to compromise, but curls are sure to be squashed. Rear passengers view the world through tiny triangular portholes.
Access to the 11.3-cubic-foot trunk is through one of the highest, smallest apertures we've ever encountered. A rear-seat pass-through is provided to accommodate poles, pipes, and spears.
The Camaro's instrument panel is a peculiar mix of retro and modern. Square-cornered tach and speedometer dials juxtapose with electronic fuel-level and trip-info displays. Four secondary gauges mounted at the forward end of the console also hark back to 1969; in forty years, nothing has changed to make that location viable. Providing engine and transmission lubricant temperatures is a nice touch, but no driver in the heat of battle is inclined to search for this information.
OnStar is the only form of navigation offered. In compensation, the list of standard or optional infotainment goodies includes CD and MP3 play capability, Bluetooth, a 245-watt sound system with nine speakers, XM reception, an audio input jack, a USB port, and a wireless interface for portable media players.
The best music source is the Camaro SS's 6.2-liter V-8. Rumble and reverb are entertaining at start-up but appropriately subdued underway. The Tremec six-speed manual's shifter is reasonably light to the touch unless you're in street-race mode, when a heavy hand is required to extract peak performance. So hammered, the 426-hp Camaro SS hustles to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and logs a 13.3-second, 111-mph quarter mile, neatly eclipsing both the Mustang GT and the Challenger SRT8. The thrill peters out at 157 mph when the speed limiter kicks in.
Squeezing near-Corvette acceleration out of a 3859-pound Camaro wasn't easy. Wider rear rubber than the competition's was a good starting point. To keep the ultrawide rear tires from doing the bunny hop during launch, engineers made one half shaft significantly stiffer than the other.
To avoid the gas-guzzler stigma, the top three gears are tall enough for Bonneville, and there's a skip-shift strategy that forces your hand from first to fourth when the throttle is toed with insufficient gusto. We never suffered that problem. We did, however, find the clutch pedal a touch high, the throttle slightly lazy to respond, and the brake-to-throttle spacing a bit wide for optimal heel-and-toe operation.
Testing a Camaro SS equipped with a six-speed automatic yielded a major surprise: it's a mere tenth of a second slower than the stick to both 60 mph and through the quarter mile. Three handy control modes make this transmission a genuinely satisfying alternative. For optimum automatic upshifts, select the M lever position to engage sport mode. Fingering the tap-shift buttons located on the back side of the steering-wheel spokes engages manual mode, wherein each gear is held until the driver says let go. Option three is launch control, provided when the stability system is partially disabled; here, just the right amount of wheel spin is allowed for heroic root-beer-stand exits.
Black plastic plus-and-minus flags help you locate the appropriate tap-shift button. The pity is that the flags aren't attached to the buttons. With skillful use of an X-Acto blade and superglue, it might be possible to rectify that fault.
To stretch gas mileage, the automatic version of the 6.2-liter V-8 has variable camshaft timing and cylinder shutdown, albeit at a sacrifice of 26 hp and 10 lb-ft of torque. The upside is 25 highway mpg, an advantage of 1 mpg over the manual-transmission V-8. Both Camaro SSs are rated at 16 mpg in city driving.
In addition to the V-8's hotter performance and more entertaining sound track, you also get firmer suspension calibrations and tighter body control, especially during hard braking. To make the Camaro SS racetrack ready, engineers included Brembo four-piston brake calipers and lubricant coolers for both the engine and the transmission.
All of the Camaros we drove had crisp turn-in and linear steering response. The twenty-inch Pirelli PZero tires communicate minimal road information to the steering wheel until they're pressed hard, but all systems eventually click into sync to provide predictable handling to and through the ragged edge. To cancel limit understeer, you need to disable the stability control, select second gear, and nail the throttle. Once the drift mode is so energized, it's easy to keep the tail cocked until the rear rubber is but a fond memory.
The final surprise baked into the Camaro is a delightful ride. Zeta Two's stiff body structure - combined with large rubber bushings that give the strut-type front suspension ample longitudinal compliance and allow a well-isolated independent rear suspension - yields a sport coupe capable of convincing the most devout classic Camaro fan to join the twenty-first century. Over Michigan's maintenance-deprived roads that drive live-axle Mustangs crazy, the new Camaro felt solidly planted and supplely suspended.
This second coming is a religious experience for the Camaro faithful. Chevy's other target market - Audi, Hyundai, and Infiniti coupe intenders - will be perplexed by the interior design but will be amazed at how much swagger $31,000 can buy. The new Camaro is good enough to warrant their consideration, too.
Base Price $30,995 (SS)
engine OHV 16-valve V-8
displacement 6.2 liters (376 cu in)
horsepower 426 hp @ 5900 rpm
torque 420 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
transmission type 6-speed manual
steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
suspension, rearMultilink, coil springs
brakes Vented discs, ABS
tires Pirelli PZero
tire size f, r 245/45YR-20, 275/40YR-20
L x W x H 190.4 x 75.5 x 54.2 in
wheelbase 112.3 in
track f/r 63.7/63.7 in
weight 3859 lb
EPA MILEAGE 16/24 mpg