Who would have predicted that muscle cars would be making a comeback in the midst of the auto industry's worst crisis in decades? Yet General Motors, Ford (F) and Chrysler all have new muscle cars on the market, and the one I find most intriguing is GM's long-awaited 2010 Chevy Camaro. My prediction: Someday this version of the Camaro will be considered a classic, a collectible coveted by nostalgic baby boomers eager to relive the 1960s and '70s, when muscle cars had their heyday.
Not everyone is as high on the new Camaro as I am. The car's hulking profile and narrow windows make its styling controversial. Some prefer the redesigned 2010 Mustang or the revived Dodge Challenger. But the Camaro's V8 is more powerful than those in its rivals, and it looks radically different from any other car on the road. I had guys running out from construction sites and following me into supermarkets to ask me about my slick black Camaro SS loaner car. I've never test-driven a car that drew so many gawkers—nearly all of them middle-aged males.
The $31,000 Camaro SS is by far the most exciting version of the new Camaro. With its standard six-speed stick transmission and massive Chevy Corvette engine, a behemoth 6.2-liter, 426-horsepower V8, it's a classic muscle car updated for our era. If I had the spare cash and garage space, I'd buy a 2010 Camaro SS and keep it for years, bringing it out only on special occasions.
Compared with the stick-shift SS, the other iterations of the new Camaro seem like sensible shoes. There's a version of the SS with a six-speed automatic transmission (a $995 option), but the V8 engine in that version of the car is rated at a mere 400 horsepower. There are also two more fuel-efficient—and less expensive—versions of the car powered bv a 3.6-liter, 304-horsepower V6: The base model Camaro LS starts at about $23,000, and the slightly fancier LT starts at $24,675.
Aside from a lower price, the big advantage of the V6-powered Camaro, which comes with either a six-speed automatic (also $995 extra) or manual transmission, is its surprisingly good mileage: 17 mpg in the city and a remarkable 29 on the highway. By contrast, the V8-powered Camaro gets 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway (25 on the highway with the automatic transmission). All versions of the car use regular gasoline, though premium is recommended if you want maximum performance from the V8.
It's too soon to know how well the new Camaro will sell. But early signs are that it's generating a lot of excitement just as the U.S. auto sales may finally be bottoming out. An early-production 2010 Camaro (No. 3 off the line) sold for $73,000 on eBay as part of a GM-sanctioned charity event. And, as sales ramp up, the new Camaro has been commanding a premium over list price because it's in such high demand.
One thing is clear: Muscle cars remain a guy thing. The typical buyer is a 44- or 45-year-old male, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Women have only purchased 20.6% of the V8-powered Camaros sold so far, 18.6% of V8 Challengers, and 24.8% of V8 Mustangs, PIN says.
Behind the Wheel
One rap on the new Camaro is that, at around 3,900 lb., it's heavy. But the car still really motors when you punch the gas. Even with the V6 engine, it's rated to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 6.1 seconds, about as fast as a BMW (BMWG) 328i. With V8 power, GM rates the Camaro at a blazingly fast 4.7 seconds, slightly faster than a BMW 335i but well behind the fastest Corvette. My best time in my stick shift, V8-powered Camaro SS was 5.2 seconds.
In other respects, modern-day muscle cars are far more refined than their predecessors. The Camaro feels glued to the road during hard driving. Steering is precise, and the cabin, if anything, is too quiet. Both the V8 and V6 engines emit an appealing growl when you punch the gas, but in normal driving the Camaro is as quiet inside as a luxury car. You almost yearn for more road noise in a car like this.
In contrast to muscle cars of yore, the new Camaro's stopping power is as impressive as its acceleration: The big Brembo brakes in the SS bring the car to a dead stop from 60 mph in just 105 ft., according to Motor Trend.
The new Camaro's interior sometimes gets a bad rap because the dash and doors are covered in inexpensive (though relatively attractive) vinyl. But the cabin looks stunning if you go with the $500 Inferno Orange package that's available on fancier versions of the SS and LT. The package includes black leather seat-trim with orange inserts in the seats, plus and door and dash trim in a translucent orange plastic that glows around the edges after dark, providing ambient lighting. This may sound tacky, but I'm a Danish-modern-furniture type of guy, and I found it strikingly good-looking.
I also like the design of the Camaro's dash, which presents passengers with an almost minimalist blank face, tastefully highlighted by horizontal air vents and a cluster of square retro-design gauges at the base of the center console.
The downside of the Camaro from a practical standpoint is that (like the Mustang and Challenger) it's a coupe, which means there are no rear doors. The front seats slide forward, and it's relatively easy to get in and out of the rear seats, but there's only room for two passengers in back. Shoulder, knee, and foot space are adequate for anyone under six feet, but the sloping roof line severely limits headroom. Tall passengers may have their heads brushing the ceiling in this car, especially in the rear seat.
Several other negatives about the Camaro: There's no factory-installed navigation system. The storage compartment in the driver's armrest is extremely small. Then there's the trunk, which is shallow and has a small opening, making impractical for carrying bulky cargo.
Buy It or Bag It?
There are two very different 2010 Camaros. The V6-powered version of the car, with its $23,000 starting price and 29-mpg highway mileage, is far more practical than the Camaro SS, and yet still very speedy. It sells for a relatively high average price of $30,112, according to PIN, an indication that buyers are loading the car up and dealers aren't bargaining on price. The V6 Camaro is substantially pricier than the V6-powered 2010 Mustang (average price: $24,154), and the V6 2009 Challenger ($24,838), according to PIN. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)
My feeling is that if you're going to buy a car like this, why be practical? The V8-powered Camaro SS sells for an average of $37,740, according to PIN, vs. $32,878 for the V8 2010 Mustang and $36,983 for the V8 2009 Dodge Challenger. But you don't have to spend that much to get an SS. The only options that seem essential to me are the big, booming Boston Acoustics Sound system ($495), and the Inferno Orange interior package ($500). Of course, 20 in. polished aluminum wheels ($470) would be nice, too. But skip the automatic transmission, for sure, and save a grand.
Chances are we're seeing the last gasp of muscle cars. Global warming, rising gasoline prices, and new government regulations make it hard to justify owning such brawny, gas-guzzling beasts. That's why I see the new Camaro SS as a collector's item, a souvenir of a bygone era.
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