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Can the Chevrolet Camaro save GM?

Given the economy and the state of General Motors, is this the right time to be introducing the Camaro, a car that could be considered frivolous?

  • The image of cars in a showroom

 PLYMOUTH, Mich. – Given the economy and the state of General Motors, is this the right time to be introducing the Camaro, a car that could be considered frivolous?

“It’s a great time for a car like this,” said Troy Clarke, GM’s North American president. “A market that’s stagnant like the one we have now needs an impetus that the reinvention of a great American sports car can provide.”

Translated, what he means is GM needs showroom traffic. Now.

This is where GM believes it can seal the deal. If the Camaro does nothing more than drag people off the sidewalk into the showroom, it will have done its job.

The 2010 Camaro is clearly inspired by the first-generation car, specifically, the 1969 car owned by GM’s head of styling, Ed Welburn.

This past Monday, the first 2010 Camaro rolled down the assembly line in Oshawa. They’ll start appearing in showrooms in about a week.

Prices start at $26,995 for the base LS V6 model with six-speed manual transmission. That same car in the U.S. lists at $22,995 (U.S.), which translates at current exchange rates to more than $29,000 (Canadian).

But the U.S. price includes freight and PDI, the Canadian price doesn’t. Add another $1,400 onto our ticket and we still come out ahead.

But am I the only person not in love with the looks of either the new car or its inspiration? The first Camaro, the BMW 507-inspired 1967, was prettier than subsequent variants on that platform, while the 1970 1/2 car – again, clearly European influenced – was one of the best-looking cars ever, from anywhere.

I also think the new Dodge Challenger is more striking than the new Camaro.

But styling is a personal thing, and most onlookers who glommed onto the cars at this early press preview thought the new Camaro looked spectacular.

The profile shows blacked-out central roof pillars so it looks like a classic hardtop convertible. Roll down the windows and the sham is exposed – it’s hard to get the side crash safety needed without those pillars.

One of the prettiest aspects of the new car is the broad haunch-like rear fender, which conveys a sense of muscularity to the car.

Whatever can be said about the styling, the skeleton (the underlying structure) is very stiff and solid.

Only a two-door coupe is available. A convertible concept has been shown, and should be on sale within a year.

While the styling is clearly history-flavoured, Clarke took great pains to insist it was not a “retro” car.

“A true 21st-century sports car” is the mantra everyone is chanting. And the technology under the skin suggests this isn’t just marketing bafflegab.

As has historically been the case, both six- and eight-cylinder engines are available, each with either manual or automatic six-speed transmissions. That adds up to three engines and four gearboxes.

I tried all four powertrains, albeit the V8 automatic very briefly.

The V8 manual was huge fun, of course. Then again, GM was paying for the fuel. And the tires.

A launch control mode is built into the V8 manual powertrain: set the Stabilitrak to Competition Driving, stand on the gas, sidestep the clutch and hold on – you’ll get as good a drag race start as you’re likely to get.

If you don’t understand the above paragraph, buy the automatic.

I hadn’t figured out how to enable the launch control, so my attempt at a drag racing start roused every groundhog in Washtenaw County out of hibernation, and the tire smoke should keep the mosquitoes down until mid-June.

The LS and LT models get GM’s ultra-modern 3.6-litre aluminum direct-injection twin-cam four-valve V6, producing a healthy 304 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque at a high 5200 r.p.m.

The manual transmission is a Japan-built Aisin, while the automatic is a GM-built (in France) Hydramatic 6L50 with manual override tap-shift via steering wheel stalk paddles.

The SS trim level uses a variant of the Corvette/Cadillac CTS-V pushrod aluminum 6.2-litre V8.

When equipped with a Tremec six-speed manual, it produces 426 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. of torque at 4600 r.p.m.

When the Hydramatic 6L80 autobox (same family as in the V6; higher torque capacity) is chosen, the engine is detuned to 400 horses and 410 lb.-ft. of torque at 4300 r.p.m., but gains GM’s active cylinder management system which deactivates four cylinders as required to save on fuel.

It works. Transport Canada numbers for the automatic are better than for the manual.

The Commodore platform supplies the double ball-joint multi-link strut front suspension with progressive-rate springs and direct-acting stabilizer bars, and what they call a “four-point-five” link (really, a five-link) rear set-up.

Both ends are fully adjustable for camber and toe.

Variable ratio rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS (Brembos on V8 models), limited slip differential (on all but the V6 automatic) and Stabilitrak – GM’s electronic stability control system – complete the chassis basics.

The Tremec six-speed is, as always, a bit stiff – it can transmit a lot of torque, and that’s the price you pay. A short-throw Hurst shifter will be available as an option shortly after launch.

The V6 automatic works very well – 300-plus horses is not to be sneezed at, nor is the 6.9 L/100 km (41 m.p.g.) Transport Canada fuel consumption rating.

But the most pleasant surprise was the V6 manual. The Aisin transmission is lighter in action and more precise. Clutch take-up is strong and progressive.

And while you are giving up a little in acceleration – 0-to-96 km/h in 6.1 seconds for the six, 4.7 for the V8 – that means your drive to Montreal from Toronto will take you about two seconds longer in the six, not to mention the much lighter demands on your wallet.

With about 60 fewer kilograms to haul around (mostly over the front axle) this car is likely to be more tossable than the V8, too.

I wish we’d had some track time to verify that. As it was, the indifferently surfaced roads of rural southeastern Michigan at least gave some insights into the ride quality of the car.

It is necessarily firm, being a sports car, and the unsprung weight of those huge wheels and tires – 18-, 19- or 20-inch, depending on spec – adds an additional challenge. But the stout structure and sophisticated suspension cope very well.

Our test cars did seem well-assembled though, and you do get such modern amenities as MP3 and Bluetooth connectivity, plus an optional Boston Acoustics nine-speaker sound system. XM satellite radio and a CD player are standard, too.

But the interior is also retro-influenced, with deeply recessed gauges and graphics that reminded me of my dad’s 1954 Meteor. I don’t think they wanted to retro quite that far back.

Again, aesthetically it didn’t do a lot for me, especially the charcoal grey plastic cliff-face dashboard in front of the passenger.

The late addition of LED piping in the door trim panels – not available on our early-production test cars – should liven up the inside considerably.

There is decent room in the front, although there’s a bit of the sitting-in-a-bathtub sense to the car. The manual tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and optional power seat will alleviate this to a considerable degree.

I’m dead-average height, and sitting in the back seat, my head was in full contact with the roof, and my knees had to be splayed to clear the front seat back.

In all, the 2010 Camaro is a very capable car, with excellent performance, civility, economy and affordability.

If the styling appeals to you, not only do the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger need to be a bit nervous, but even such unlikely contenders as Nissan 370Z, Mazda RX8 and even BMW 3 Series might want to take a quick peek over their shoulders.

Travel was provided to freelance writer Jim Kenzie by the automaker. jim@jimkenzie.com

Related links: In photos: Camaros new and old

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