Driving Impression: Chevrolet Camaro concept
by: John Simister
18 May 2006
'You're enjoying driving this car. That's good to see, because that was the idea.'
Camaro project leader Gretchen Darbyshire has noticed a smile on my face as I move the solid aluminium gear lever through its precise gate and reopen with my right foot the gateway to the V8 engine's 400bhp. It sounds fantastic.
'Yes,' she says, 'we worked hard on that, trying lots of different mufflers.'
Well, the ones her team chose don't do much muffling at all. There's a healthy V8 cackle as the revs rise, a racy crackle when I back off. This is a 6.0-litre Corvette engine, the latest, all-aluminium and most powerful descendant of the ubiquitous and venerable Chevy small-block for which former Camaros were just a few of its underbonnet homes. The first of those Camaros were the greatest: the 1968 originals and the 1969 facelifts. And it's a '69 that the 2006 Camaro concept car most closely evokes.
The retro aura is all around, but cleverly updated, which means, mainly, a visual toughening-up. The dials are recessed in deep dashboard tunnels but their aluminium edging is solid, machined, expensive. Four auxiliary gauges huddle together ahead of the gear lever, an unergonomic, out-of-sightline indulgence deemed cool in the 60s but a functional solecism now. They look good to me, with their wedgy needles, minimalist calibrations and gold-anodised backdrop, even if - like all the instruments - they don't actually work. The door panels are full of this gold stuff, too, except that really it's all acrylic plastic and merely very convincing.
It's unlikely, frankly, that the production version will have so much machined aluminium. It's a concept car thing. But this thought immediately triggers the next one: will there be a production version?
People have been asking that since the Camaro concept smoked and bellowed onto the Detroit Auto Show car-walk, following five '69 models to the loudest cheers of the show. We sensed then that General Motors was pretty serious about the idea and the fact that it has allowed the Camaro out again, this time to drive, suggests further intent.
Gretchen Darbyshire and her colleagues keep saying that it's just a concept car and gives little clue of how a production version would drive: but when you're that close to a project the little things always assume big dimensions.
So yes, the concept car uses Cadillac CTS rear suspension and the front struts from, says Darbyshire, 'a pre-production car that I can't reveal'. Would that be Camaro pre-prod car, by any chance? Or anything else using the new Global Rear-Wheel Drive platform (GM's preferred nomenclature) slated to underpin any future Camaro?
'I can't say,' she replies. Probably not a no, then.
In case it's relevant, here's a quick run-down on that platform. It's a two-generations-distant, more sophisticated descendant of the Vauxhall/Opel Omega's underpinnings, its development concentrated in Australia (home of GM's Holden division) but driven by engineers from all GM's major regions, so it will be ready-adapted for all worldwide applications. It's not quite the same as the Camaro concept's hidden parts, then, but not radically different either - and a whole lot more sophisticated than the Mustang rival with its solid, live rear axle.
We're at General Motors' vast proving ground at Milford, near Detroit. And I'm taking a bend as fast as I can, given the Camaro's electronically limited 60km/h (37mph) speed ceiling, imposed in case concept-car bits fall off. Actually I don't believe it's that low given that the engine revs heartily in second gear. There's enough speed to make the Chevrolet work in this bend.
The springs were selected to give the right ride height
How does it feel? The grip is much more than I'm needing (but look at those huge tyres); the steering is firm and positive; the ride, ditto and almost too taut.
'Too taut?' queries Darbyshire. 'Oh, but we selected the springs purely to give the right ride height,' she continues, as if to say that the tautness is immaterial because this is, of course, only a concept car. 'I'm interested to know what you think, though.' Aha! So it is relevant.
The whole car feels tough, heavy (it's heavier than a production version would be) and wide. It's a hefty machine. You sit oddly in it, too, because the front seats have ended up too high in an attempt to make them look like they're somehow floating. Combined with the low windscreen header, it makes the view forward as though it's through a letterbox.
It would be fun to drive at night, though. The edges of those gold-look trim panels have soft lighting to accentuate them, also found in two longitudinal strips along the headlining's central axis.
Other interior features include fascia vents bisected by the fascia/door join, a rear seat that really isn't very roomy, and frameless doors and rear quarter windows to make this a pillarless coupe.
Ah yes, the look. Like Ford's ultra-successful Mustang, whose popularity GM would no doubt like the Camaro to emulate, the conceptual Chevrolet looks simultaneously modern and retro. Two different GM studios produced proposals; the winning one coming from Tom Peters' team at the advanced design studio. The other one looked just a little too slavishly retro in the view of GM design director Ed Welburn (himself a '69 Camaro owner).
The new interpretation is chunkier and more muscular than the original, with a fabulous flare out to the rear wheelarches and, seen in the open air, its sharp edges and the fantastically crisp and narrow panel gaps of the heavyweight glassfibre body are especially obvious. There's lots of machined aluminium detailing, including the two hefty tailpipes and, under-bonnet, the strut towers and cam covers. This is one good-looking small-block. The vast wheels are machined from solid aluminium billets and bear 275/30 R21 tyres at the front and 305/30 R22s at the rear, specially made by Goodyear. No wonder the ride is firm.
As petrolhead Gretchen (her father and five brothers are all engineers) and I take another run along the Milford curve, working up through the six-speed Tremec T56 gearbox one more time, I try again to get a handle on the chances of a production version.
'I really hope we build it,' says the engineer responsible for bringing together the components of the concept cars and making sure they work. But it's out of her team's hands, she's saying. It's down to the business case now.
Will the lights go green for this beguiling muscle car coupe? By the end of this year we'll know.