posted by Autoweek.com
Make it go. It?s easy: Clutch in, slip the stick shift into first gear and push the button. It?s like a rocker switch mounted sideways on the dashboard to the right of the steering column. Just a touch of the fingertip and the Chevrolet Camaro concept?s 6.0-liter 400-hp V8 instantly roars to life and settles into a satisfying small-block burble, a baritone muttering at idle that awaits only the move of your right foot from the brake pedal to the gas to start speaking volumes about Chevrolet?s pony car ambitions.
Those ambitions got a boost from the intense public interest in the car as it toured car shows the past few months, and now we were about to drive it at GM?s Milford (Michigan) Proving Ground. The Camaro concept goes global soon, slated for car shows in places like Shanghai, China, and Sydney, Australia, later this year. For now, it?s all ours for a little less than an hour.
It sounds great, we tell Tom Peters, head of the design studio that created the car. ?We put a lot of work into tuning the exhaust,? he replies. ?It had to sound as good as it looks.?
It does. What also sounds good is the prospect of having the Camaro back in the showroom.
So when, we asked a host of GM types hanging around at Milford, will you build it?
?Officially? It?s not a ?go? program yet,? stated spokesman Tom Wilkinson, in that ?official statement? mode. He was smiling, though.
Right. Let?s make it go.
Clutch out, crack the throttle open gently, and the Camaro concept moves away smoothly. Dip the clutch, shift into second and, man, that feels right. The shifter glides through the gate, the clutch takeup is spot-on. You can tell the car lovers at GM have been involved in this program from the outset. We?ve saddled up in a lot of concept cars in the past 20 years, and two things struck us right away: This is the first one in a long time that has a manual transmission and as concepts go, this one goes very well indeed.
Our speed limit is 40 mph?just enough to warrant third gear, which we do mostly to feel that shifter work again. This around-town speed is pretty high for a concept car, and yet the ride motions, steering response and handling suggest it could easily go faster, even on its 21-inch front and 22-inch rear wheels with hand-cut show-car tires.
Where ordinary concept cars moan and groan and clunk, this one drives like a road-ready car. What with the engine note and the view out over that cowl-induction hood, it takes discipline not to aim the Camaro out onto the middle of the black lake of asphalt at the proving grounds and start doing donuts.
Unlike many a cobbled-together design study, the Camaro is built on thoroughly engineered hardware, ready for the real world. The engine and trans are base Corvette of course, with the addition of cylinder-cutout technology that promises to deliver highway fuel economy of 30 mpg. The rest is from the company?s Zeta rear-drive platform, which goes into production this summer in Australia.
This platform, with independent suspension all around (technically, the Camaro?s parts came from a Cadillac CTS) and robust parts for large and high-performance cars, was shelved for a while to save costs as GM struggled to bring its bottom line under control, but it is ready to go now.
With hardware in hand, the next phase of making a real-world Camaro happen has to do with finalizing a production design, developing a specification list that will generate the requisite sales numbers, setting up to stamp out body parts from sheetmetal. Vice chairman Bob Lutz says the magic number is 100,000 units, and others say that means a range of affordable pony cars, with entry-level V6 editions to fill out the bottom end. It might not be as cheap as a base Mustang, with its less expensive live-axle rear suspension, but it has to be within reach. Ford sold more than 160,000 Mustangs last year.
?It has to be affordable,? says Peters, noting GM already has Corvette in its stable occupying the high-performance, higher-cost niche. ?This show car is a high-specification version; we haven?t called it SS or Z28, but it would be up at the top end of the range.?
Marketing has already been involved in the Camaro program to the point where lead exterior designer Steve Kim says he had to fend off requests for more rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity. ?We wanted to make it as close as we could to a production-ready design,? he says.
The only evident compromise when you drive the car is that the roof is awfully low?it will have to go up a little, Kim acknowledges. ?We can get some [of the space needed] with seat design and things like that, though.? Kim is not a short guy, and he fits in the car as it is, but it?s a snug fit. Kim is assigned to designing future Hummers now, but there are people who have his back on the Camaro program.
When you?re talking to these folks about production, there is a little crosstown game of chicken going on. Chrysler has its Dodge Challenger pony car making the rounds, and its business case can be different. The Challenger could be built on the already successful LX platform (Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger) as an exclusive, V8-only model that provides incremental volume. For GM, that is not an option for now. It sounds too much like the Pontiac GTO program to make anyone comfortable.
The Holden-engineered Zeta architecture, less expensive to build than the Opel-based Sigma (CTS) platform, is also expected to spawn the next-generation GTO and other affordable rear-drive cars. Rumors a Firebird will appear at the 2007 Detroit show are unconfirmed, even denied by GM. But how could there not be such rumors, with GM buzzing around trying to make a new pony car go?
?You want people to recognize it right away, but at the same time grab the kids? attention,? says Kim of his exterior design. Kim is not much beyond a kid himself, having graduated from Detroit?s College for Creative Studies in 1999.
Under Peters? direction and operating in the literally underground Studio X, Kim?s team came up with the edgy, forward-looking interpretation of the design inspired by the 1969 Camaro. It also drew a lot on the work of Bob Boniface?s team. Boniface heads up the Advanced Design Studio in Warren, Michigan, and gets credit for choosing the 1969 car rather than later variations, as inspiration.
The second-generation design introduced in 1970 had its advocates, but that was the first step in a different direction. By the early 1980s Boniface notes, that shape had evolved ?toward the spaceship sort of thing?the seating position was compromised, the packaging was compromised,? the car?s daily utility was compromised for the sake of its styling. And it started losing out in the sales race to the more upright Mustang.
?I don?t think that going for the rocket ship, one more turn of that crank, is the right way to go,? Boniface told Detroit?s Automotive Press Association in April. ?We figured we would go back to the icon, assume the [1969-style] Camaro had never gone out of production. What would that car look like today??
A more literal interpretation of that mission was on the boards when Peters and Kim stepped in and started drawing inspiration from other sources, including Peters? own C6 Corvette and the YF22 Raptor jet fighter plane. The proportions, a lot of the design decisions made by Boniface?s team, survive in the final design. When you see the car in motion outdoors, though, a lot of what catches the eye are the details that came from Studio X.
?The surfacing was informed by Corvette,? says Kim. ?If you go back, you see the 1967 Impala was informed by the Corvette, everything in that era drew on Corvettes of that time,? including that 1969 Camaro. That was the heyday of the pony car, which, despite all the ?Cudas and Challengers and even Javelins in the game, was largely an expression of Detroit?s long-standing Ford-Chevy rivalry.
Having surrendered the segment to Ford when the F-body Camaro/Firebird was canceled after 2002 clearly grates on the competitive nature of the enthusiasts within the company, who had to watch the Mustang collecting accolades even as Chevy?for the first time in ages?finally outsold the Ford division again in 2005.
?Rick Wagoner will tell you we?d have to be dumber than a box of rocks not to do it,? GM manufacturing vice president Joe Spielman told us later that week (we snuck up on him?we were both judges at a car show at Kettering University, during a reunion at which Spielman was also being honored as this year?s distinguished alumnus).
Wagoner has said he wants the Camaro to be produced. Lutz wants it to happen. Design chief Ed Welburn has been telling everyone he wants it to happen. And just about everybody who saw the concept at the Detroit show in January wants it.
?It?s what the people want,? says Spielman, whose job, after all, is to see that GM builds cars. Spielman is a member of the Corvette Hall of Fame, largely because he was one of the leading internal champions for the car?s continuation?the development of the C5?when there were powers working to kill it. He is a force to be reckoned with in other words, and seems to be operating under the assumption that he will be manufacturing Camaros, not in some far-off dreamy way, but in a ?this is on my plate now? manner. Two top build sites under consideration: Oshawa, Ontario, and Wilmington, Delaware. The former builds Impala, LaCrosse and Grand Prix, the latter assembles Solstice, Sky and Opel GT.
What with the need to order tooling and so forth, making Camaro happen won?t happen overnight, but it could happen fairly quickly. There is more hardware ready to go than GM had on hand when it gave the go-ahead on Solstice. All it needs is that final green light from the top that says GM can spend what it takes.
So make it go, already.