After test-drive, News panel tells GM to make car a reality
Anita Lienert / The Detroit News
-- When Wendy Anderson was in the 10th grade at Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, she dated a guy for his Camaro.
"It was a '69 model that was jacked up and painted baby blue on the underside," said Anderson, a 53-year-old hair stylist from Southfield. "The guy who owned it was hot, but the car was the real reason I went out with him. I sat in the middle and shifted while he drove."
Memories of the classic Detroit muscle car came pouring out of Anderson and other members of the 2006 Detroit News Automotive Consumer Panel, as they gathered at the General Motors Proving Ground in late June to drive the hot Camaro concept vehicle that caused such a sensation at the 2006 North American International Auto Show. They were the first consumers in the U.S. to get behind the wheel of the hand-built, one-of-a-kind Camaro and they were pumped.
So pumped, in fact, that 32-year-old panelist Amy Bowman, who was supposed to be at home recovering from delivering a baby, showed up for the test session. The Royal Oak teacher wasn't up to driving, but she brought along her husband, Jeff Bowman, 32, a brick mason, to chauffeur her around the course.
So pumped, in fact, that a former panelist who had heard about the event through the grapevine decided to crash it. Paul Tassi, 19, a University of Michigan junior and member of last year's consumer panel, wasn't invited to the Camaro concept drive, but he came anyway. And he had a mission: to convince GM executives to build it.
"It will easily challenge the (Ford) Mustang for the king-of-the-retro-muscle-car title," said Tassi, after making several loops on the track in the $3 million prototype. "And don't change a thing about the new Camaro. It looks like it wants to kill and eat me."
The 10-member panel, which includes a lawyer, an architect, a Ford Rouge Plant pipe fitter and two teachers, delivered its unanimous verdict to the Detroit automaker: Build the Camaro, but keep it affordable.
The panelists also had bad news for Ford. Everyone preferred the Camaro to the redesigned Mustang.
"The Mustang lacks the style and the coolness that Camaro always had," Anderson said.
GM remains coy about whether it will revive the Camaro, even though there has been rampant speculation that it will emerge as a 2009 production model. Before the panelists got behind the wheel, GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson told them the concept is "fairly close to what could be produced."
"We are studying it, but no final decision has been made," he said.
Even though the panelists said they were ready to burn some rubber and get in a few hot laps, the delicate concept wasn't designed for "hard operating conditions." It is somewhat cobbled together, with a floor pan from a Cadillac STS and a rear suspension put together from the Cadillac CTS-V and the Chevrolet Corvette.
And it did have a few squeaks and rattles.
The Camaro concept is outfitted with the 400-horsepower 6.0-liter V-8 from the Corvette and has a snarling exhaust note, but the top speed is electronically limited to about 40 miles per hour. Nobody was able to get the concept, which has a six-speed manual transmission, out of third gear on the short course. The seat belts don't work, either.
But none of that seemed to matter.
The panelists gave high marks to the Camaro's muscular looks, lauding its long hood, sunken headlights, massive haunches and oversized 22-inch rear tires, which contribute to its jacked-up look.
"The best thing about it is the aggressive exterior," said Michael Lysaght, 18, a University of Michigan freshman from Northville. "The Camaro makes the Mustang look passive."
GM designers were anxious to hear the panelists describe their impressions of the concept, as well as previous versions of the car. It's clear that there is some concern about Camaro's blue-collar roots.
"Did you guys associate the old Camaro with mullets and heavy-metal rockers?" asked Micah Jones, the 29-year-old Camaro concept interior designer, of Lysaght and Tassi.
"Yeah, and Confederate flags," said Lysaght, somewhat facetiously.
While they argued about the Camaro's image, Andrew Hetletvedt, a 32-year-old Detroit architect who is the most detail-oriented member of the panel, carefully studied the interior.
Its retro cues include a beefy steering wheel with a small hub and a thick rim, a center console that runs the length of the cabin and dives under the instrument panel, and gauges inspired by the 1969 Camaro "Rally" package.
He pronounced the gauges a bit "too fussy," but said he loved the concept's retro shift lever and striking copper metal cabin trim.
"You gotta start it at $20,000," he said to designer Jones, who sat in the front passenger seat while Hetletvedt drove the concept. "They are pushing Mustangs out the door for less than that."
Reginald Dozier, 47, a Detroit attorney who was sitting in the rear seat, added, "And don't go any higher than $55,000."
"I hope they don't price it where the (Dodge) Viper is," said Wendy Anderson of the $80,000 car. "Nobody would buy it."
The GM executives at the Camaro drive would not speculate about pricing, but they hammered home the point that the concept's engine features the company's "active-fuel management" system, which cuts off four cylinders in certain situations to conserve fuel. The concept is estimated to get more than 30 miles per gallon at highway speeds.
Few on the panel seemed to care about that, though.
Panelist Shaniya Jarrett, 34, a Detroit insurance executive, said that while the Camaro is "a wonderful car that GM should build," it was not enticing enough to get her to give up her Dodge Durango SUV.
It was clear that the Camaro's magic was not in the fuel economy or even in such critical details as horsepower and bucket seats. It was all about evoking the past, especially one filled with drive-in movies and drag races on Telegraph.
"It takes me right back to my youth, when I had no responsibilities," said Zora Callahan Jones, 48, a Detroit teacher. "I have fond memories of being a student at Cass Tech and riding around in my girlfriend's white Camaro.
"If GM brought it back, it would be easy to sell me on it."