MARK PHELAN: Exclusive Camaro test drive

as posted by the Detroit Free Press
Click the link for 22 pictures and a video

GM needs this car to pump up excitement, sales

May 16, 2006


Build it.

That's all I can say after 40 minutes driving the ravishing Chevrolet Camaro concept car around General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford.

The head-turning new sport coupe can't hit the road soon enough. GM has not officially decided it will build the Camaro, but the legendary car's powerful appeal, the adrenaline shot it will give Chevrolet and conversations with a number of GM executives are enough to convince me only a catastrophe will keep this car off the road.

You don't spend this much time nailing every detail -- from the growling rumble of the exhaust to the light and easy feel of the clutch pedal -- if you're not serious about a car.

And the Camaro is serious fun. Its unique design may set the tone for other Chevrolet cars, boost sales and add excitement to GM's most important brand.

The sensuous and threatening-looking coupe will be a welcome addition to Chevrolet showrooms. That was apparent even in the handle-with-care driving mandated by the fact that this is a show car, built for looks not speed.

Despite that, the Camaro felt very polished. The power steering is direct and responsive; the brakes are firm with good pedal feel, and the six-speed manual transmission was more precise than some production cars.

"We spent a lot of time on the sound of the exhaust," GM concept car engineer Kris Hess said as the Camaro's 400-horsepower V8 burbled to life on the test track in Oakland County for my drive. "We have a lot of performance fans on the team that did this car."

The concept's classic wasp-waisted shape, flared fenders and eager forward-leaning grille made the Camaro a hit when it debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

Camaro was introduced in 1966 as the answer to the Ford Mustang and went through several generations before production ended in 2002.

"We set out to capture the essence of the Camaro," said Tom Peters, who led the design team that created the concept in Studio X, a secret den below the design building at GM's technical center in Warren. The concept's styling borrows elements from the classic 1969 Camaro, the 2005 Corvette and the YF22 jet fighter's rounded cockpit.

Crowds packed Chevrolet's stand to admire the Camaro at the show, but almost nobody got close enough to see that the concept's interior is equally appealing and well executed.

The big, chrome-rimmed speedometer and tachometer perfectly complement round brushed-metal dials for climate and audio controls. Door and dash insets the color of burnished copper match the faces of four small rectangular gauges -- fuel, battery, oil and water -- set in the center console just ahead of a round aluminum shifter knob.

Even if everything goes flawlessly, the Camaro isn't likely to hit the streets before 2009, and the production model will not be identical to the concept.

There's no magic or sleight of hand involved in making the case for the Camaro.

The concept uses GM's new Zeta global architecture for rear-wheel-drive cars, which goes into production in Australia this summer and should form the basis for several big, powerful sedans and coupes in North America.

The Camaro's engine, transmission, brakes and most other major components are off-the-shelf technology, ready to run today, but ready to mate high-horsepower performance with 30 miles per gallon or more on the highway, GM said.

GM executives have told workers in at least two North American assembly plants -- Oshawa, Ontario, and Wilmington, Del. -- that they're in the running to build the Camaro.

So the decision to build it comes down to a few questions: Will people buy it? How can GM build it profitably? What will it cost?

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told Automotive News that GM won't build the Camaro unless it can sell 100,000 a year.

To reach that goal, Chevy will have to offer a less-expensive V6 model in addition to the V8, said Jim Hall, vice president for industry analysis at the Southfield office of consultant AutoPacific.

Even then, it's unlikely Camaro could beat the popular Ford Mustang's $19,115 base price, he said.

The Zeta family of cars features an independent rear suspension, a more-expensive layout than the Mustang's trusty old live axle.

Nobody at GM will touch the price question, but it's clear Chevrolet doesn't need -- and probably couldn't sell -- another high-priced, low-volume image car. The Corvette fills that role beautifully.

Chevrolet accounts for around 60% of GM's annual sales in North America. Adding a couple of exciting and profitable cars to Chevy's lineup would go a long way toward curing what ails GM.

The stylish 2008 Malibu sedan -- unrecognizably different from today's mundane model -- set to debut next year may be the first of those cars. The Camaro could be the second.

Build it.

Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or

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