2010 Chevrolet Camaro: Back with a vengeance, baby

Auto enthusiasts have been pawing the turf like corralled mustangs waiting for the revived Chevrolet Camaro, unveiled as a concept car at the 2006 Detroit auto show and finally in showrooms this week.

A day driving most versions on back roads and through the 25-mph villages around here was generally rewarding, suggesting the wait was worthwhile.

And a cheery note: The low-end versions, about $25,000, arguably were the best of the bunch.

The Camaro is not as obsessively retro as the Dodge Challenger out last year or the current Ford Mustang. But using the popular 1969 Camaro as a touchstone, Chevy left no doubt it's a modern take on Camaro's heritage.

The Detroit coupes were known as "pony cars" in recognition that the Mustang was launched first, on April 17, 1964. As their makers crammed in ever-more-powerful engines, they also were called "muscle cars." Of the three now, Camaro probably best blends old (styling cues, interior trim) and new (edgy looks, high-tech base engine, modern suspension).

It's unlikely Mustangers or Challenger folk will acknowledge Camaro as champ, but an open-minded shopper probably would consider Camaro most satisfying to drive, whether hard and fast or in the school drop-off line.

Chevy insists the Camaro is so modern it also will compete with Asian sports coupes such as Mazda RX-8, Nissan 370Z and Mitsubishi Eclipse.

Showroom models went into production at Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, on March 16 and are trickling into dealerships now. Chevy says dealers have orders for 14,000.

A main reason the lower-price models are so satisfying: The base engine is a sweetheart, not a wannabe. It's the 3.6-liter V-6 Cadillac uses and has the latest technology, such as variable valve timing and direct fuel injection. The result is 304 eager horses that will satisfy most drivers.

Mustang's base V-6 is just 210 hp; Challenger's 250 hp.

Couple Camaro's V-6 to the standard Aisin AY6 six-speed manual with its forgiving clutch and you have a no-apologies, fun sports coupe that's rated at 29 miles per gallon highway and delivered mid-20s in vigorous testing.

The starter Camaro LS is about $23,000, but it has steel wheels you probably don't want. Stepping up to the 1LT for alloy wheels still leaves you a few hundred bucks shy of $25,000. That's the hot setup: 1LT V-6, manual, alloy wheels. Way more than you expect for the money.

Chevy put stiff suspensions on all versions, for control in tight corners, emergency swerves and the like. But the result is lots of slam and slap over patched or otherwise unfriendly road surfaces. But — another reason to save your money — the 18-inch-diameter wheels on the low-end LS and LT are shod with softer-riding tires that wipe out the harshness. Those tires still are serious 245-55s, not some skinny fuel-savers. If you opt for the 19-, 20- or 21-inch wheels and tires, prepare for a rough ride.

All V-8s are designated SS (Chevy's "super sport" logo). While it's hard to argue with the Corvette-based 6.2-liter V-8's credentials, it's not so with its real-world behavior.

Perhaps it accelerated so smoothly that it felt less than rocket-like from a standstill. The engine shone in the middle speed ranges, though. Nail the throttle to pass and, yowzah. Throaty, old-days exhaust sound, too.

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