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.

Still, Challenger's Hemi V-8, while less powerful, is much nicer to drive than the robust Camaro V-8. And the transmissions married to Camaro's V-8 had their own shortcomings. The Tremec 6060 six-speed manual had a bit much of the "mechanical" feel enthusiasts love; more like you were wrestling the lever instead of shifting it. And the clutch engagement was sudden, leading to jerky shifts. The V-8's six-speed automatic upshifted fine. But nail the pedal while rumbling along and it felt like a manual with a slipping clutch. Lots of engine revs but little acceleration until, slam, everything hooked up. The automatics in the V-6 test cars had no such pause, and they engaged promptly on hard downshifts.

Chevy spent extra to give Camaro independent rear suspension. The car doesn't skitter sideways over railroad tracks like a solid-axle car such as Mustang might. Steering's better; ride and handling both are enhanced.

Gripes:

• Rear seat. Scarce room and awkward access. No tip/slide mechanism on either front seat, so one must separately tilt, then slide, a front seat. Cumbersome when you're getting in, impossible when you want out.

• Steering wheel. The rim cross-section is a flat-oval shape that doesn't fit everybody's palm.

You have to pull the automatic's shift lever on the console into the "M" mode and only then can you tap buttons on the back side of the steering wheel spokes to shift up or down. A better system would let you use the manual-shift buttons directly.

The M mode is useful by itself, however. It keeps the transmission in lower gears a little longer for much snappier response, though at the expense of fuel economy.

Camaro drives quite fetchingly, all considered. But it's hard to overlook the harsh ride, ridiculous back seat and transmission annoyances.

About the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro

• When? At dealers any day now.

• Where? Made in Canada.

• Why? Who knows, maybe people will start buying fun cars again.

• How? Modify the heck out of parent company General Motors' Australian Holden Commodore/American Pontiac G8 chassis so the production Camaro has the same long-hood, short-trunk look of the 2006 Detroit auto show Camaro concept car.

• How much? Here's the good part: V-6 base model starts at $22,995 with shipping and has most of what you need. V-8 model (the SS) starts at $30,995.

• How many? 14,000 presold orders, but Chevy won't forecast an annual number.

• How powerful? Quite. Base engine is 3.6-liter V-6 similar to GM's Cadillac CTS engine and rated 304 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 273 pounds-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm. SS models have 6.2-liter V-8 rated 426 hp at 5,900 rpm, 400 lbs.-ft. at 5,900 rpm with manual transmission, 400 hp at 4,600 rpm, 410 lbs.-ft. at 4,300 rpm with automatic.

• How big? Hefty outside, tight inside, like most sports coupes. Bigger than Ford Mustang, smaller than Dodge Challenger, it is 190.4 inches long, 75.5 in. wide, 54.2 in. tall, on a 112.3-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,769 to 3,902 lbs. depending on model and equipment.

Trunk holds modest 11.3 cubic feet. Turning diameter: 37.7 ft.

• How thirsty? V-6 rated 18 miles per gallon in town, 29 on the highway with automatic, 17/29 with manual. V-8 rated 16/25 automatic, 16/24 manual.

Mileage registered by trip computers in test cars, driven briskly, mainly on rural, two-lane roads: V-6s, 22.5 to 24.8 mpg; little difference between manual and automatic. V-8, 16.9 with both automatic and manual.

Regular specified for V-6. Premium recommended for V-8 (regular OK). Tank holds 19 gallons.

• Overall:Appealing, yet aggravating, blend of old and new.

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