Don't kill the Camaro!
Looking back at a decade of the Chevrolet Camaro reboot and why it must live on
Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.
There have been rumours that Chevrolet might kill off the Camaro after its current production run ends in 2023. The regime at General Motors is strict about canning products that don't sell. Last year the General killed Chevrolet's Impala, Cruze, and Volt, Buick's LaCrosse and Cascada, and Cadillac's XTS and CT6.
Worryingly, the Camaro's 48,266 sales in 2019 lagged way behind the 72,489 Ford Mustangs that found homes and even 60,997 sales for the ancient but still awesomely cool Dodge Challenger. In the first quarter of this year Chevrolet sold just 7,185 Camaros. That's 40% down on Q1 2019, which you're assuming must be due to COVID-19, right? However Challenger sales were down less than 10% over the same period.
There's a worrying precedent: in 2001 Camaro saw its worst sales figures ever with only 29,000 units sold. When the fourth generation Camaro ended production in 2002 it was not replaced.
So it's not looking good for the 'small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs!' which is what 'Camaro' means, according to GM execs when asked at the first and last meeting of SEPAW (the Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World). At this point you're either smirking and nodding your head, or you think I've lost the plot – if the former, skip the next para.
When Ford launched the Mustang in 1964, Chevy had to respond. It worked fast and soon there were reports of a sports car being developed under the code name Panther. The 1966 SEPAW meeting was actually an epic press conference to 'scratch a cat' broadcast live in 14 cities by telephone. The Camaro was introduced then and the rest is history.
Until of course, 2002. But whilst Camaro went dormant, the Mustang soldiered on, and in 2005 was given a whole new retro-cool style. In 2008 Dodge followed suit with an evocatively-styled Challenger, so the ball was firmly in Chevrolet's court. History repeated, and not to be outdone in early 2006, a slightly less retro concept, nonetheless inspired directly by the 1967 Camaro, and designed by South Korean-born designer Sangyup Lee, debuted. The pony car wars were back on!
As a muscle car fan, I fell for it immediately and couldn't wait to drive it. I'd have to wait another three years. It finally went on sale in mid-2009 for model year 2010. I had my first go at the Middle East regional press launch in Dubai when I was running Car Middle East magazine. General Motors brought fleet of Camaros and we did long loop from Dubai over to the East Coast of the UAE along roads familiar to me.
I had made a beeline for the manual V8-engined SS variant, not just because of the rare opportunity to sample a stick shift muscle car in an auto-saturated region, but also because self-shifting was rewarded with an extra 26hp over the 400hp auto on those original cars. "Broad sides, brawny shoulders, potent bonnet, chiselled jaw," all served to "dress the 1970s machisomo in up-to-date finesse" I wrote.
I loved the throwback interior too, with its obscurely positioned but evocative stack of dials on the front edge of the transmission tunnel, the hooded instrument panel and the deeply dished steering wheel – the spokes were so steeply raked it was actually difficult to use the remote buttons and it was redesigned a couple of years later.
However it was not all rosy: "It's undoubtedly quick, but doesn't feel as punchy as Detroit iron usually does," and I found the engine note to be too subdued for a muscle car. But worse was to come: "on particularly challenging roads it all gets a bit wobbly... the rear floats and bobs alarmingly even on smooth fast sweepers..." Accosting one of the engineers I found to my surprise he agreed, in fact he seemed quite mortified. The 'it's a pre-production car' excuse is often trotted out at car launches but the sincerity of his anguish convinced me that he was being honest when he insisted the calibration on the rear suspension was off on these press cars. Also he was a straight-talking Aussie.
An Australian engineer working on an American muscle car designed by a Korean? In fact the Camaro was developed in Australia, based on the Holden GM Zeta Platform that underpinned the likes of the Holden VE Commodore, Chevrolet Lumina and Caprice, and the mighty Vauxhall VXR8 (also sold in the Middle East as the Chevy CSV CR8). That was one of my favourite cars. Which is why I had expected the Camaro to be utterly brilliant. It fell short.
True to their word, a couple of months later Chevrolet Middle East supplied me with a freshly fettled Camaro and I retraced the launch route. The rebound on the rear suspension was now composed and controlled, and the handling felt assured and more confident than its two key rivals.
It didn't really matter what I thought. It was already a hit, not least because of a starring role in the 2007 Transformers movie as the Autobot Bumblebee. A yellow and black Transformers edition was introduced, complete with an Autobot shield badge. This treatment also confirmed the new Camaro as a perfect candidate for customisation enthusiasts.
Two years later I reviewed the 45th anniversary edition. Performance felt a little stronger by this time, though no changes had been made to the engine officially – perhaps the motors needed to be run-in longer? It remained just a tad suppressed in its ferocity and a little too much a sports car than a muscle car. I still wasn't entirely sold but admitted: "these reservations aside, this is a great car, with Hollywood looks, WWE brute performance, and Fred Astaire agility. It’s already a modern motoring icon."
Everything changed when later in 2012 I drove the ZL1 version. Suddenly it was like all my Eids had come at once – subtly enhanced muscular looks, more performance and even better handling. I wrote: "I have tasted what I believe to be the absolute zenith of muscle car magnificence. I have driven a beast that had me at ‘brum brum’, a car that defies the laws of electronic nannies, one that revels in its own overt masculinity and which vaporises rubber at the drop of a clutch. I am totally smitten by a car that cashes, with 500% interest, the cheques its looks have been writing since 2009."
Grabbing the motor from the brilliant Cadillac CTS-V, the supercharged 6.2 V8 was further boosted from 556hp to 580hp. The 0-62mph time dropped to just 3.9 seconds, and top speed was 184mph. There was a dual mode exhaust which at last produced the soundtrack I craved. It featured the magnetorheological suspension that Ferraris use.
In 2014 they improved the whole range with sharper front and rear styling, though the ZL1 retained the older front grille for the larger gulps of air it needed. By now Chevrolet had learned some lessons from the ZL1, making the SS more eager to deploy its 432hp, though it could still do with more exhaust ruckus. The following year I reviewed the Firebreather, a Pontiac Trans Am look-a-like Camaro SS with an Eibach suspension package, sports exhaust (joy!) and a new body "forged in darkness, born in flames". It was created for a horror movie, and you can read about it here.
In 2016 the all-new sixth generation Camaro arrived. Based on the Cadillac ATS (a much underrated car), it was two inches shorter and an inch narrower and lower, with the familiar silhouette replicated in a tighter, tauter body, and featuring styling sharp enough to give you a paper cut from 50 paces. It didn't lose any visual drama or presence, despite the more compact package.
The first example I drove was again a manual SS, this time with 455hp and a 0-62mph time of 4.1 seconds. It took me the length of the looped entry ramp onto the nearest motorway to fall totally in love with it. Composed yet fierce, exciting yet reassuring, and it finally sounded ferocious straight out of the box. A year later came the 650hp ZL1 with a 10-speed automatic capable of 0-62mph in 3.5 seconds and nearly 200mph. Carbon fibre bonnet, scoops and spoilers and 11 intercoolers. It is sensational. Though I'd have the SS now, it's that good and after all, has my initials on it.
So what gives with the poor sales performance? Some said it was too small, yet it's actually the same length as the latest Mustang, and only slightly narrower. Others weren't keen on the looks, but Chevrolet quickly restyled the front for 2019, although arguably that was a case of flinching too soon. The new look is softer and less aggressive, and personally I think a big mistake.
The problem is not with the car, but General Motors. Somewhere along the way, it just feels as if GM, with its present agenda of pursuing electric drivetrains and autonomous vehicle technology, has become embarrassed by the presence of this still somewhat archaic macho motor.
However to call time on it would be a mistake, just when Chevrolet has managed to perfect the formula in terms of performance, ride and handling. Now with even less overlap between its two sports car icons (as Corvette moves upmarket into mid-engine supercar territory) there's an opportunity to redefine the Camaro as America's most sophisticated sports car.
Chevy, here's what you do: restyle it again, but make it more retro (works for the Dodge), keep it mechanically as it is. Start exporting more of them (make a right hand drive version for the UK and Japan), ramp up the marketing and PR, and put it in some big movies then watch those sales numbers go back up again. And while you're at it, bring back the Firebird too! And put me down for one of those.