The cars we loved.
The Camaro has always been one of those cars I’ve liked, but could never see myself owning. I could say that about the Challenger and Mustang also. Blame it on the BMW snob in me. Something about a big powerful engines and live rear axles was counter to the small intractably engineered Japanese and European cars I admired in my formative years.
Those dinky little cars with front wheel drive and a tiny appetites for gas was all I could relate to with my meager budget. When I got more money the engines became more advanced and powerful, yet remained small while cars like the Camaro got bigger like the typical American’s waistline.
At some point Chevy and Ford begun to see diminishing returns on their gradual move to larger engines. Smaller more advanced power plants were approaching and in some cases surpassing old guard V8s, threating the supremacy of the red blooded (American) muscle car. It was happening in Australia also where big V8 powered Holdens and Fords were giving way to the new world order of unibody front wheel drive dominance.
Pony cars like the Camaro and Mustang were supposed to be a dying breed, yet they remained strong sellers with their time tested drive wheels in back and big engine up front. When the fourth generation Camaro disappeared in 2002, it had already overstayed its welcome, yet had a loyal following down to the end.
It would be nearly a decade of watching Ford’s Mustang rack up sales before Chevy would bring back it’s pony car. During that time you’d be forgiven if you thought the Mustang was the uncontested king of redneck power slides and doughnuts in the Walmart parking lot. In reality, the pony car grew up and became more sophisticated (to a point). The Ford had little competition in its price range. To get rear wheel drive with a V8 (or V6), you had to look to expensive German or the occasional Japanese import.
This was the perfect environment to bring back the Camaro. When it arrived in late 2009, it closely followed the retro cues of the 2006 concept car in that it looked like a remix of a 1967-1969 car. The concept created a sensation amongst the F car faithful who were still weeping over the loss of the Trans-Am. The “new Camaro” as it was called joined a recently revamped retro Mustang and Dodge Challenger in a renewal of an old rivalry, not seen since the 70s. A few Transformer movies later and the Camaro emerged as close competition to the Mustang in sales.
Where the Canadian built 2002 Camaro was low and wide, the new car was more upright by comparison. Designed in-house by Tom Peters, much of the Camaro’s imposing dynamics came from being on the large GM Zeta platform. Like Chrysler’s Challenger, it shared a platform with larger four door luxury cars. This new emphasis on space did not instantly translate to more room inside, although the new Camaro was more comfortable and roomy than any Camaro of the past and had more usable cargo space. In fact it’s interior was one of its high points. Simple, direct yet purposeful with subdued elegance due to brushed aluminum accents.
The exterior of course was just as impressive. A shark like nose with two prominent round headlights recalled early Camaros, yet looked futuristic with halo daytime running lights. The rear too was a blend of first and second generation cars with four pronounced tail lights (a nod to the second generation cars).This fifth generation was easily the fastest and most agile Camaro ever. A fully independent suspension meant that every Camaro could corner as well as it burned rubber in a straight line.
Despite its imposing size, its proportions were taunt and muscular with graceful lines that ended in creases that gave it an angular appearance if you saw if from the right angles. The rear, perhaps it’s weakest link with four ovoid tail lights recalled the first two generations.
Camaros came in coupe and convertible forms with a range of trims with either a 3.6 liter 312 hp V6 or the LS3 6.2 liter V8 with up to 426 hp. 6 speed manuals and automatic were also available. All that power had a better chance of connecting to rough roads thanks to a fully independent suspension – on all models. There were plenty of tuners available to make any Camaro a supercharged or turbo powered road car to rival any BMW. Even the V6 got love as a candidate for supercharging.
The high point of Camaro power came with the ZL1 version that used the same engine as Cadillac’s CTS-V. That 6.2 liter supercharged tour de force made a whopping 580 hp. There were no Z28 versions of this generation. Instead the gamut of Camaro trim and package names from the past like LT,LS, RS and SS took its place.
It was once easy to determine what was a high trim Camaro. It was either a Z28, IROC or SS. With this generation the distinctions could be blurred externally for buyers who chose the right packages. The popular RS appearance packages that made base cars look menacing and others look like the SS model with its 20 inch wheels. One thing was clear, an un molested base model with the standard 16 inch black painted steel wheels looked almost homely. Still this was the first generation of Camaro that I could actually see myself in.
A refresh in 2014 saw a more angular appearance, especially in front with a squatter grill and revised horizontal taillights. The array of small improvements amounted to the most polished Camaro and the most refined look yet. The only bit that looked odd was the thin horizontal tail lights that did their best to recall the rump of the first generation cars.
Be it coupe or elegant convertible form, the fifth generation Camaro was a design and sales hit. Things that had plagued Camaros of the past like fit and finish issues had been licked too (mostly). Despite all the improvements, Camaro sales still lagged behind Ford’s evergreen Mustang. Still, it was no small feat that GM managed to keep its version of the pony car alive in a regulatory environment that favored more efficient cars.
Today the V6 Camaro remains an affordable option for those seeking an relatively efficient and stylish coupe. The very latest Camaros are being compared to M3s and such. One would have never seen that coming. Every sence the Mustang stepped it up with a independent suspension and global ambitions, the American pony car changed forever. Somewhere in the Euro bound Camaro with all of its advance safety and performance features, a lottery winning good olde boy is waiting for his car of choice to make some tire smoke in the Walmart or Appleby’s parking lot.