A remarkable performance bargain.

by Don Fuller

Due to their relatively low sales volumes, sport coupe redesign intervals generally extend well beyond the shelf life of a mainstream sedan. Which means they have to look good and perform well for a long time. And that description accurately describes the Chevrolet Camaro and its corporate cousin, the Pontiac Firebird. The Camaro and Firebird (known in General Motors as the F-cars) looked great when they were renewed for 1993 and still look great today.

These sleek coupes and convertibles offer sporting appeal and performance ranging from really good to awesome, at prices that are surprisingly affordable.

The Camaro (our subject for this report), and Firebird are about as American as it gets: long and low styling, a powerful engine mounted in front and rear-wheel drive. More practical concerns, such as room for rear-seat passengers, cargo capacity or fuel economy, are not really addressed with these cars. But for style and performance at a great price, they're hard to beat.

Basically, what we have to say about the Camaro also applies to the Firebird; they are identical in engine choices, transmissions, suspension, general interior layout, overall driving feel and most options.

Walkaround

The base Camaro is known simply as the Coupe or Convertible. Moving up the price ladder from there is the RS trim level and above that the high-performance Z28. Trim levels for the Pontiac variant are the standard Firebird, the Formula and the hot rod Trans Am, all starting substantially higher than their Chevy counterparts.

The base engine for both cars is GM's excellent Series II 3800 V-6. Available with either a four-speed automatic or (our preference) the standard five-speed manual, it's rated at a robust 200 horsepower and an even more robust 225 lb-ft of torque. That's equivalent to many V-8s, especially those of the not-too-distant past, without the cost, fuel economy penalty or extra insurance premium often associated with a V-8. It's also available -- in either the Camaro or Firebird -- with an optional performance package that includes four-wheel disc brakes, a limited-slip differential, dual outlet exhaust, P235/55R-16 tires on alloy wheels, quicker steering ratio and, if equipped with the automatic transmission, a lower rear axle ratio, which enhances acceleration.

Those wanting more and whose budgets will absorb not only the extra cost of the car but also the extra cost of insurance, will opt for the LT1 V-8-powered Z28 (Formula or Trans Am if it's a Firebird). With 285 horsepower and a standard six-speed manual transmission, it makes the Camaro or Firebird a genuine high-performance car that's capable of 150-mph-plus.

If that's not enough, order the Camaro SS with forced air induction or Firebird WS6 with Ram Air and the horsepower goes to 305, accompanied by further suspension upgrades. When you get to this level, you'll be straddling the $30,000 frontier, but you'll also be buying performance that would cost about $20,000 more almost everywhere else.

For this review we looked at a base Camaro Coupe, which includes air conditioning and the 3800 V-6 with five-speed manual transmission. Base price was $16,215, plus destination of $525. In addition, it had the $1231 Preferred Equipment Group 2, (option code 1SC), which includes cruise control, remote hatch release, fog lamps, power doors, windows and mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless entry and theft deterrent. The option code Y87 performance package was another $400, 16-inch alloy wheels added $275, the P235/55R16 tires were $132, the AM/FM cassette uplevel sound system was $215, a rear window defogger added $170, power driver's seat was $270 and carpeted rear mats were $15. This brought it to $19,448, and gave us a car with a remarkable combination of performance and price.

For some alternatives, base price plus destination on an RS coupe is $18,495; on an unadorned Z28 coupe it's $20,640, which would give you a lot of go for the money but you'd have to crank the windows and listen to a basic radio. Or, load up a Z28 convertible until your pencil wore out and the bottom line could eke over $31,000.

The Inside Story

Obviously, no car built low and sleek is going to offer much extra interior room, and the Camaro is no exception. And compared to the Mustang, the Camaro is lower and more difficult to get into and out of.

Another aspect of being in the Camaro is that the seating position, for those in front, is low and somewhat reclining, with your legs extending forward. Still, once you're in, the overall driving position, including control layout and instrumentation, is actually pretty good and lends itself quite well to the business of enthusiastic motoring. The front-seat passenger has about the same seating position, except the engineers placed the engine's catalytic converter so that it creates a hump in the passenger's footwell, which could be an annoyance to some. And when the passenger seat is empty, the seatback flops forward under hard braking, a perennial annoyance in these cars.

The tiny rear seats are shaped with deep buckets in the cushions, and they're suitable only for small packages or really small people who don't complain. Cargo space is also limited. Open the rear hatch and there's a modest crosswise bin behind the rear axle, and a higher shelf that's behind the rear seats. We're talking groceries for two. The rear seats fold forward to expand luggage space, but if cargo space is a priority you probably wouldn't be looking at a Camaro to begin with.

Ride & Drive

Even in its base form, the Camaro will feel sporty to many drivers. The low driving position and low center of gravity contribute to a hunkered-down, responsive feel. And while the live-axle layout at the rear might seem dated, it gets the job done.

The engine is positioned somewhat rearward, enough so that with the V-6 is actually behind the centerline of the front wheels. This enhances handling, by moving weight from the front to the rear. The front suspension is upper and lower control arms, not struts. And the rear axle is suspended on coil springs with a system of links that keep it properly located.

With the optional Performance Package, the Camaro (or Firebird) becomes a remarkably good handling car -- better, in fact, than many that wear the "sports car" label and cost a good deal more. Driven conservatively the ride is smooth enough for reasonable sports car expectations and well controlled. Driven with more enthusiasm, our Performance Package Camaro had exceptional directional stability, good feedback through the steering wheel and turned into corners with linear precision. We think it's one of those cars that make you look for the long and winding road.

And we can't emphasize enough the significant role the 3800 V-6 plays in this. It's obviously not as fast as the V-8-powered Z28, but it's fast nonetheless, drives great, and hits several targets on the affordability scale.

Final Word

Obviously, these kinds of cars aren't for everyone. Interior room is modest at best and the responsive performance entails some compromises. But if your willingness to accept those compromises lines up with what the Camaro, or the Firebird, can deliver, then you could be looking forward to a lot of miles of driving pleasure, without busting your budget. And lookin' good all the way.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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