America's Pony Car.

by Dan Lyons
photo by the author

Base Price (MSRP) $17,075
As Tested (MSRP) $33,275

Corvette's kid brother. For 34 years, the Camaro has been known as the slightly more affordable, slightly more practical brother of Chevy's high-tech sports car and resident cultural icon. With marketing like, "It's the next best thing to a 'Vette yet," Camaro has always had a dual role: part junior 'Vette, part Mustang fighter.

Camaro rides into 2001 in its most refined state to date.

Despite ever-loudening whispers about its imminent demise, the Camaro Z28 SS remains a distinctive alternative in the sports/performance field. It is the American pony car.

Model Lineup

Coupe and convertible models are available in base and Z28 trim.

An SS Performance/Appearance Package ($3950) is available for the Z28 models. SS ups the horsepower ante to 325; that gives an SS a 15-horsepower advantage over the Z28, thanks in part to forced air induction and wide-mouth, low restriction dual-outlet exhaust. A cooler is added to the power steering pump, and an SS-only rear spoiler adorns the back deck. Big 17-inch aluminum wheels shod with speed-rated Goodyear Eagle F1 tires are mounted on the corners. They complement a High-Performance Ride and Handling Package that further stiffens the Z28 suspension with beefier shocks, spring rates and chassis componentry.

A Sport Appearance Package is offered for base ($1755) or Z28 ($1348) models. Body modifications in this option group include unique front and rear fasciae as well as a rear spoiler extension. Completing the package is a set of 16-inch aluminum alloys with touring tires (standard on Z28s).

Like the Corvette, Camaro development over the years has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Many years of minor modifications pass between introductions of new generations. (Introduced in September 1966, the Camaro is in the ninth year of its fourth generation.) The last truly new Camaro appeared in 1993.

Refinements to Camaro for 2001 are few and cosmetic: one color has been added to the charts (Sunset Orange Metallic) and there is a new style for the optional, chromed aluminum 16-inch alloy wheels.

Walkaround

Rounding the corner of the new Millennium, the fourth-generation Camaro still has the same long hood/short deck "pony car" lines first seen when the 1967 Camaro made its debut.

With a sloping nose, deeply raked windshield and arching rear deck spoiler, the Camaro SS has a dart-like profile. The SS-specific, low-rise rear spoiler sets off its tail end nicely. Ten-spoke, 17-inch wheels freshen the nine-year-old body style. A wide, black-out grille sits between narrow, oval headlights up front. The hood is crowned by a functional fresh air scoop, giving this muscle car an appropriately menacing look.

Interior Features

Camaros, especially Z28 and SS models, offer a driver-oriented cockpit. A power six-way driver's seat is multi-adjustable and offers enough support to hold you in place during spirited driving. Speedometer and tachometer form two large, overlapping arches centered in the instrument panel, framed by supporting gauges. Lights and HVAC controls are of a straight-forward, rheostat style.

The sound system is a little button-busy to deal with while driving, but redundant controls mounted in the steering wheel are in easy reach of one's thumbs. Speaking of sound, a Monsoon AM/FM/Cassette sound system is standard issue on convertible and Z28 models. The 500 watt peak power system includes speed compensated volume - a handy feature in an open air car, where wind, engine and traffic noise could otherwise find you fiddling with the controls a lot.

The front passenger must contend with a large hump in the floor that cuts into available leg room. The back seats are best thought of as a nicely upholstered parcel tray, just about useless for transport of people. Coupes offer slightly more back seat room than convertibles, but the difference is slight.

Trunk space measures 7.6 cubic feet in convertibles, which turns "pack light" from suggestion to mandate. Coupes fare a little better than convertibles when it comes to storage space. The hatchback style offers 12.9 cubic feet of storage in a multi-level trunk. However, the Coupe's trunk also holds the optional T-tops when they are not in place, thereby eating up space, and there's a "watch your back" alert posted for the high lift over height.

The convertible top is simple to operate: just pop the two release latches and press the button. Camaro convertible drivers must contend with large rear blind spots typical of most rag tops. A hard plastic boot is provided to give the car a finished look with top down. It is a three-piece unit, which stores in a bag in the trunk when not in use. Given the Camaro's limited storage room, it is suspected that most of these boots and bags will be given the boot, out of the trunk, into the garage, preserving precious cargo space. A brochure included in new Camaros advises owners to avoid high-pressure "touchless" car washes, as they may induce leakage. They're right. A trip through such a wash will lead to water dribbling in along the side window seals. Those Camaro owners who aren't able to avoid brushless automated washes will learn to take a towel along, for two reasons. First, to blot up any interior seepage, then to wipe off the water on the outside that the driers never seem to reach on any car.

Driving Impressions

Raise the hood on a Camaro Z28 or SS and you find Chevy's 5.7-liter V8. It's tucked so far back in the engine compartment that it looks like you'd need to open the glove box to change a spark plug. Though it appears to be hiding, the 5.7 is hardly a shrinking violet.

Rated at 325 horsepower and 350 pounds-feet of torque in the SS (310/340 in Z28), the aluminum-block, pushrod motor shines brightly. The SS has a broad, smooth power band that launches the Camaro effortlessly, whether from a standing start or a highway speed pass. A slight nudge of the throttle yields added oomph in any gear. Dig your spurs in its side, and the SS responds with sufficient thrust to shove you back in your seat. Top speed is governed at 160 mph in SS models, 108 in Z28s (unless you opt for speed-rated tires).

Both Z28 and SS models serenade the driver with a vintage V8 soundtrack. The dual exhaust system provides a classic, throaty rumble that is music to the ears of muscle car buffs.

The SS motor is virtually unstressed at speed. At 80 mph, the engine is turning just 2,400 rpm, a step above slumber. Thanks to this intelligent gearing, the SS is able to offer respectable highway fuel economy. EPA ratings are 18 city/26 highway: impressive, considering the engine's power output.

The engine in base Camaro models is GM's popular 3.8-liter V6. Tuned in this application to produce 200 horsepower and 225 pounds-feet of torque, the 3800 V6 is found under the hood of countless GM products and seems to perform well no matter where it turns up.

A four-speed automatic is standard on Z28 and SS, though buyers can opt for a six-speed manual at no additional cost. The automatic on my test car matched well with the 5.7, with smooth shifts up and down. In base Camaro models, the 3800 V6 is coupled to a five-speed manual, with the four speed automatic ($815) is available as an added cost option.

In previous-generation Camaros, handling was a one-way street. It seemed that flat cornering was always gained at the expense of a smooth ride. So, judged by the buckboard ride of Camaros past, the new models are a pleasant surprise. The SS model's high-performance handling package makes these cars the stiffest and best handling of all Camaros. Yet the ride does not unduly punish you for the privilege. Z28 cars are tuned for a more compliant ride while still offering very capable cornering.

The convertibles were designed as such; they are not simply hardtops with the roof chopped off. Cowl shake on our convertible was unnoticeable on smooth pavement, and never rose above moderate levels.

All-speed traction control is offered as an option on all Camaro models. Even so-equipped, I wouldn't relish driving the Camaro in snow or sleet, given its rear-wheel drive, light tail, wide tires and (in V8 cars) high power. For those who live in parts of the country where winter weather means bad driving conditions, the standard solution for Camaro is as with other performance cars: hibernation. Tucking the car away for the winter months is a time honored (if inelegant) solution forced upon sports car owners by Mother Nature.

Final Word

Times have really never been better for buyers in search of open, sporting cars. The vast majority of the choices in this market segment are imports, and many are very, very good, but also more alike than different.

The Camaro SS stands apart in this crowd, offering an updated version of a distinctly American auto art form: the muscle car. And this offer may be limited: If the rumors are right, this retro, rough-around-the-edges rumbler won't be with us for much longer.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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