The most go for the dough. by Don Fuller
Base Price $17,150
As Tested $24,411
The Chevrolet Camaro, and its cousin, the Pontiac Firebird, just might be the best performance values on the face of the planet. Restyled for 1998, these sleek sportsters come with major mechanical enhancements and offer performance ranging from really good to awesome, at prices that are surprisingly affordable and competitive.
The Camaro and Firebird are as American as it gets: Long and low with a powerful engine mounted in front and rear-wheel drive. Room for rear-seat passengers and cargo capacity are not top priorities. But for style and performance at a great price, the Camaro and Firebird are nearly impossible to beat. We drove the Camaro Z28 Coupe, but what we have to say about the Camaro applies to the Firebird; they are nearly identical.
The Chevrolet is available in two basic levels, Camaro and Camaro Z28. They come in coupe and convertible body styles. (The Pontiac comes as the Firebird, Formula and Trans Am.) Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, dual airbags, theft-deterrent system, tilt wheel, full instrumentation and air conditioning.
The base engine is a 3.8-liter V-6, and we like it a lot. Available with either a four-speed automatic or (our preference) a five-speed manual, it's rated at a robust 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque and will rev to 6000 rpm. The 3800 Series II V-6, as it's called, is well regarded and offers performance equivalent to many V-8s of the not-too-distant past -- without the cost, fuel economy penalty or extra insurance premium of a V-8. Furthermore, the 3800 V-6 is available with an optional performance handling package that includes a limited-slip differential, dual exhaust, P235/55R16 tires on alloy wheels, quicker steering ratio and, if equipped with the automatic transmission, a 3.42:1 axle instead of the standard 3.08:1 ratio. There is also a sport appearance package that includes alloy wheels and special body trim.
Those wanting more performance can opt for the LS1 5.7-liter V-8-powered Z28. Modified slightly from the engine developed for the new Corvette, and rated at 305 hp and 335 lb-ft of torque, this aluminum powerhouse makes the Camaro a genuine high-performance car (especially if equipped with the six-speed manual transmission), that's capable of well over 150 mph, right off the showroom floor.
Standard with the Z28 are the tires and wheels of the sport appearance package, a performance handling suspension, limited-slip differential and the all-important 155-mph speedometer. If wretched excess is your game, order the Camaro SS with forced air induction and the output soars to 320 hp, accompanied by further suspension upgrades and massive P275/40ZR-17 tires. There isn't another car within $10,000, and doggone few within $20,000, that can stay with it.
The Camaro does an admirable job of keeping all this power hooked up to the pavement. The reason: Its chassis features upper and lower control arms in front, which keep the tires in better contact with the road than the more popular struts. A live axle is used in the rear and it's one of the best live axles because it's well-located by a long torque arm, trailing links and a Panhard rod. Springs are coils, and there are front and rear anti-roll bars. This is one very capable high-performance car. Compared to its most likely and obvious competitor, the Ford Mustang, the Camaro accelerates better, stops better and gets around corners a whole lot better, all due to its superior chassis.
The brakes are big four-wheel discs, with plenty of cooling ability for enhanced fade resistance. ABS is optional. Steering is by power rack-and-pinion.
In our view, the most attractive aspect of the Camaro is the performance for the money. We'll even put in a few words here about the Camaro with the 3.8-liter V-6. The Mustang is also offered with a base 3.8-liter V-6 engine, but while the Camaro V-6 makes 200 hp and revs to 6000 rpm, the Mustang runs out of wind at 150 hp and won't come close to 6000 rpm. So, V-8 to V-8, or V-6 to V-6, the Camaro (and the equivalent Firebird), simply runs away from the Mustang.
The Inside Story
Obviously, cars built low and sleek don't offer much excess interior room, and the Camaro is no exception. The Camaro is more difficult to get into and out of than the taller, more upright Mustang. Also, the seating position is low and somewhat reclining, with your legs extending forward. But once you're in, the overall driving position, including control layout and instrumentation, is pretty good and lends itself quite well to the business of enthusiastic driving -- a significant part of the Camaro's appeal.
The tiny rear seats are shaped with deep buckets in the cushions, so the requirements for sitting back there include: Sufficient nimbleness to get in; the ability to sit squarely in the bucket with feet in front and knees up; and basic measurements of less than 5'10" and 160 pounds. If you meet those requirements the back seat is not the torture chamber it might appear to be, but it's still primarily a place for briefcases or small people who won't complain.
Cargo space is also limited. Open the rear hatch and there's a modest bin that fits behind the rear axle, and a higher shelf behind the rear seats. There's plenty of room as long as you don't need to haul more than groceries for two. The rear seats fold forward to accommodate a decent amount of luggage room. But if cargo space is a priority you shouldn't be looking at a Camaro.
Ride and Drive
Even in its base form, the Camaro feels pretty sporty to most drivers. The low driving position and low center of gravity contribute to a hunkered down, responsive feel, no matter how briskly or sedately the car is driven.
The Camaro's mechanical layout, with a front engine driving the rear wheels through a live axle, might seem outdated, but it's quite capable and very successful on the race track. The engine is positioned so that most of it is behind the centerline of the front wheels, thus placing it in the category of front mid-engine design. This distributes the weight more evenly. The result is a car that bends into corners with eagerness and grip and accelerates away from those same corners hard and true. Compared to the Mustang, the Camaro will feel lower, wider, more stuck to the road and more responsive. It's more sophisticated than the Mustang, feels better when driven hard, and works better.
Moving even higher on the performance scale is the Z28 Camaro, a car that offers remarkably good handling, better than many that wear the "sports car" label and cost a good deal more. Driven conservatively the ride is well controlled and smooth enough for "sports car" expectations. Driven with more enthusiasm, the Z28 has exceptional directional stability and good feedback through the wheel. It turns into corners with linear precision. It'll make you look for the long, crooked way home.
We can't emphasize enough the significant role the excellent 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 plays in this. Most people have never driven a car that runs this hard. The engine revs and pulls with gusto all the way to redline. The chassis is balanced well and contributes to the commendable driving experience. But as good as the Z28's chassis is, the heart of the car is really that Corvette engine.
This kind of car isn't for everyone. Interior room is modest and the swoopy styling, responsive performance and exceptional handling mean the owner must be willing to accept 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.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.