INNER VOICE ONE: Lord help me, but I kind of want a V-6 Camaro.
INNER VOICE TWO: Er...what? Come again?
I.V. ONE: Yep, that's right. A Camaro. Without a V-8.
I.V. TWO: What are you, a kindergarten teacher?
I.V. ONE: Uh, no...
I.V. TWO: A grandmother?
I.V. ONE: No...
I.V. TWO: A hobo. That's it. You must be a hobo. Or maybe a decorator. Interiors? That your thing? Wait - did someone give you roofies? Can you even hear me now? What's your name? Do you know where you are?
I.V. ONE: No! Yes! I mean no! You know what I mean! Hey! Seriously!
I.V. TWO: Yeah, sure. Right. Whatever. Look, I don't have time for this. Lots of manly stuff to do and all that. Busy schedule. Call me when the 400-horse V-8 drops, willya?
I.V. ONE: But the six has the horsepower of a...
I.V. TWO: Sure, sure. Go play with your dolls or something. What's hot now, Barbie? Those Bratz things? I don't really care. I've gotta go.
I.V. ONE: (sigh)...
You know how it goes: On one hand, you can't even fathom buying a pony car - or a sports car, or even a minivan, for that matter - with the smallest engine on offer. It just wouldn't be right. Like moths to a high-octane flame, most sane human beings are drawn to pavement-peeling power and torque. In the perfect little world inside the car enthusiast's head, the one where real-world needs rarely intrude, tire-smokin', ass-haulin' thrust is Priority One.
On the other hand, faced with the reality of gas prices and the almighty bank account, most of us have to be realistic. Even with tall gearing and technologies like cylinder deactivation, big engines suck a lot of gas. And just like horsepower, gas costs money. In an age where dino juice hovers at or above four bucks a gallon, that's no small concern.
And so we've come to the tipping point. For the past forty years, six-cylinder pony cars have been both embarrassing and practical, weak sisters that made lots of sense but little in the way of tire smoke. No more. I have driven a prototype of the 2010 Camaro LS, I have felt the politically correct, environmentally friendly thunder of its 3.6-liter V-6, and I have one thing to say:
I want one.
Laugh all you want (and yes, the above inner-voice exchange actually occurred inside my head), but there's a reason: For the first time in history, the base Camaro is no slouch. The V-6s found in the current Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger SE (240 and 250 hp, respectively) are smooth, economical engines, but they're by no means asphalt shredders. The six-cylinder Mustang and Challenger exist because of their relatively good fuel economy and their accessible, Joe-Everyman MSRPs. The base, V-6-powered 2010 Camaro, on the other hand? It's going to be cheap. But it's also going to be fast. And that ain't just numbers talking.
Yep, we drove one. Two, actually.
General Motors recently let us loose in two prototype Camaros, each equipped with the company's direct-injected, 304-hp, 3.6-liter V-6. These were fully functional, so-called "99-percent" engineering prototypes, cars that behave and feel almost exactly like a production 2010 Camaro will. Being prototypes, the examples we drove were cosmetically rough - think zebra-stripe camouflage, sandpaper paint, and trailer-park interiors - but the behind-the-wheel experience was essentially that of a finished, bug-free production car.
What we discovered during this drive was pretty impressive, but it wasn't totally unexpected. Let's dispense with the obvious first: The '10 Camaro behaves a lot like a Pontiac G8, largely because it shares both a platform (Zeta) and a drivetrain with GM's most sporting four-door. But there's more to it than that. Due to the relatively restricted nature of our drive (a GM engineer was present at all times), we weren't able to obtain test results or steal off to the dyno or go visit Mulletville for some man-on-the-street reactions, but we can offer some subjective impressions. What we can't do is guarantee that, once you've driven one, you won't start thinking about a V-6, too.
Engine: A healthy, rubber-burning six life
The 3.6-liter bent six that lives under the Camaro's hood is equipped with a host of modern features: dual overhead cams, direct injection, four valves per cylinder, and variable valve timing are all present, and they help the compact, all-aluminum engine produce 304 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Think about that for a second - three hundred horsepower in a base Camaro. That's ninety horsepower more than the base V-8 found in a 1967 Camaro, and just ten horsepower shy of the eight in an '02 Camaro Z/28. That's one hell of a strong V-6 - especially in light of the fact that the 4.6-liter V-8 in a Mustang GT produces four horsepower less. (In case you were wondering, the V-8 in the 2010 Camaro SS is set to produce some 422 hp.)
The 3.6-liter's 300 hp and 273 lb-ft are readily apparent from behind the wheel, though their impact is a little hampered by the Camaro's 3760-lb curb weight (that figure drops to 3740 lb if you opt for a manual transmission). Things feel a little soft off the line, but the six is at least flexible enough to pull cleanly and strongly from just above idle in almost any gear, and it's remarkably linear across the rev range. Most important, unlike previous Camaro sixes, it's also fun to smack around; running the engine to redline (7000 rpm) is satisfying, involving work, and it belies the powerplant's relatively pedestrian roots. You have to cane the base Camaro in order to generate real speed, but you don't necessarily mind, because it ends up being fun. Testing wasn't permitted during our drive, but our best stopwatch guess has 60 mph coming up in around six seconds, depending on how aggressively you launch the car.
The V-6's noise signature was still being fine-tuned (largely through the use of different mufflers, though intake noise also filtered into the mix) at the time of our drive, but it's safe to say that this engine sounds better and more aggressive here than in any other GM application. A slight bit of rasp makes its way into the cockpit, but most of what you hear is a throaty mix of induction honk and moderately loud growl, and as the tach needle climbs across the tach, it takes on a harder-tinged, sharper, more metallic note. It sounds largely like someone stuck a megaphone up the tailpipe of a G8 - louder, hollower, and a little meaner, but not by much. Surprisingly, road noise is almost nonexistent, as is wind noise, so most of what you hear ends up being engine and driveline.
Transmissions: Welcome to the machine
The two transmissions we drove are, conveniently, the only two transmissions that will be offered when the V-6 Camaro goes on sale next year. There's no CVT or twin-clutch gearbox, thankfully, just a six-speed Aisin AY6 manual and a version of GM's corporate six-speed automatic, the Hydramatic 6L50. (A Tremec 6060 six-speed, like those found in the Corvette and the Pontiac G8 GXP, will be the sole manual offered for V-8 Camaros, while the automatic's specification changes slightly, to a Hydramatic 6L80.)
For an Aisin - not typically the most involving and intuitive of gearboxes - the six-speed manual we drove felt surprisingly chunky, boltlike, and mechanical. The big, golf-ball-shaped shift knob and short, direct shift action feel like a nod to pony cars of yore. It's a nice touch, one that makes you feel like something more substantial than a V-6 is lurking under the hood. The long-travel clutch is direct and easy to operate smoothly, and after a few miles, you feel largely at home, ripping off glasslike, whomping downshifts without a second thought.
The six-speed automatic largely feels like it does across the rest of the GM lineup, though it benefits here from tweaked shift patterns. Shifts are smooth and largely unnoticeable, though the transmission tends to err on the side of fuel economy and low rpm when it comes to gear choices. It's not always completely in sync with what you want (even though it does, admirably, downshift during braking for corners), but it does the job well enough.
Equipment: Speak softly and don't carry a big stick (axle)
The Camaro is both smaller and lighter than the G8, and while it was developed by the same team as the G8 (GM's Global Rear-Wheel Drive Vehicle group, based in Australia), it benefits from a more sporting, less compromised focus where chassis tuning is concerned. Front struts are paired with a multilink independent rear suspension, and though most suspension components are shared between V-6 and V-8 Camaros, a few differences do exist. Marginally stiffer bushing rates are found on eight-cylinder cars, as well as unique rear toe links and slightly shorter front springs. (The front ride height of V-8 Camaros is ten millimeters lower than that of the V-6-powered examples.)
Braking is accomplished by discs all around; the V-6 sports 12.6-inch cast-iron rotors in front, with 12.4-inch aluminum units in the rear. Single-piston calipers live at all four corners, and both ABS and electronic stability control are standard. (V-8s get four-piston Brembo brakes equipped with 14.4-inch aluminum rotors.)
On the rolling stock front, 18-inch steel wheels are standard on the V-6-powered LS, with 18-inch aluminum wheels available on the V-6-powered LT. (19-inch alloys are also available on the LT, and V-8-powered SS models receive 20-inch alloys as standard.)
On the road, the V-6 Camaro is surprisingly nimble and light on its feet, especially given its rather hefty curb weight. And though you'll never mistake it for a stripped-down sports car, the '10 Camaro's handling limits are more approachable and, ultimately, more entertaining than those of a Mustang or a Challenger. The back end takes a set almost immediately upon turn-in, and you can feel the rear suspension working over every bump and lump and crest in the road. Road impacts are sopped up like they barely exist, and even the harshest of potholes or mid-corner crags require only minor steering correction. Through it all, you're able to keep your foot planted, flying over harsh pavement in a way that never would have been possible in a 1967-2002 F-body.
Steering feel is still under development - at the time of our drive, the 18-inch wheel and tire package offered much better feedback and feel than the 19-inch setup - but we can say this: At its best, the Camaro's rack-and-pinion setup offers little to no kickback, decent (if not spectacular) feel, and a respectable amount of self-centering effort. It reminds you of a more lively, less assisted version of the Pontiac G8's rack.
All in all, it's more than a little impressive.
Interior: Retro, modestly
As we mentioned above, the Camaros we drove were engineering prototypes, cosmetically rough but mechanically finished. As such, the interiors lacked final production graining and finish, and most of the trim had been assembled and disassembled several times for diagnostic purposes. Still, there was a lot to notice - the '10's Camaro's ergonomics and general layout will be identical to those of the cars we drove, as will the seating and glass layout.
The basics: Yes, there's a huge blind spot in the C-pillar. And, yes, the view out the front is like looking through a mail slot. But fixing either problem would require making the Camaro look . . . well, less like it does now. And the Camaro looks good now, so we don't really care. GM's designers apparently tried a number of different styling solutions for the C-pillar, all of which were aimed at fixing the blind spot problem - ultimately, however, they weren't able to arrive at a solution that both looked good and worked well.
From the driver's seat, things are mildly tunnellike; the thick C-pillars, high doors, and slitlike windscreen combine with the relatively small rear glass to make things mildly claustrophobic. On top of this, the Camaro's wide, long hood makes it feel larger than it really is. Thankfully, both of these factors are somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that you sit higher here than you do in a Challenger or a Mustang, which makes the car feel smaller (and more manageable) around you. And, happily, going down the road, the Camaro feels smaller than either the Ford or the Dodge.
Other details? The wheel is big and fat-rimmed, the dash is thick, and the doors are long and solid without feeling heavy. The transmission tunnel is narrow and long, and your feet disappear into black wells beneath the wide, tall dash. The gauge and console layout is clean, tasteful, and modern, and while the seats could use a little more lateral support, they're still relatively comfortable - especially when you consider that only one seat will be offered across the entire Camaro lineup.
The optional four-instrument gauge cluster on the front of the console has been modified in the past few months, eliminating the torque readout shown in almost all official photography to date. The current gauges offer up oil pressure, oil temperature, electrical system voltage, and transmission temperature. (GM admits that the last one is kind of pointless in a car that will rarely, if ever, see a trailer hitch, but the cluster required four gauges for symmetry.)
Conclusion: Welcome to the future of pony cars
Things You'll Love:
The V-6 is no longer the engine of trailer-park mulletheads and those hosers who only buy pony cars for the looks. It's a real engine, one that produces real-world levels of power, and it's actually fun to spank.
The interior: It's retro without being overblown, fun without being goofy, and serious without taking itself too seriously. It's usable, intuitive, and practical. It's also just cool to look at.
The looks: Out among traffic, the Camaro stands out. It looks smaller on the highway than it does on the show stand, and while it's no microcar, it exhibits none of the largesse or long, fat flanks of its competition. It's modern and retro all at once, and because it's both a clean and unfettered design, it should age well. More important - and this thought is echoed by almost everyone, whether they're fans of the General or not - the Camaro simply looks awesome.
The rear suspension: Quite frankly, it's amazing. After decades of bump-wary, live-axle pony cars, we've finally arrived at the point where the base model of a production horse drives like a real, bang-up-to-date modern car. Bravo, GM, for having the balls to spend the money and take the chance.
The Camaro as high-revving back-road burner: It's not exactly a familiar concept, is it? Thankfully, that doesn't stop it from being true. The Camaro's engine, transmission, steering, and suspension work together in such a way that the entire car feels engineered, not simply bolted together from spare parts. There's actual, tangible feedback from the controls, the engine is more than up to its task, and the chassis exudes a level of polish rarely seen on cars from Detroit. And topping it all off, the Camaro essentially blows away its competition - the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger seem positively primitive in comparison, a couple of rough-edged, cost-cut, sedan-derived chunks of ordinary.
After forty years of compromises and letdowns, it's nice to see a pony car that behaves the way that we've always thought one should.
Things You'll Hate:
Knowing that you could've had a V-8 if only you weren't so damn poor.
The lack of back seat room: two seats, a cramped roofline, and very little exterior visibility. Kind of an accepted negative when you buy a small or mid-size coupe, but it's a negative nonetheless.
The enormous rear-three-quarter blind spot. At least until you realize that fixing it would make the car very, very ugly.
There's definitely more to the story, but we won't know the rest until we drive the production Camaro - both V-6 and V-8 versions - next year. Until then, rest assured in the knowledge that, even in prototype V-6 form, the new Camaro is something GM should be proud of.