When it comes right down to it, there aren’t many "classic" American cars on the roads today. No, we’re not referring to a 1930 V-16 Cadillac here, but a nameplate that has been in continuous use for at least 30 years and has retained substantially the same shape, style and mission in life as it had in the beginning.
It seems only a handful has had that kind of appeal and staying power. In fact, you could probably count them all using just your fingers: Sedan de Ville, Eldorado, Cherokee, LeSabre, Bonneville and Corvette, plus the three pony cars - Firebird, Mustang and Camaro.
The list would have been longer as recently as January, but we’ve now lost the Mark VIII, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile 88. The previous year, Roadmaster (an old name, but not used continuously), Caprice/Impala and Fleetwood were pushed aside to make way for more Suburbans. Thunderbird and Cougar also bit the dust, but not for long. The Cougar was reintroduced this year, while the T-Bird is slated to return next year.
However, as a result of the drastic shakeups at GM, two more are reportedly on the "endangered species" list, namely the Firebird and the Camaro. We figured that was reason enough to revisit the Camaro before it, too, becomes extinct.
Alas, the only model available for December testing was the Z28 Convertible (typical of GM decision-making). But miracle of miracles, summer returned, allowing plenty of open-air motoring. Whatever. The car looks equally good top up or top down.
Chevrolet introduced the current body style in ’93, the convertible in ’94, and a revived Camaro "SS" version in ’96. A redesigned dashboard and daytime running lights found their way aboard in ’97, then a more assertive nosepiece in ’98. And in the seventh year, God…er…GM rested. So there's nothing truly different for ‘99.
Despite its age, the Camaro still retains its original "Camaro feel." It was particularly noticeable having come out of a Japanese midsize sedan the week previous. Though more refined and comfortable than ever before, Chevy’s "charm school" treatment still hadn’t removed the car’s swagger - the swagger of a schoolyard bully daring all comers.
So there’s no doubt about the car having muscle. After all, what’s a self-respecting muscle car without muscle? It now comes powered with a 5.7-liter overhead-valve V-8, delivering 305 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque. So, as always, the car has no trouble at all beating other traffic away from the line. This baby really sucks gas. But with fuel back under a buck, who cares? Officially, the EPA sticker boasts city mileage of 16 and highway of 27. They "officially" lied. We saw no better than 13.5. Only by driving 55 (impossible!) on tankfuls of 98 octane are such numbers possible.
Another unmistakable sign this is truly a Camaro is the labor required for entry and exit. Still slung fairly low to the ground, the seating position is quite low. So even tall drivers will feel as if they are sitting in a well. Next, you notice the wheel well still intrudes on the front passenger, taking away inches generally reserved for toes. Then you swivel your head to check out the back seat. "Yup, this is a Camaro all right." We could barely fit back there as teen-agers. Now it’s impossible as middle-agers.
But kudos are in order for the dashboard designer. Why, the array of backlit climate controls even incorporates the rear window defogger. Now for GM, that’s major. We can’t even count how many cars delight in hiding this vital little button. Now that cold weather is back, we dread this weekly quest for the needle in the haystack.
Poking around Camaro’s cabin is much easier now, but poking the throttle will make you say "Wow." The thrust is still there, and will tickle your spleen, thanks to Goodyear treads in size 245/50ZR16. While some may indeed consider it rough, the ride is pure poetry, reserved for the tough. (Please pardon our descent into rhyme. We trust you won’t consider it a crime; must come from reading "The Night Before Christmas" too many times.)
Despite rumors of its possible demise, we find it hard to believe Chevrolet would actually pull the plug. Sales seem fairly healthy, at least to us. For ’97, sales hit 58,158, according to Chevy’s stats, and will easily rise above 50 grand once again this year. And with GM nearly beating the "brand management" drum to death, we can’t conceive of it not keeping the Camaro. With the exception of the Corvette, no other nameplate is more deeply associated with the Chevy brand than Camaro.
And hasn’t Chevrolet successfully revived the Malibu and Monte Carlo, with similar plans for the Impala? No, we’re sure GM would never kill the Camaro, would they?
From the tone of our overview, some may say we’re complaining. But frankly, we’re not really throwing rocks. But needling the Camaro is like joking with an old friend. After 30 years together, we see them as traits, and not really flaws.