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First Drive: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 Prototype

From Inside Line:

First Drive: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 Prototype

It feels good to be on the other side. Recently, we got a chance to pilot a 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 Prototype out on the public highways and byways of southeastern Michigan.

Typically, we're on the other side of this game, pestering development engineers and posting spy shots of some car just like these engineering prototypes of the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6. Heck, as far as we know, we might have run pictures of one or both of these very automobiles.

Yes, these two bits of spy bait still had matte-black camouflage panels (one with triangles made of what looked like white shoe polish), ill-fitting bumper covers, no Chevy bowtie and a bunch of small makeshift headlight elements, all of which taken collectively look a little bit like a rash.

But what do we care? We're driving the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro!

Progress Report
So these prototype cars were rough. Real rough.

How rough? Well, the car with the Aisin-built six-speed manual transmission carried a steering wheel with shift paddles on it. Wait...what? "Oh that," said our passenger, Camaro Chief Engineer Doug Houlihan. "That's a wheel for an automatic car they just threw in here."

And we must say for the record that we will be a bit circumspect about making any major pronouncements about what the production vehicle will be like based on this early drive.

The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 will not be the lowly poseur's car we've come to expect of the small-engine pony car.

Oh wait, circumspect, right? OK. Well, let's say that if all the parts and pieces come together as planned and the engineers' estimates prove accurate then the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 will not be the lowly...and so forth and so on.

Not the Executive Assistant's Car
The long-standing tradition in pony car circles is to utterly dismiss the six-cylinder version as the ride of choice for sorority girls or guys who are into the vocal stylings of Huey Lewis. When Chevrolet released specifics on the new Camaro, though, the performance details for the V6 model were certainly more surprising than those of the V8.

The 3.6-liter direct-injection V6 is the same 304-horsepower engine as the upgrade engine choice in the Cadillac CTS. Officially, General Motors is saying that the Camaro V6 will make 300 hp even. Except any time you talk to the engineers, they just give you the look and say, "Well...," and then they stop short. So expect a few hp above the magic 300 mark.

Either way, it wasn't that long ago that 300 hp was a number for V8 output. It still is for the Mustang GT's V8 at least until an upgraded version arrives in the 2010 model. This is 90 hp more than Ford's current Mustang V6 option and, perhaps more distressingly, about 50 hp more than the V6 in the newly introduced Dodge Challenger SE.

Further, the V6 Camaro won't be short on gears (six), or wheel size (18 inches standard) or appeal (use your eyes).

Paint by Numbers
The acceleration numbers we pulled on the 2009 Challenger SE with its mandatory four-speed automatic transmission were as unimpressive as you would expect from a 3,819-pound car with a 250-hp engine. Zero to 60 takes 8.1 seconds. The SE eats up 16.1 seconds traveling through the quarter-mile.

Chevrolet is estimating that the V6 Camaro can get to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds and complete the quarter in 14.4 seconds. That's with either the standard six-speed manual or the optional six-speed automatic. Houlihan thinks that with final tweaking, his team will be able to get that figure down to 5.9 seconds to 60 mph. That's not going to be enough to beat a 350Z, but it would surely take down a Mazda RX-8.

Even accounting for the not exactly impartial source of this information, it's pretty clear the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 will be quick enough to at least get a car enthusiast's attention.

Did You Feel That?
It wasn't as if Houlihan was going to let us strap our VBOX III testing gear to either of the prototypes, head off to the drag strip and pull some numbers on the thing. And our ass-calibration is not accurate enough to register differences measured in tenths of a second. But it felt good. It felt quick enough. The sound? Well, that was a bit of a different story.

We first noticed the sound when we were following the manual-transmission car out of GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. On hard acceleration, the exhaust note sounded synthetic, like an old Pontiac V6 or even some Nissan V6s of the recent past. But the Camaro's voice was pitched even higher and tinnier. "Is that the, uh, final exhaust tuning on the V6?" we ventured without trying to sound too damning.

Gene Stefanyshyn, the Camaro vehicle line executive who was riding on this leg with us, said, "We've just been talking about that. No, we'll be making some changes to that. It's too much, right?"

At about 3,740 pounds, the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 is not a lightweight, but the 300 (or so) horses move its heft with relative ease. This is aided greatly by two reasonably good six-speed transmissions.

The automatic snaps off shifts quickly and smoothly. All autos come with a sequential-shift capability. The driver first puts the console-mounted shifter into the M gate and then shifts with buttons affixed to the top spokes of the steering wheel. The shifter does not toggle between gears; one must use the buttons on the steering wheel. This, according to Houlihan, is something of a cost-containment measure. Being able to shift from both the steering wheel and the shifter would add cost. (With the Camaro V6's projected starting price "in the low $20s," we're not able to swallow this rationalization.) Unfortunately, you cannot get a quick downshift if the shifter is still in Drive.

The manual transmission is the same Aisin six-speed gearbox used in the Cadillac CTS. It doesn't have quite the level of mechanical engagement that we might like, but the gates are easy to find and the action of the mechanism is light.

The Cruise Control
As we trundled along the expressway on our first leg of the day's drive, we were not looking forward to driving the twisty little route that awaited us at the end of this freeway. The Camaro felt kind of big, its steering kind of light and, well, the ride quality of the standard 18-inch wheel-and-tire package implied that boogying might not be part of this car's repertoire.

With high window sills, a tall hood and limited rear three-quarter visibility, the 2010 Camaro is destined to feel a little big and chunky from the driver seat. But once we got to the three roads in the area that actually turn, the Camaro acquitted itself nicely, feeling much more nimble and much less floppy than we expected given its compliant ride. It'll carve a corner without requiring much in the way of steering correction. Heaves and holes do not typically upset the chassis, even when encountered midcorner. This would be one of the benefits of a radical invention (are you listening, Ford?) called an independent rear suspension.

The only complaint we're willing to lodge after such a brief drive is that there's a whole bunch of noise coming from the rear suspension as it traipses over broken pavement. Houlihan says his team is considering a revised sound-deadening package for the rear, but, judging by the fact that he then launched into an explanation about keeping costs down, we're not sure it's likely to change.

We, too, would want to spend money on performance before comfort and sophistication. But if this car is to be a thoroughly modern sport coupe that just happens to have retro cues, then it would seem money well spent. Quelling excessive noise, it seems to us, is one way to increase the perceived quality of the vehicle. We'll see on that one.

Not Yet Entirely Baked
Driving the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro V6 Prototype reminded us exactly how much of the feel of a car is defined by last-minute fine-tuning. Characteristics that seem inherent to the configuration of the powertrain layout or variety of suspension type or size of tire are often enough the result instead of countless minute choices made by unnamed people with sore asses and headaches. Sort of like the GM team in Australia that has done much of the chassis tuning on the Camaro.

Take for example the fact that the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro Prototype with the manual transmission carried optional 19-inch wheels, compared to the automatic car's 18s. Yet the steering in the manual car felt light, indirect and largely unsatisfying. So we asked if the steering system differs significantly from the one in the automatic car perhaps it's somehow some earlier version that had already been dismissed but not yet updated on that particular prototype.

"No," the answer came. "Those aren't the final 19-inch tires on that car. We're still working with Pirelli on those."

Ah, OK.

Well, the stuff that the team claimed was essentially in final form all felt great. That bodes well. Stay tuned.

Without the bowtie in the grille, who would ever guess that this prototype is a Camaro?

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