Even living in the Corvette's shadow can't protect the Camero from an uncertain future.
There seems to be a rule in the automotive world that goes something like this: When a model matures into something decent, its days become numbered. It has happened repeatedly at GM (Corvair, Fiero), and elsewhere (Toyota MR2, Porsche 928GTS). It's enough to make you fear the maturation cycle of your favorite product. This year, it looks like the curse has befallen the Camaro, which may be scrapped after 2001 due to slow sales since 1995. Through the pre-strike days of May '98, Camaro sales were off 18.2 percent from the previous year. According to Chevy spokesman Tom Hoxie, the axe hasn't fallen yet, but there's no guarantee that it won't: "No decision has been made to retain the Camaro after 2001, but no decision has been made to discontinue it either."
The problem here isn't the product (see Counterpoint), which is better now than it's ever been, but the prohibitive expense of insuring it. The 20-somethings who lust for Camaros find it virtually impossible to afford the insurance on these cars. As Hoxie says, "It's kind of a hard sell when your insurance payment is more than your car payment. There's also been a cultural shift from Camaros to sports utilities and pickups, and I'm not sure what we can do about it." GM, of course, already offers its own insurance under the MIC brand, but rates are roughly the same for the house brand as they are anywhere else. People who chose 305 hp Z-28s are not exactly your best risk prospects, and, as Hoxie puts it, "Our actuarial tables are the same as anybody else's."
Of course, as luck would have it, the '98 Z-28 is the best example of the breed since Chevy began making them 31 years ago. Back in 1967, Chevy built only 662 examples of the Z-28 in order to homologate the model for Trans-Am racing. Now Z-28s account for 30 percent of all Camaros built, or roughly 18,000 units last year. Of those, 14 percent were convertibles (about 2500). Since its introduction three decades ago, the Z-28 has become the benchmark car in America for affordable high performance. Look at the acceleration numbers for the '98 version (0-60 in 5.2 seconds, the 1/4 mile in 13.7 sec. @ 102.5 mph), and you'll find that this year's Z-28 goes more like last year's Camaro SS, and this year's SS goes more like last year's Corvette. As for the Corvette, it goes even more like schnell.
Examine Chevy's horsepower ratings for the '98 Z-28 and you'll see its aluminum-block LS1 pegs the dyno at 305 hp at 5200 rpm. That's up 20 horses from last year's iron-block LT1 prime mover, and also up 10 lb/ft of torque to 335 lb/ft at 4000 rpm. The Z-28's output equals the figure for last year's Hamburger-helped SLP Camaro SS. In fact, from traction control to the revised ABS module, there's so much VetteTech in the new Z-28 that you might as well call it a Cormaro.
Such a brand amalgamation is nothing new to GM, of course. Back in 1995, the company snuck a fleet of C5 Corvettes into Death Valley, California for secret testing by disguising them with Camaro bodies. These mules, sporting higher hoodlines, widened rear bodywork, and no back seats, were actually coined "Cormaros" by Chevy engineers. Now, three years down the road, you can go out and buy a Camaro that includes much of that same technology for little more than half the price of a C5 Corvette. You won't get the independent rear suspension, or the full-house 345 hp LS1 motor, but otherwise the driving experience of the latest Z-28 is virtual Vette all the way.
I tested the most sporting version of the Z-28 - a coupe with a six-speed gearbox - the package which sounds a clarion call to the enthusiast. That call issues clearly through the twin pipes of the new sport muffler, which is 22 percent larger for 1998 and burbles with more authority than ever before. Or was that resonance I heard amplified by the fact that the windows were down every time I crushed the throttle?
At any rate, there's little you can do with your right foot that is more gratifying than tromping the loud pedal in a Z-28. Speed and octaves soar in a reverie of revs that mimics the voice of the Vette. The sensation of driving the Z-28 is akin to piloting a speedboat. Because the car sits so low on its 16-inch rims, and because its beltline is so high, you sort of drop yourself into place behind the flying bridge, check the view over the transom, then pull into the traffic stream leaving a mighty wake in your wash. You can piddle around for hours hardly touching the shift lever, and the Z-28 will reward your complacency with a lazy troll up the bayou. But once you decide to get serious at the helm and crack the throttle, the hull will get up and plane like the best Cigarette.
The downside of that nautical simile is that the Z-28's lifts its prow a bit like a planing speedboat, indicating that rear suspension geometry could do with a bit more anti-squat precaution. But dive control is so well-snubbed that heavy braking never lights the "tilt" sign. In fact, the revamped brakes for '98 equal those of the Corvette in diameter (11.9 inches, front and rear). Is it any wonder that the Z-28, despite its additional pounds, still stops within four feet of the Corvette (116 ft. versus 120 ft.) from 60 mph? The brakes on the base model Z-28 are so good, in fact, that Chevy saw no need to boost them for use in the 320 hp Camaro SS or even the raceshop 1LE.
So close is the performance of the Z-28 to that of the Corvette that during the design phase of the C-5 Vette, Chevy brass had already begun to question whether the Z-28 would steal some of the C5's thunder. In fact, at one staff meeting, GM Executive Vice President Bill Hoglund pointedly asked his cohorts, "What about any overlap between the Camaro Z-28 and the Corvette? Is Camaro going to take sales away from Corvette?" Chevy marketing specialist Fred Gallasch deftly rebuffed Hoglund's inquiry by saying, "No, not one sale."
Unfortunately, the point seems moot these days, as the Camaro doesn't seem to be taking sales away from anyone. Last year, Chevy sold only 60,000 versus 120,000 back in '94, when the fourth generation of the model debuted. Insurance issues aside, the question of flagging sales seems inexplicable in view of the value the Z-28 offers to the enthusiast on a budget. What torque-loving fanatic today wouldn't give the $24,585 Z-28 a good long look before opting for the $40,000 Corvette? By any objective criterion, such as acceleration, roadholding, or braking, the two cars offer virtually the same level of performance. Whether you're willing to pay twice as much for half as many seats is entirely up to you. I can only report that after first driving the Vette, then following it up with the Z-28, I found myself opting for the more practical and far less expensive Camaro.
Despite the maturation of the model, there are still a few unresolved problems with the Z-28. The F-body, which forms the basis of the Camaro and Firebird, is decidedly ponderous. The coupe weighs in at 3331 lb. and the convertible at 3574 lb. No matter how generous the tire patch, this car has a tough time changing directions instantaneously. And the latest wardrobe from central casting at GM seems to accentuate the car's bulk. The fourth generation Camaro slips into middle age wearing looser loungewear than ever.
To eyes conditioned to accepting the previous frontal iteration of this car as definitive, the revamp looks awkward. Though the new composite headlights are a visual and functional improvement over the old ones, the rest of the changes are less felicitous. The prognathous air intake looks clumsy. The twin power bulges radiating backwards from the headlamps unnecessarily complicate what had been one of the greatest looking beltlines of all time. Even the quarter panel-to-mirror transition, so adeptly handled in the previous iteration of the Z-28, now looks stunted. And for all that, the exterior mirror glass remains too small.
Admittedly, stylistic reactions are a personal matter and, on several occasions, observers remarked upon the stunning beauty of the '98 Z-28. I noted with some interest, however, that such kudos invariably came from observers stationed alongside or behind the car. From that perspective, the view is pretty much as it was when this revised, Canadian-built Camaro first hit dealer shelves in 1993.
While showing off around town may be the Camaro's forte, getting off the main drag and into the twisties allows it to strut its stuff. Once you tick off the $225 optional "QFZ" wheels and tires on the order form, the car sticks to apexes like cyanoacrylate. "QFZ" upgrades each contact patch from standard issue 235/55-16 "all-season" Goodyears to 245/50-16 "performance" Goodyears. In either case, the five-spoke satin-finish alloys remain 8x16 inches at each corner. You may also elect to pay $500 extra for fully polished L.A.- style alloys.
Though the abundance of tire and rubber endows the car with impressive adhesion, the spring rates could do with some added stiffness. The front and rear coils remain soft enough to insure ride comfort at the expense of some cornering exactitude. The DeCarbon nitrogen-gas shocks contribute to the problem. Calibrated too softly on rebound, they allow disconcerting oscillations to render the Z-28 squeamish in fast sweepers. The sway bars, however, seem spot-on, never allowing the car to heel over onto the short sidewalls of the Goodyears. The beefy 28mm front and 19mm rear bars cue well with the car's canyon-bashing mission statement.
If your resin needs more catalyst, however, then three upgrades are available. The easiest and cheapest is to select the 9x17-inch wheel package which augments contact patches with 30mm more rubber at each corner (275/40ZR17 Goodyear F1 Corvette tires). Or, you can opt for the more powerful Camaro SS. You'll get a better breathing engine, thanks to its cold-air hood scoop and a larger single stainless steel exhaust tip. You'll also get the aforementioned 17-inch wheels and tires, plus stiffer springs, shocks, and rear sway bar. The third option is to jump all the way to the race version 1LE. That buys you a 32mm front sway bar riding in stiffer bushings, higher rate upper and lower front control arm bushings, stiffer tranny mounts, stiffer Panhard rod bushings, stiffer variable rate rear springs, and double-adjustable Koni shocks at each corner. It also comes with a kidney belt and a supply of anti-tremor medication.
On any of the Z-28s, including the 1LE, the four-speed automatic is the standard gearbox, while the six-speed manual is available as a no-cost option.
There can be no question that the Z-28, now into the second iteration of its fourth generation, is still capable of captivating the enthusiast driver with an endearing combination of power, handling and visual drama. There isn't much out there that will touch this one's value-to-bucks ratio, or its power-to-weight ratio either. All that remains at this point is to re-establish the niche market for hyperformance that Baby Boomers seem to have deserted in legion. Unfortunately that may just be a task beyond any car manufacturer, even one as omnipotent as GM.
Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998 The Auto Channel.
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