An original Pony Car meets the future
by: General Motors Corp. The 2011 Camaro SS convertible looks great, top up or down.

When Chevy decided to produce a retro Camaro, it had to decide which previous version to copy. The first generation (1967-1969) was a relatively small Pony Car designed to compete against the popular Ford Mustang. The second generation (1979-1981) was larger but sleeker. The third generation (1982-1992) was smaller and boxier than the previous two. The fourth and previous generation (1993-2002) got sleeker again.

Perhaps surprising, the retro Camaro introduced in 2010 is a mash-up of themes from all these cars. The grill, rear window and quarter panels reflect the first generation. The long hood echoes the second generation. The low, wide air dam and big five-spoke wheels seem inspired by the third generation. And the front hood scoop on the SS model honors the fourth generation Camaro SS.

At the same time, the retro Camaro includes original design elements. The wheels are pushed much closer to the front and rear of the car than on any of the previous versions. And the climate control knobs on the dash are more cartoony than anything GM has produced before.

As a result, the retro Camaro stands in stark contrast to the retro Ford Mustang and retro Dodge Challenger, both of which hew closer to their predecessors. The fifth generation Mustang that was released in 2007 strongly resembles the muscular-looking 1969-1970 model that dominated the Tran Am race series. And the Challenger that was released in 2008 is the spitting image of the sole original version produced from 1970 to 1974.

It's as though Chevy wants buyers to know the Camaro may look retro, but it is also a thoroughly modern car with all the improvements that have taken place in the 43 years since the first one was introduced. They include refined suspensions, upgraded interiors, and sophistical traction and braking control devices that improve handling and stopping.

As shown by our test 2011 Camaro SS, the result is a car that drives more like a powerful Grand Touring car than the light and nimble Pony Cars of the past. Equipped with the optional 6.2-liter V8 that pumps out 426 horsepower, it was fast but did not feel particularly quick, despite being fitted with a six-speed manual transmission. It handled sweeping curves well, even though it did not encourage fast cornering.

Some reviewers have seemed puzzled by how the new Camaro compares to the retro Challenger and Mustang. It has trailed in a number of head-to-head tests, but they actually miss the point. Topping out at over $40,000 with the most powerful engines, these cars aren't really meant for late night street fights, like their predecessors. They are more for young professionals and aging baby boomers who appreciate the styling and expect some power, but plan on making it home safely every night.

In that regard, the Camaro hits the mark. It has more front seat room than the Mustang and a softer ride than the Challenger, making it more comfortable to drive every day and over long distances than its competitors. But especially in SS trim, the Camaro is ridiculously aggressive looking. Ours was burnt orange with black hood and trunk stripes, a design first offered on the earlier high performance versions, including the legendary Z28 models that are now considered the most collectable.

Our test model was also a convertible, which unfortunately arrived during the extended Spring rains. Between extended downpours, work schedules and family obligations, we were never able to drive it topless. We put the top down under cover, though, and it looked great - like the second-generation convertible that never got built. We can testify that the top doesn't leak in the rain when it's up, though.

The interior is also a mix of old and new. The heated leather appointed bucket seats are excellent - wide enough to be comfortable but bolstered enough to be supportive on sharp corners. The dash is almost as simple as the earlier models, although the bulbous climate control knobs look out of the place. Likewise, the transmission shift knob is awkwardly large and poorly shaped, although the actual gear shifts were smooth enough, aided by smooth clutch pedal. The gauge package at the front of the center console was both useful and authentically retro, however.

Like all previous Camaros, the rear seats are meant only for children and small packages. The truck is even smaller, which is why it must be emptied before lowering the top. Pony Cars were never meant to be primary family vehicles, of course. The original Mustang was the first American car aimed at singles and young couples, and the Camaro and Challenger were created to chase the new market.

At the end of the week, our Camaro SS had averaged just over 18 miles per gallon, which isn't bad considering occasional displays of horsepower.

More than 40 years later, the 2011 Camaro is more a nod at the past than a true replica. That's not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that Chevy understands most consumers expect more for their money these days.

In fact, one has to ask how long the most powerful version of the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang will be built. Gas prices are increasing, the federal government is demanding higher corporate fuel mileage standards, and consumers are being to embrace economy cars again, including Chevy's own new Cruze compact. Decades after they were first built, the top-of-the-line Pony Cars are true collectables. This could make the Camaro SS a good investment, in addition to being a fun ride.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Camaro.

• Manufacturer: Chevrolet.

• Class: Midsize coupe.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four passenger, two door car.

• Engines: 3.6-liter V6 (312 hp); 6.2-liter V8 (400 hp); 6.2-liter V8 (426 hp - as tested).

• Transmission: 6-speed automatic; 6-speed manual (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/28.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,680 ($42,995 as tested).

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