A Couple Of Hunks On The Road

When car shopping starts to sound as dull as a fat-free diet, it may be time to consider some muscle-bound excitement. General Motors is weighing in with new versions of a familiar pair of muscle cars: the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and the Pontiac Firebird Formula. GM hopes these racy entries will win over buyers before Ford introduces its overhauled Mustang this winter.

Camaro and Firebird look and act like they're built for speed. They're big, with huge front seats and deep trunk wells. They're noisy: The Corvette's modified 5.7-liter V8 engine and exhaust growl loudly. And they look mean, thanks to a 68-degree angled windshield and a wide body resting on 16-inch aluminum-rimmed performance tires.

With all their power comes the traditional, albeit softened, spine-jarring ride and the slippery handling in bad weather common to rear-wheel-drive cars. Both cars are in desperate need of traction control, and neither will get it until 1994. And with no convertibles until next year, buyers might justifiably decide to wait.

LESS FANCY. Sophisticates accustomed to the rival Dodge Stealth and Nissan 300ZX may be disappointed by GM's lack of interior charm. The various control knobs don't compare to the fancy, digital gadgets on the imports. Amenities such as a push-button gas tank opener are absent.

Both cars do sport a better front suspension and a dent-resistant body. The cars corner remarkably well; zipping and zagging on the freeway is fun in these beasts. GM has improved chassis stiffness 20% to eliminate customary shakes and rattles. But it stuck with a rear-axle suspension that lacks the sureness of independent suspensions. The speedsters could take some cues from Ford's $15,175 front-wheel-drive Probe GT, which is way ahead in ride and handling.

The Z28 starts at $16,799 and the Formula at $17,995. Standard features include six-speed manual transmission, dual airbags, air-conditioning, four-wheel antilock brakes, and AM/FM cassette radio. The base models, $13,399 and $13,995, have V6 engines.

Buyers will find only aesthetic differences between the Camaro and the Firebird. For example, the Firebird has pop-up headlights, a pointier snout, a tapered middle, and a rear spoiler. These are American muscle cars through and through. When their engines rev up, they seem to say, "Hasta la vista baby."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.