GM's 2010 Chevrolet Camaro breaks through

In Detroit’s hey day, American cars were been fawned over in rock and roll tunes both for their brawny performance and cultural significance. Songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch” glorified big, ostentatious Caddies. “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen did far more as an homage to horsepower and a polish job for Ford’s luxury brand than it did for the band’s career. But the same can’t be said for the Chevy Camaro.

The most recognizable tune I can think of is the ‘80s punk ditty “Bitchin’ Camaro” by the Dead Milkmen. In the tune, the Milkmen lampoon the Camaro as a car for rich spoiled kids who guzzle gas and tear up their neighbor’s yard. It’s the hood ornament for crass American suburbia. Here’s a clip of the lyrics:

So you’d better get out of my way When I come through your yard Cause I’ve got a bitchin’ Camaro And an Exxon credit card

For much of its history, the Camaro was a gaudy guzzler for the buzz cut and gold chains crowd. The cars were usually fast, but also inexpensive and unsophisticated. So, frankly, when GM announced two years ago that Chevy would bring the car back, I was very skeptical. It arrives later than Ford’s Mustang and Chrysler’s Challenger. And let’s face it, reborn muscle cars preach to the 50-something guys who already buy American brands, not the import owners that Detroit needs to win back to survive. It sends a signal to people shopping for Bimmers, Hyundais, Priuses and the like that Detroit is stuck in 1970.

But after driving the new Camaro, I have to erase all of that. The car is simply terrific. And it’s far more sophisticated in many ways that competing cars and certainly than the old Camaros. Start with the engine. My test model had a direct-injection V6 which kicks 304 horsepower but gets 29 mpg on the highway. All that grunt still guzzles 19 mpg in the city, but a combined 22 or 23 mpg for a car with that much oomph is impressive. You can get a V8 in the SS version, but it starts at $31,000. The V6 models start at $23,000

Then take a look at the car. Love the design or hate it, you have to say that it’s not just reproduced retro. Chrysler simply knocked off a 1970 Challenger. The Camaro looks like a new-era interpretation of the old pony car. If GM never killed it, the Camaro may have just evolved into this design today. It’s fresh. The Camaro really handles quite well, too. At 3,700 pounds it doesn’t feel as heavy as other big sporty cars.

The cabin is decidedly retro and not the car’s best feature. GM took many cues from the early ‘70s cars. And while the plastics inside don’t feel top grade, they’re good enough for a car that starts at $23,000 and offers as much as it does in terms of performance and style. My test car, by the way, was about $30,000 loaded up with satellite radio, blue tooth, stability control and a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system.

Still, the new Camaro is a very impressive car. I was surprised by how much I liked it. I’ve never been a Camaro guy. But I was also suspect of how GM would execute it. When Pontiac brought back the GTO in 2004, GM was content to take a ‘90s jelly bean body style from its Australian unit, shove a big engine under the hood and call it reborn muscle. It didn’t last. This is a purpose-built muscle car for a new age, and quite a good way to usher in the New GM assuming the company emerges from bankruptcy in a couple of months as planned.