Call it juvenile, call it out of step with the times, call it Stone Age -- I don't care. If you appreciate the sound of high performance, there are few things as stirring as the baritone bark of a Chevy small-block V8 waking up. That's been true since the first of these engines snarled onto the scene in 1955, and it's true of the latest generation, which propels the Corvette and, for 1998, the Chevy Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Trans Am. Redesigned from top to bottom for the new C5 Corvette, GM's 5.7-liter LS1 V8 shares the same cylinder bore spacing as its predecessor, but not much else. It's all aluminum, there's almost no parts interchangeability with the old iron-block LT1, and it's just crammed with power. Not quite as much as the 345-horsepower Corvette, of course. Can't have Camaros and Firebirds upstaging the big bopper, y'know. But 305 h.p. is certainly enough to make the Camaro Z28 a brisk performer. Very brisk. With a six-speed manual transmission, it can reach 60 m.p.h. in just over five seconds, 100 m.p.h. in 12.7, and it tops out just this side of 160. That's fast, Vern. And it has brakes and handling to match. You could argue that Chevy extracted the same output from the SS version of the '97 Camaro, and you'd be right. However, getting the old LT1 V8 to produce that kind of power required a number of engine tweaks and a price premium of about $5,000. With the new Z28, that face-distorting thrust is part of the deal, and what a deal it is. The Z28 coupe starts at just less than $21,000 -- $20,995, including a $525 destination charge. For that money you get a Camaro that'll absolutely dust its prime rival, Ford's 215-h.p. Mustang GT. To get equivalent performance from a Mustang, you have to step up to the $25,860 Cobra version. And Chevy upstages the Cobra with a new SS Camaro, which has 320 h.p. on tap. There's not a car on the planet offering this much performance for this kind of money. Other changes for '98 Although the LT1 engine is the key chapter in the Z28 story, there are some other changes for '98. The front end has been updated, featuring flush headlights for the first time in memory; the hood and fenders are new, and there have been a number of engineering tweaks to the suspension and brakes. I can't help thinking that the new grille, fabricated from black plastic, could have been done a little better, and the bubble-butt rear fenders still bug me. But never mind. The basic shape is still shark-sleek and the car more than delivers on the promise of its looks. It's too bad that Chevy's Camaro budget didn't stretch far enough to overhaul the interior. Even though the inner regions were updated last year, the redesign failed to address some fundamental weak points. For example, the basic seating position is low and the dashboard high. Although the hood slopes sharply downward, you have to sit pretty tall in the saddle to exploit its potential for good forward sightlines. This is hard to achieve, for me at least, because I like to drive with my arms semi-extended. The seats won't go far enough back for me to get into that position, which means I have to tilt the seatback rearward to compensate. Which in turn makes it hard to see over the dashboard. I've never been able to adjust everything to my satisfaction in a Camaro or Firebird -- or, for that matter, a Mustang -- and I suspect I'm not alone in this. The bucket seats, for their part, don't provide as much lateral support as a good many other road rockets -- Ford's Mustang GT buckets get the edge here. And like most 2+2 coupes, the Camaro has a backseat that is essentially a parcel shelf. Accommodating adult-size people back there is strictly a short-term proposition. Another ongoing problem is the right-side catalytic converter, which resides just under the passenger's foot space. GM engineered itse into a corner with the exhaust plumbing, and making room for the converter, plus its heat shielding, required a big lump in the passenger-side footwell. Turn it loose However, these irritations tend to fade when you turn this honey loose. The exhaust system starts its delightfully menacing music, and the fast-forward switch is as close as your right foot. A word on engine traits: The old LT1 engine reached peak torque -- that good old grunt that gets you off and running -- 1,600 revolutions per minute earlier than the LS1, creating an initial impression that the LT1 might be better in stoplight sprints. Don't be deceived. The LS1 likes to rev a little more, but it's quicker right across the board and has better mid-range response. It's also much less inclined to run out of wind at the top end of its r.p.m. range, which, at 6,000 r.p.m., is 300 r.p.m. higher than the LT1. Though the chassis is far from new and independent rear suspension is an investment the corporation is unwilling to make, General Motors has always been able to extract respectable handling from Camaros and Firebirds, and that's certainly true of the new Z28. Revisions to the power rack-and-pinion steering make it exceptionally accurate, body roll in hard cornering is minimal and braking performance, augmented by bigger brake rotors and an updated antilock system, is better than ever. Just as significant, GM has honed the car's handling (the upgrades apply equally to the Z28 and the Trans Am) while simultaneously smoothing the hard edges of its ride. There are limits to this, of course. The kind of suspension tuning it takes to produce directional changes worthy of Barry Sanders is necessarily firm, and you'll be conscious of small bumps that would be intangible in, say, a Chevy Malibu. In the same vein, the rear suspension still can't quite keep up with chatter bumps, which can get the tail of the car moving around more than one might wish. But there's more compliance than in previous editions, and those small bumps no longer rattle the driver's teeth. Better traction Powerful rear-wheel-drive cars can be a handful in slippery conditions, and GM has addressed this with a new traction control option ($450) called ASR (for Acceleration Slip Regulation). It's a useful feature, with a couple of endearing traits. First, unlike other similar systems, it allows a bit of wheel-spin before it clamps down. This allows the rear wheels to dig down through slush a little more in search of pavement. Second, you can shut it off when you want to optimize performance on dry roads. Including ASR, my test car's inventory of options came to $3,371. The biggest chunk was a $1,576 preferred equipment package, which includes power windows, power mirrors, keyless remote entry, power driver's seat, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lamps and body side moldings. Other extras: chromed aluminum alloy wheels ($500), performance tires ($225), a premium AM-FM-CD sound system ($450) and a rear window defogger ($170). The latter really should be standard equipment. Ready to roll, my Z28 came to $24,366, which still represents an exceptional performance bargain. If you like the look and the LS1 muscle doesn't matter, the basic Camaro coupe also stacks up as a pretty good buy at $17,150. With its 200-h.p. 3.8-liter V6 it's far from slow, and the option book has provisions for suspension upgrades. Like the Mustang, the Camaro is an American icon whose days may be numbered. GM is vague about its future beyond 2001, possibly because it has no future at all. You can level a number of valid criticisms against the Z28. It's primitive in some ways, it's noisy (unless, like me, you happen to like this kind of noise), it's impractical (like most sport coupes) and it will never have the social cachet f a BMW. But if you want major league performance at minor league prices, it just doesn't get any better than this. SPECS
RATING: 3 wheels VEHICLE TYPE: Front-engine, rear-drive, sport coupe KEY COMPETITORS: Ford Mustang, Pontiac Firebird BASE PRICE: $20,995 PRICE AS TESTED: $24,366 STANDARD EQUIPMENT: ABS, dual air bags, air-conditioning, AM-FM-cassette audio, tilt steering, limited slip rear axle, aluminum alloy wheels SPECIFICATIONS: (manufacturer's data) Engine 305-h.p., 5.7-liter V8 EPA fuel econ. 18 m.p.g. city 27 m.p.g. hwy. Curb weight 3,439 pounds Wheelbase 101.1 inches Length 193.5 inches Width 74.1 inches Height 51.3 inches Assembled Ste. Therese, Quebec
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