A six-cylinder engine in an American muscle car? A brawny-looking Chevy Camaro, no less?

If you think that’s just too wimpy for words, then you’re living in the past. A 5.7-liter V-8 may be the engine of choice for performance and profiling, but a Camaro powered by a 200-horse V-6 is nothing to sneeze at, providing enough fun and excitement for all but the most hardened gearheads.

OK, there are no smoky burnouts, and the torque is not up to any serious stump pulling. But Chevrolet’s nicely engineered 3.8-liter V-6 is a strong, free-revving motivator that maintains Camaro’s sporting character. With a growly exhaust note, too.

So why, you might ask, would anyone buy such a creature instead of the “properly” set up Z-28 with a 305-horsepower V-8? Simple. Economics.

Here’s a sharp sports car you can use as a daily driver because:

A) Gas mileage won’t kill you.

B) It won’t send your insurance agent into shock. Or your bill into the stratosphere.

And, as with most Chevys, the Camaro is something of a bargain. Our fully equipped test car, with a significant level of bells, whistles and stereo equipment, came in at just a tad over $20,000.

That included several items I would have deleted, such as the automatic transmission (a five-speed is more fun), leather seats (which scorch your rear end during Phoenix summers) and the power driver’s seat.

So, I could have gotten this car down to a list price of $18,640. My point being that you could be cruising in this image-laden, good-handling coupe for about the price of a compact sedan.

And the price of the upgraded V-6 (included in that total) is just $350. That’s 40 extra horsepower over the standard 3.4-liter engine.

Yet, amid all this sweetness and light, there is a dark side. And that’s the number of glitches, flaws and busted bits that were encountered on the test car. The worst was when the plastic clip that guides the seat belt decided to snap off one morning. Not confidence inspiring at all.

There was something wrong with the stereo, too, with a muddy bass response and an apparent electrical short that made it crackle and hiss when the car hit bumps.

Speaking of the stereo, it was weird to have a console set up to hold cassette tapes when the system only had a disc player.

For a sports car, the brakes are suspect as well. Why drum brakes in the rear when there obviously should be four-wheel discs?

Well, that’s enough complaining, because the Camaro is a very likable car even with its warts. It’s flexible, too. Besides being fun to drive on the back roads, it’s also a comfortable cruiser, quiet and effortless at highway speeds.

Front-seat passengers should be comfortable in the low-but-supportive buckets. But anyone who gets stuck in the rear had better leave his legs at home. Luggage space is scant as well.

The Camaro has an image to uphold, with its low profile, fat tires and mean reputation. Perhaps a bit too blue-collar for some folks, even though the latest model is a big step forward in sophistication over the model it replaces.

The 3.8-liter engine also represents another horsepower victory over archrival Ford Mustang, whose 3.4 liter V-6 puts out just 150 horses, leaving a healthy gap between its base engine and its new 4.6-liter V-8.

Now if Chevy could just work out those bugs (P.S. I’d keep it, even with the bugs).

1996 Chevrolet Camaro

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe, rear-wheel drive. Base price: $14,495. Price as tested: $20,283. Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 200 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 225 pounds/feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: 4-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,298 pounds. Length: 183.2 inches. Wheelbase: 101.1 inches. Passive restraints: Dual air bags. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway.

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