EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

At last it’s time to bid the Camaro adieu, a vehicle on and off life support so many times you can spot the IV marks along the body sides if you look closely.

But, as happens when an automaker is about to drop a model, which Chevrolet plans to do with Camaro at the end of the ’02 run, a limited-edition model has been cobbled together so the most loyal fans can grab one of the “last ofs” to pay tribute–and so Chevy can make a few bucks off the machine before the parts are warehoused for restoration shops.

Sadly, the “last of” Camaro is the 35th anniversary edition, a model to celebrate its 35th year on the market and the fact that more than 4.4 million have been sold.

Only 3,000 copies will be built in convertible or removable glass T-top versions and with a 6-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.

Before you ask, the convertible with 6-speed manual will be the most valuable in the long run for collectors, but how long you will have to hide one in the garage to realize that value is a matter of speculation.

The long-hood, short-deck sports coupe that arrived on the market in 1967 enjoyed its finest year in 1978, when 260,201 were sold. By 2001, sales had slipped to 35,450. Many times in the ’80s and ’90s reports of its demise surfaced. Camaro owners always rallied to the cause, though if they had spent more time buying and less time rallying, maybe there would have been a 40th anniversary model.

Camaro had its ups and downs and on more than one occasion, its obit was reported.

There were concerns over insurance rates by youth and fuel-economy ratings by conservationists as well as company insiders who stuck a 4-cylinder engine under the hood in 1982 in the interest of better mileage.

Camaro got to be known as a secretary’s car, which in the ’70s and ’80s was the way you referred to a vehicle that appealed to what were then called gals. Guys (men) went for the Z-28 V-8 (70 percent male), gals (women) went for the base model with 6-cylinder (60 percent female). Guys wanted a car that went fast; gals wanted a car that looked like it went fast. And a whole bunch of folks, guys/gals, men/women went for the Mustang from Ford.

Camaro faced another hurdle, though roadblock is probably a better term. Young folks began migrating out of sport coupes and into pickups and sport-utility vehicles. Kids found Chevrolet S-10 and Ford Ranger pickups and Chevy Blazers and Ford Broncos (which evolved into the Explorer) more in tune with their lifestyles.

We tested the 35th Anniversary model Z-28 in SS sports trim with T-tops and automatic transmission. If a limited-edition number has to run up miles so it will decline in collectible value, best it be the vehicle to be mauled in the media fleet, don’t you think?

The anniversary model comes with the Corvette-derived 5.7-liter, 325-horsepower V-8. Lively response yet decent mileage, 18 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway. Screamer? Nah, but it was teamed with the 4-speed automatic and not the 6-speed manual.

The anniversary model’s strong suit was the performance ride and handling suspension that’s part of the $3,625 SS package. Firm ride, to be sure, but not harsh. Irregular road surfaces don’t set up roller-coaster movement like they did in Camaro’s infancy. A lot more stability. And handling was rather precise, the go-where-you-want-to-go variety, not the where-the-coupe-wants-to-take-you type. Very much enjoyed the high-effort steering, as well, which made for very sharp, crisp, predictable reactions to wheel input.

What makes the 35th Anniversary edition stand out and force folks to stop and take a second look–and if as many folks who stopped and gawked reached into pocket or purse to buy one, the 3,000 copies hardly are enough–is the anniversary decor package that runs $2,500.

Our test car was finished in bright rally red with checkered flag graphics, black SS wheels, 35th Anniversary badgin outside and in, 35th Anniversary emblems embroidered into the front seats, anodized brake calipers, ebony/pewter leather seating surfaces, embroidered 35th Anniversary emblem floor mats, a red roof band (not on the convertible, of course), black accented functional hood scoop and silver Camaro nameplate on the grille and rear fascia.

In other words, there were enough 35th anniversary emblems, graphics and embroidery no one will have to walk up and ask, “What’s that?”

But there were some gripes.

Base price is $22,700, but the list of standard equipment is much shorter than the list of options.

Standard equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, Monsoon 500-watt AM/FM stereo with single CD player and eight speakers, intermittent wipers, visor mirrors and daytime running lamps.

Just about everything else in terms of comfort and convenience items is optional, from the SS package at $3,625 that upgrades you to the 325-h.p. V-8 from the base 300-h.p. V-8 and provides the high-performance suspension package with 17-inch radial tires, to the $2,500 for all those graphics, decals and embroidery. Then there’s $1,700 for the package that brings you the power goodies–mirrors/windows/locks/driver’s seat, $995 for the removable glass T-tops, $595 for the CD changer and on and on and on. Celebrating this anniversary runs more than $32,000.

But there are gripes other than the long list of options. The long doors make parking in tight spots an adventure, the rear seat was designed by a minimalist, there’s little room under the massive glass hatchlid to store anything, and if you can, it’s visible to the world, and there’s only a tiny compartment at the rear of the cargo hold to barely fit a briefcase.

The Pontiac Firebird shares the same fate as the Camaro and will be dropped at the end of the ’02 model run. It also has a special “last of” version called the Collector’s Edition Trans Am.

At the Chicago Auto Show, Pontiac is showing two-seat roadster called Solstice that not only would erase the bad memories of the two-seat Pontiac Fiero of the ’80s but could take Firebird’s place.

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of product development at GM, says the Solstice roadster would be priced less than $25,000 if built. A companion closed-top coupe concept not at the show, because GM is building a driveable version, would be less expensive than the roadster, Lutz said.

More important, the Solstice roadster is powered by a 2.2-liter, supercharged 4-cylinder that develops 240 h.p. and is teamed with a 6-speed manual.

Will Solstice be built? Well, Solstice went from idea to a driveable prototype in four months at Lutz’s direction.

Would Solstice cause people to forget Firebird?

Forget what?

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