In a fax poll more suggestive of hemp ropes and an old West lynching, a majority bloc of AutoWeek readers trashed the new Chevrolet Camaro as ugly, bloated and stump dumb.

A minority of 46% stridently disagreed, saying the Camaro is a technologically advanced car for which they would gladly give up their Mustangs, Corvettes, Ted Nugent tapes and other addictions. A lone reader–doubtless considering the one management change Chevrolet hasn’t attempted–thanked God for GM.

Imagine reactions if these respondents had actually seen the vehicle, driven it or been fed information a little less subjective than one critic’s review of a muscle hatchback that won’t even be in showrooms until later this month.

So much for the vulnerability of straw votes.

Therein, however, sits a good example of the passionate extremes stirred by the Camaro. Since its design in 1967 as a Trans-Am race car and reconfiguration for somewhat less-competitive highways, the Camaro has spent the last quarter-century launching a million young fantasies and just as many insurance cancellations.

Few drivers are neutral about the car, especially when debating its hard-charging, high-performance versions belching enough smoke and flame to cauterize their own mufflers.

One school sees the lusty Camaro Z28–and its clone, Pontiac’s Firebird Trans Am–as a rough riding, crude handling chunk of over-styled flatulence. They deem it the vehicle of choice among environmental morons who use ashtrays for tobacco juice and think “Thunder Road” should have won an Oscar.

Disciples place the Z28 alongside french fries and ketchup, no hitters, four years in the Army and winning the person next door as essential to the development of a vibrant and clear-eyed America. They wept two years ago when GM said it might exorcise all Camaros from the lineup because demand for such roisterous cars clearly was fading.

But GM didn’t press the kill switch. A certain lack of logic prevailed.

So a new and fourth-generation Camaro was developed at a cost of $600 million. And this prettiest, most potent version adds a new dimension to an already sturdy history: The 1993 Z28 is a $17,500 Corvette with practically all the exhilaration and rush that famed two-seater offers. It also is easier to enter and exit.

Although a complete, modern remake–from its cab-forward, Ford-Probish exterior to all the technological niceties of anti-lock brakes and dual air bags–the essence of the Z28 has survived.

It remains a car for those who enjoy the manual arts of driving against the push and tug of slightly reluctant gears.

Among such persons, silent movement and sophisticated mechanicals are for milquetoasts. Not for them: wood trim, traction controls, load levelers and other devices that don’t leave the driving to us.

Let the other guy trade off performance for fuel economy. Real guys find purity and a best buddy in noisy cars that are raw inside, rough around the edges and–but don’t spread it around–much tougher and more capable than their drivers.

That’s the way it was with the Cobra, Charger, Roadrunner and Barracuda. That’s the way it continues with the Mustang GT, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper–and Camaro Z28.

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Although styling is a little generic–and of the lighter, sport coupe genre–the Camaro’s shoulders are squarer and the rake from rear deck to midsection a mite sharper than previous versions. It suggests a purposeful heaviness (implying strength), a wider track (stability) and lower lines (speed), significant assets in a muscle car.

Body panels are plastic for ease of maintenance rather than weight reduction.

The front end is aggressive, with headlight wells painted in contrasting black. At first glance it appears a deft accent, but don’t be taken in. It’s a cosmetic touch with black paint curling around the plasticf ont valance and giving a sloe-eyed look to light wells whose outer edges actually are square.

Wheels further mar the performance look. They have five split spokes angled away from the vertical and are much more decorative than dramatic. Imagine Riddick Bowe in spangled pumps.

Twin hood intakes completely bowdlerize appearances. Stick a finger into each and break a nail. They are blanked off, faux intakes that add nothing to engine respiration but everything to Detroit’s reputation for non-functional frills.

Two engines come with this year’s two-car lineup.

The base Camaro–prices unannounced at press time but estimated to start at an affordable $15,000–is a 3.4-liter V-6 delivering 160 horsepower, 20 more than last year’s. It is a comparatively mild engine designed to satisfy those interested in the looks of an asphalt shaker with none of the sweating palms.

The standard car offers a slightly softer ride and more civilized handling. To many, that will be ample compensation for its inability to dislodge kidneys and humiliate all it passes.

This Camaro was built to compete against Honda Prelude, Toyota Celica, Nissan 240SX and milder Mustangs.

The Z28–intended to seduce buyers from Mustang GTs and Mitsubishi 3000GTs–obviously is for the thicker of wrist and the taker of risks.

Its engine bay is crammed with a V-8 displacing 5.7 liters, developing 275 horsepower and further arguing the old case for cubic-inches equaling high power. This is the same power plant that lives inside the mighty Chevrolet Corvette, less some intake and exhaust refinements that reduces Camaro’s power by 25 horses.

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Still, enough muscle and vitamins are left to create a performance envelope with extremes known only to those who regularly suit up for Winston Cup races.

That translates to 0-60 m.p.h. in a whisper above 6seconds and smoking treads all the way. Work the Z28’s six-speed manual transmission with the verve each gear was built to absorb, and the final shift will be made at 130 heading for 160. And that gearbox is a surprisingly smooth piece of work.

Driven hard or simply nudged into motion, with six-speed or four-speed automatic, the Z28 is no pretty performer. The engine is two-toned: Argumentative snort building into a wounded bellow. Kick too much power to its Goodyear Eagle GAs and the rear end develops snake hips with no traction controls to neutralize wheel spin and slide. That, promises Chevrolet, will be a 1994 option.

In keeping with this primal approach to the motoring mood, the Z28 does not come with a modern, independently sprung rear axle flexing on universal joints.

It is equipped with what GM has always called a “Salisbury Axle,” its euphemism for unhinged half-shafts built as solid bars between wheel hubs and the differential.

It is a basic element of obvious appeal to some who like bolt-action rifles and bl ack-and-white television. To others it is heavy, clunky and inclined to reduce back-end stability and sensitivity.

We shoved it fairly hard. Apart from a slight loss of fluidity and softness, nothing seemed drastically awry.

Overall, the handling of the new Z28 is a mighty improvement. It plants itself well with zero evidence of roll, squat or dive–no matter how violent the applications of steering, brakes or throttle. It hustles flatter around corners and squeals for exit power when a driver’s instincts say it might be a little early for any excess oomph.

Steering–now rack and pinion instead of the antediluvian recirculating ball–is balanced, a little on the heavy side but appropriate for a car that gets off on a little horseplay.

And for a car of this purpose–unlike Corvette and Viper–it is a relief to find disproportionately lighter clutch and brake pressures.

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The six-speed transmission, we fear, may be a little superfluous. Sure, it whispers of insane speeds and a driver’s ability to duke it out with Richard Petty. Yes, it equips Corvette and Viper.

But in sixth gear at 80 m.p.h.,the engine is chuffing and puffing around 2,000 r.p.m. with nothing to offer but a surprised glance should one request immediate power. Or one could shift down two or three times to find some farewell power.

So most freeway travel in a Z28 is done in fourth with the odd vacation into fifth. Ergo , a five-speed would do the job as well.

The interior is designed more for driving purpose than aesthetic statement. That means tweedy upholstery, no on-board diagnostic centers, white lettering on black dials of analog gauges, and fat, rotary knobs for headlights and heater that wouldn’t look out of place on a washing machine.

Seats with integrated headrests aren’t quite as supportive as one might expect in a car with this performance potential. But they are improved. So snug up the belts a little and hard-cornering bodies will go nowhere.

The classic touches cranked into the Z28–shift knob big as an orange, rear-drive and one cup holder in the belief that they travel fastest who travel alone–cannot be overemphasized.

This is not a car for anyone out to impress clients over age 19. A big engine and manual six-speed transforms a daily commute into a mild wrestle. Forget the trunk for anything but briefcases and flat groceries because that clunky Salisbury Axle swallows an awful lot of underside room. And this car does not turn that easily or tightly in close quarters.

So anyone more interested in scenery, smoothness, stealth and silence should turn to the Camaro that comes easy on the Tabasco.

But if Jim Rockford had remained on prime time, you can bet the syndication royalties that he’d still be driving the gnarly sounding one.

1993 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

The Good Raw, politically incorrect power and proud ofit. Corvette for half the price. Athletic styling. Improved steering, pedal pressures, safety equipment.

The Bad No traction control.

The Ugly Dummy hood intakes.

Cost Base: $17,200. As tested, $17,200. (Standard equipment to include passenger- and driver-side air bags, anti-lock brakes, aluminum wheels, six-speed manual transmission, tilt steering wheel, theft deterrent key system.)

Engine 5.7 liter V-8 developing 275 horsepower.

Type Rear-drive, 2+2, high performance sport hatchback.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h. as tested, with six-speed manual transmission, 6.5 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 160 m.p.h. EPA, city and highway, 17 and 24 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,373 pounds.