August 08, 2006

Speaking of cars...

...Chef Tony e-mailed me the news that Chevy is going to go ahead with production of the Camaro concept car they've recently been flogging, and asked my opinion of the decision.

Well, I've actually already mentioned what I think of the concept, back in January.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but while the new Camaro is interesting, it still does not grab me the way the Dodge Challenger does, or even the new Mustang. I take issue with its unconvincing grille treatment, and with the fact that the lead designer STILL insists that inspiration for the concept came from the '69 model (the '69 was the one with the pronounced lines streaking back from the tops of the wheel well openings--the new concept looks much more like a '68, but what do I know), but most of all, I have seen how badly GM can mess up a perfectly good concept when it goes through the production justification process.

For some reason, DaimlerChrysler has been incredibly consistent in bringing cars to market that LOOK like the concept cars they were based on--Viper, Prowler, Magnum, 300, PT Cruiser, Crossfire, Pacifica--all of them obviously varied in detail from the showcar prototypes, but the overall look is remarkably true to the design intent.

GM, on the other hand, has long had a way of cheapening everything to squeeze out the last few quarter pennies. In the past, this has been quite visible, mainly due to the wheel and tire packages offered on their "hot" designs. Too often, what goes out on the sales lot are cars with supposed sporting intentions, wearing the most meek and knock-kneed wheels imaginable. The lamentable Aztek was most noticeable in this regard, with its huge ungainliness seeming to wallow around on roller skate casters, but it also afflicted the weird, Dustbuster-nosed GM minivans of the early-'90s as well. Both of these looked pretty interesting as concept cars, with wheels and tires large enough to add some visual balance to their peculiar proportions, but none of that made it through accounting.

To be fair, General Motors lately has made remarkable strides in coming up with good designs that translate well to production--the Pontiac Solstice was an especially well-done concept-to-production design, although the usual cheapness managed to manifest itself in other areas, such as interior trim and a certain heaviness and lack of integration not found in its closest competitor, the Miata. The Corvette continues to have much goodness to it from concept to roadway, and the HHR looks like its showcar forebear, and for the most visually arresting concept that became real, I'd have to say the giant-wheeled, gigantic truck/roadster SS-R looks about as much like the concept vehicle as was possible.

But that itself is why GM continues to confound me.

The reason the Camaro and Firebird were killed in the first place after the 2002 model year was that GM said they couldn't make a business case for it. Certainly plausible--the market for largish, rear-wheel-drive, V8 GT coupes has never been a huge one, and has been shrinking in recent years. Back in the long-ago, this didn't make as much difference because this ponycar segment (named after the most successful of the breed, the Mustang) relied on sharing parts with a variety of other model lines. The Camaro shared parts with the Nova, just as the Mustang did with the Falcon, and the Barracuda did with the Valiant. When Camaro and Firebird's F-body became its own platform with the 1984 model, GM took a gamble that they'd be able to sell enough to justify it. And they did, and apparently enough to give them the confidence to tool up for an even more capable upgrade for what was to become the last, 4th Generation version. It was a very good chassis, and maybe too good for a car that started out with economy car roots.

By the time the last ones rolled off the line, they were competitive with the Corvette in terms of power and handling. But there were no real gas-sipper, peppy sporty versions--sure, some came with V6s, but it wasn't a convincingly economical car to drive. And again, the market for big, heavy grand touring cars was changing, so it might not have made good business sense for Chevy to continue making them, or at least not in that way.

The nagging question I always had, though, was if there was no case to be made for keeping the car, or coming up with a way to justify production through shared parts with another model, how in the WORLD was there a way to justify production of the SS-R!? A huge, heavy, thirsty--but admittedly very fast--convertible truckette that could only seat two people. And the styling--although I like it from the kustom kar point of view, wasn't really one of those things that polarizes people the right way.

I'm sick to death of hearing car designers say about ugly stuff that only a few people REALLY like well enough to purchase, "Well, it's really a love-it or hate-it design." That might be fine for some things, but when you're making a multi-billion dollar investment, I think I'd have much have a design that THOUSANDS of people would give their left arm to own and only two or three hate enough to close their eyes when they see it, rather than vice-versa. I don't think the SS-R was ugly, necessarily, but I can tell you right now it was never something that a hundred thousand people would want to buy.

But, they built it anyway.

Must have had some extra money floating around after killing off the Camaro, and couldn't do anything with it.

Anyway, I hope that GM does find a way to make a good, four-passenger, rear drive coupe. I hope it looks good, and drives good, and is built with an eye toward long-term value, not short term cheapness. I hope it is lightweight and efficient, yet sturdy as an anvil. I hope it can offer the public a variety of driving options, from simple, sporty, fuel-efficient transportation to something so lurid and violent and window-rattling that Mustang drivers wet their pants everytime they see one turn the corner.

That is a tall order, and one I don't think the Camaro concept as it is now will be able to fill.

Posted by Terry Oglesby at August 8, 2006 12:24 PM