It starts when I make the left out of the garage and stop at a traffic light. Three little boys crossing the street turn their heads toward me, mouths open. A sanitation-department guy leaning out of his truck admires from above while we wait for the light to turn. A few blocks north at another light, a construction worker motions at me to roll down the window. "How do you like it?" he asks. I tell him I'm not sure yet, since I've been in the car for approximately 3½ minutes. "Good luck," he says. I cross to the east side of Manhattan and park the car for a couple of minutes to run an errand. When I return, guys in their 20s are standing near the car, one of them taking a picture.
And on it goes as I zoom north into the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts, with more "Who is that guy?" stares from people whenever I approach the parked car. Is Chevy's newly reintroduced Camaro hot? I don't know, is Gisele Bündchen? I get to drive a lot of cars, and every now and again you get in one that not only stops traffic, but also starts people talking. But this phenomenon generally happens when you're driving something a lot more expensive. You'd expect the killer design of the Audi R-8, for instance, to elicit some oohs and aahs, and it doesn't disappoint; it's a dazzler. The Bentley Continental Supersports is another jaw dropper that can motor along at 200 m.p.h., if you call that motoring. But the Audi goes for $113,000; the Bentley costs $100,000 more.
The Camaro is for the rest of us. Its list price starts at $23,000 for the V-6 LS model and tops out at $31,000 for the top-of-the-line SS and its V-8. From its inception, in 1967, the Camaro was an affordable sports-muscle car, the brawny response to Ford's revolutionary Mustang. Ford's car was stylish, even cute. Women bought it. But the Camaro had that bad-boy look, and the interior was pretty basic. To many of its buyers, the Camaro was a platform, a sleek sled on which to load one of those muscle engines that GM used to produce by the jillions.
The updated version maintains that edge. The design is more angled, with a steeper, more Corvette-like back end, which explains the unfortunately small rear window. The front end has that unmistakable Camaro snarl of a grill. The interior is classic, minimalist Camaro. There's a throwback dial-instrument cluster in front of the gearbox, but don't expect a pile of gadgets or even a navigation system.
Like its predecessor, you can get a Camaro in different sizes of vroom. The lower-end LS model features a 300-hp, 3.4-liter, V-6 engine that goes from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 6.1 seconds. The higher-priced SS model, which I drove, has a 6.2-liter, V-8 engine that tops out at 426 hp and cuts the time to 4.7 seconds to reach 60 m.p.h. Is the twitch-quick Mustang GT a little more responsive off the mark? Maybe, but running the Camaro through second, third and fourth gears will quickly, very quickly, make you forget that distinction. And punching it from 65 m.p.h. to 80 m.p.h. for a brief high-speed pass is a thrill.
But here's the deep-dark secret of the Camaro: this bruiser is a cruiser. At 65 m.p.h. on the highway, the SS engine puts out only 1,900 r.p.m. (the typical sedan would be somewhere around 2,500 r.p.m.), which means it's surprisingly, pleasingly quiet. Yes, it still roars when you floor it. But Chevy has made the Camaro suitable for 40- and 50-year-olds with balky backs and memories of younger days. The chairs are older-suburban-guy comfy, as if they had come out of a Malibu.
Is the Camaro going to save GM? Hardly, but having a hot car to sell reminds people of the fact that the Chevy brand didn't go the way of Oldsmobile. The company lost a generation of buyers to Toyota and Honda, but there's nothing from those shops that can match this throwback to the time when muscle cars ruled, and GM ruled muscle.