Payne: Camaro facial hopes to jump-start Chevy's mojo
Camaro did an about-face this month as Chevrolet's iconic muscle car struggles to regain its sales mojo.
The face in question was the 2019 Camaro. It debuted last April to a collective “Whuh?” from its fan base — the latest stumble in the rollout of Chevy’s Holy Trinity: Camaro, Silverado and Corvette.
Despite applause for Chevy’s engineering, General Motors Co.'s volume brand has received lukewarm reviews for its all-new Silverado pickup, and the long-anticipated mid-engine ‘Vette has repeatedly been delayed. Analysts say the miscues are unrelated, but getting each vehicle right is key to the brand’s long-term health.
The signature, V-8-powered SS was unveiled last year with an oddly placed bow tie badge — and a gaping, black maw of a grille that came to represent the black hole that swallowed Camaro sales.
After dominating U.S. muscle car sales from 2009-14, the ‘Maro slipped behind the redesigned Ford Mustang, and then — for the first time in 2018 — fell to No. 3 in the pony car race behind both the Mustang and Dodge Challenger.
While the Camaro has garnered raves as the segment’s best driver’s car — consistently dominating comparison tests by the performance press and even being compared to luxe icons like the BMW M3 — it hasn’t made hearts beat like the Ford and Hellcat-infused Dodge.
Rather, the Camaro was faulted for a too-conservative styling update and an ergonomically challenged interior with the outward visibility of a World War II pillbox.
The 2019 Silverado suffered similar complaints even as it set a new standard for chassis engineering that saved 450 pounds and defied the industry trend toward expensive aluminum construction with a crafty, mixed metals architecture. Yet the model’s uninspired styling — not un-coincidentally following Camaro design cues — and ho-hum interior contrasted with hosannas for Ram’s stylish new 1500 pickup.
The Silverado Heavy Duty introduction also created controversy as its polarizing face became an internet meme.
Ram has been closing the gap to Silverado sales over the last two years (market leader Ford F-series has held steady at No. 1) and then — as its new 1500 garnered baubles like North American Truck of the Year — surpassed the Chevy in the first quarter of this year: 120,026 to 114,313 units sold.
“GM has consistently made good drivetrains and their engineering has been very good,” says veteran Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “But it’s the art more than the science where they struggle.”
Team Camaro has not taken the styling criticism lightly: “Customers spoke, and we listened,” said Chevy marketing guru Steve Majoros.
The brand showed a redesigned SS “Shock” concept at SEMA last fall. That mug debuted on the new 2020 model last week and instantly received praise from motorhead magazines and Camaro forums alike.
The SS returns the bow-tie emblem to its familiar place in the upper grille and breaks up the black hole with a body-color bar between the upper and lower grilles.
“It's great news, the new front end looks so much better,” came a typical comment from the Camaro6.com forum (Camaro is in its sixth generation). “My biggest gripes with the 2019 Camaro are now gone.”
Fans certainly have had little to gripe about in performance. The Camaro has been a class leader in handling, power and performance models. Its 650-horse, V-8 powered ZL1 1LE is a track beast, with a lap time around Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap competition a full 6 seconds quicker than Mustang’s GT350. Camaro also has been first to market with an affordable, 4-cylinder, 1LE performance package (Mustang follows this year with a competitive turbo-4 variant).
For 2020, Camaro continues that progress by taking the LT1 trim for its V-6 and Turbo-4 models and stuffing it with a 455-horsepower V-8, instantly making it the most affordable 8-holer in the Camaro lineup at $34,9951 — $3,000 less than the SS.
“The new Camaro LT1 is a great choice for those seeking a pure V-8 performance experience,” says Majoros.
The V-6-powered model also gets new gears with GM’s quick-shifting, 10-speed transmission heretofore reserved for the V-8. When the ‘20 muscle car hits dealers this fall, customers will find additional upgrades including a Rally Green color and 20-inch, forged aluminum wheels available on LT, LT1 and SS models.
Chevy hopes the changes will help Camaro turn the corner on sales. Chevy’s coupe makes up 21% of U.S. muscle market share, compared to Challenger’s 23% and Mustang’s 29%.
The bow-tie brand’s biggest gamble comes later this year when the mid-engine Corvette is unveiled in production and race trims. The so-called C8 will be the first Corvette to sport the engine behind the driver, and anticipation has been off the charts even as the super-car has been delayed.
That passion, says KBB analyst Brauer, is what has been what’s lacking in Camaro and Silverado — and bodes well for the Corvette, which features Ferrari-like lines and a range of high-performance mills reportedly mated to a Porsche-like dual-clutch transmission.
“These days you have to make a comprehensively good car,” says Brauer. “It’s not enough just to be well-engineered. It also has to sir passion.”
Chevy has paraded the thinly camouflaged car before crowds in New York’s Times Square and at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky. Look for its fresh face on July 18.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.