Swan song for a pony car Nothing like celebrating a 35th anniversary by ending the relationship. Chevrolet has stopped production on its big-engine Camaro, vintage American muscle car from a by-gone era. Four million car sales since the 1967 model debuted, ebbing enthusiasm for the Corvette"s tough little brother brought about its demise with the 2002 model.
But, it"s going out in a blaze of Bright Rallye Red glory. The penultimate model, a red Z28, was sold for $71,500 at a charity auction. The last Camaro to roll off the assembly line in St. Therese, Quebec, is headed for Chevy"s museum. You can still get your hands on a 2002 "museum piece," but the retro rumbler won"t be around much longer ñ although used Camaros will be popping up all over the country for some time to come. I took out a convertible Z28 for a last roar around town, its V8 thundering through the turns, all 310 hp of the 5.7-liter engine fervently urging me to open it up. With 350 lbs of torque and smooth, effortless shifts, it wasn"t hard to convince me. A slight blip on the throttle merely encouraged it. Punch it, throw it into a corner ñ the Camaro will love you for your boldness. And its classic, throaty rumble is like the purr of a kitten to muscle car fans, thanking you for stroking it. Wider tires, performance suspension and a six-speed gearbox (a no-charge option) put me in Steve McQueen mode: "all I need"s a fast machineÖ" Handling is greatly improved: comfort is no longer sacrificed for cornering. And, because the convertibles were engineered from the ground up, cowl shake is minimal. These are more than mere hardtops without a roof; they"re serious road beaters. The Camaro is available in so many options right now, it can get confusing: base models are powered by a 3.8-liter V6. Pass. The SS Performance/appearance package on the Z28 costs an extra 36 grand. Hmmm, maybe. The SS ups the horsepower to 325, thanks to forced-air induction and a wide-mouth, low restriction, dual exhaust. The rear spoiler looks cool. And the 17-inch wheels complement the high-performance ride package, complete with beefier shock and spring rates. Pop for an additional 25 grand and you can have the 35th Anniversary package SS, featuring traction control, 12 disc CD changer, and the anniversary red highlighted by silver stripes, special wheels, leather trim, blah blah blah. Don"t talk upholstery to me when a powerful V8 is moaning seductively in my ear. Whatever way you go, the Z28 and SS stand out in a crowded parking lot. The Z retains the long hood-short deck pony car proportions of its 1967 predecessor, but its sloping nose and deeply angled windscreen create a sleek profile. A functional air scoop on the hood adds to the strong, masculine attitude. Low to the ground, it"s a mean, sexy machine. Inside, it"s all about the driver. Six-way power seats provide support and comfort. Tilt wheel, power everything, cruiseÖ The passenger loses a little leg room, and realistically, there will BE no backseat passengers. Consider it cargo space ñ which you might need, since trunk space is limited in the convertible. But hey, there"s a great sound system with GM"s speed-compensated volume, which turns down the sound level as you slow down. It has its advantages. Best advice is to take the Camaro out on a nice day, put the top down. That eliminates the blind spots. This is no daily driver. Slide it into that third stall in your garage during the winter ñ you won"t want to try ploughing your way through snow banks with that low profile. And, unless you"re British, you won"t appreciate the dampness during wet weather. Second best advice is to avoid touchless car washes: even with the top up, you"ll get wet. All in all, the Camaro still offers a good performance value. Much cheaper than its V8 sister, it out powers smaller engined sports coupes and convertibles. I used to think of it as the poor man"s Vette. Now I have renewed respect for Chevy"s pony car. I think I"m going to miss it. 2002 camaro z28Price as tested: $32,725 mileage: 18/25 5.7-liter aluminum V8 engine 16" wheels power 4-wheel disc brakes power locks, doors, windows leather trim wheel-mounted cruise control tilt wheel 6-way power adjust driver"s seat