There is a cruel arc to stardom. First comes the ascent. Then there is the brief time spent on fame's thin-aired summit. And then comes the downfall. But for a few, there is the comeback: they buy a hairpiece, practice the old dance steps and climb onto the stage once again.
With this in mind, I drove the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible, a car with roots that reach back to 1967, (the year that The Monkees made the hit parade with I'm a Believer.) In those days, the Camaro was a car to die for. Along with the Ford Mustang, it defined the golden age of the Detroit pony car.
Now, 44 years later, I was at the wheel of its much-hyped descendant, the fifth-generation Camaro. Few cars have carried so much expectation. To the Detroit faithful, this latest Camaro is little less than a four-wheeled Jesus, symbolizing the resurrection of not just a car marque, but of Motown itself.
Yes, we are talking about the recovery of Detroit's lost mojo. If you lived through the late sixties and early 1970s, you will know what I'm talking about - this was a time when the streets thundered with the roar of tuned V8 engines, a time when young men quit school to buy Mustangs and Camaros decked out with mag wheels and Hurst shifters. Back then, Detroit wasn't a basket case - it ruled the world.
And so off I went in the new Camaro, only to run into a brick wall of disappointment. Could this really be the car that I longed to own back in 1967? The new Camaro is pleasant enough, but lust is out of the question. The first problem is size. Compared to the original Camaro, this one is huge: it weighs nearly 4000 pounds (about 1000 more than its distant ancestor) and it lacks the pony car grace that pulled me to the original with such force when I was a young boy.
Some of Camaro's new-found bulk is unavoidable. The cars of the 1960s didn't have to meet federal crash test standards - when you build in crumple zones, airbags and stability control systems, there is a price to be paid.
But to me, the car is simply too big. And the windows too small. The windshield, combined with the long, flat hood, make it impossible to see anything immediately in front of the car. Objects within two paces (like curbs and small children) simply disappear. Putting the Camaro into a parking spot feels like docking an aircraft carrier.
The visibility issues are the result of the car's distinctive style. It looks like something a car-obsessed teenager would draw during math class. The body is thick and muscular, with a low-slung cabin that conjures up Woodward Avenue, a Second World War fighter plane and a Springsteen song.
With its short rear deck and a long hood, the car embodies a uniquely American brand of power. Make no mistake - the new Camaro is a styling exercise. GM's designers had to create a shape that captures the magic of the original, a car that many hold sacred.
In that all-important respect, the Chevrolet designers succeeded, and the new Camaro has a lot of fans. It drew stares everywhere I went, and I got thumbs-up from other Camaro drivers. But its charms were largely lost on me. Driving it reminded me of the time I went to my high school reunion and ran into a prom queen from the 1970s. She wasn't the same any more. And neither was I.
I had the perfect testing ground for the Camaro: North Carolina, home of the best twisting roads in the world. And I headed to the most famous one of them all - the legendary Tail of the Dragon, which features 318 curves in 11 miles.
Out on the Dragon, the Camaro did a good job of concealing its vast bulk, and I managed to run with some pretty quick cars. The new Camaro's brakes and chassis setup are vastly superior to the original. (In the sixties, you got stone-axe technology that included drum brakes and a solid rear axle; with the new car you get discs and independent rear suspension.) But the Camaro wasn't the ideal machine for the Dragon, which suits light, elemental sports cars that can change direction with gecko quickness. (Pushing the Camaro on this road was like putting a WWE wrestler in a ballet recital.) I headed to the Blueridge Parkway, and here the Camaro was in its element, arcing nicely through the long curves.
As a machine, the Camaro was solid. Everything on the car worked pretty well, and the fuel economy seemed pretty decent. (My car had a direct-injected V6, but you can get a V8.) The Camaro's mechanicals operated perfectly - there was no vibration, no missed shifts, no howling pinion gears. Even the electronic stability control system was well sorted, maintaining the car's dignity when I slid it hard through some tight turns on the Dragon.
So why didn't I love the new Camaro? Like any true car buff, I am a wrench aesthete and garage philosopher. I approach a car the way an art critic would a painting - and if you are not a fan of abstract expressionism, you will not appreciate Pollock or de Kooning.
The new Camaro is a leading example of Muscle Car Revival, a movement I don't ascribe to. The best resurrections (like the new Camaro and Ford's Mustang Boss 302) are vastly superior to the machines that inspired them. But both are really intended as time machines, taking us back to the era when America won the space race, and pony cars ruled the streets. But as Thomas Wolfe said, you can never go home again.
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