Greg Smith of Annapolis, Md., has fond childhood memories of barreling across the Arizona desert in a Camaro. He is one of the early buyers snapping up the newly redesigned Camaro.
Greg Smith of Annapolis, Md., has fond childhood memories of barreling across the Arizona desert in a Camaro. He is one of the early buyers snapping up the newly redesigned Camaro. Frank Langfitt/NPR
"Excitement" is not a word people have associated with General Motors cars in recent years. But the company now has a new model that's actually generating some buzz — the redesigned Camaro.
The sleek, two-door coupe looks like a cross between a '60s muscle car and a spaceship. And even in a terrible economy, dealers have sold more than 15,000 in its first several months on the market.
Living Out Childhood Dreams
Some of Greg Smith's fondest memories were in a Camaro. He recalls being 13 years old, with his friend's older brother at the wheel, barreling across the desert outside Tucson at 100 miles per hour.
"There was nothing like leaving your seat when you go over a little rise. Even though you have your seat belt on, you still get a little air," Smith says. "You kind of feel like you're in another world."
Buying a Camaro was never practical, but Smith, who is now 53 and designs commercial signs for a living, couldn't resist; he ordered a Camaro in February and picked it up last week in Maryland.
His new car is jet black; creased metal rises over the back wheels like big shoulders. Its headlights, shaped like sunglasses, stare out from the long hood.
"I love the way it looks; it's all angles," he says. "It has almost a Battlestar Galactica, Darth Vader look to the grill in the front. There aren't going to be any cars out there that look like this car for a long time."
Early Success Raises Hopes
This has been a dreadful year for GM, one that has included a forced bankruptcy and tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money.
Now, the company hopes the new Camaro can inspire customers like Smith and help bring some flash to a battered brand.
Dealers say the push is working — demand for the new Camaro is heavy.
"I wish I had a thousand to sell tomorrow, because I could sell them," said Neil Kopit, who handles marketing at Criswell Chevrolet in Gaithersburg, Md.
GM says it has 13,000 on back order, which sounds great, but Lonnie Miller, who works for the auto marketing firm R.L. Polk, says the shortage is by design.
"They limit production in order to keep demand high, so the dealers sell out of available stock," says Miller. "You don't want to flood the market with this and make it a commodity car."
GM is marketing the Camaro in a number of ways. One strategy is product placement: The Camaro starred in both the original Transformers movie and the sequel released earlier this summer.
GM crafted an ad using a scene from the first Transformers in which the star, Shia Labeouf, asks another character: "Fifty years from now, when you're looking back at your life, don't you want to say you had the guts to get in the car?"
A Newer, Greener Image
Of course, pitching the Camaro to young, male moviegoers is easy. But how do you push it against the tide of environmentalism and concern over fuel prices?
GM is tackling this issue in part by avoiding the Camaro's long-held image as a muscle car. Instead, the company is marketing it as a "21st century sports car," says Karen Rafferty, who markets performance cars at GM.
Scott Oldham, who edits Edmunds' Inside Line, a consumer Web site for car lovers, says given the political climate, GM has to try to cast the Camaro in a greener light.
"The guys in Washington that are writing the checks these days, they've been on record saying GM and American automakers don't necessarily need to be making muscle cars, gas guzzlers. And they don't think the American public should be driving them either," Oldham says.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the six-cylinder Camaro gets 29 mpg on the highway.
Despite the new model's early success, Oldham says the Camaro alone can't save GM. It's a niche vehicle with a limited base of buyers.
"If they sell 75,000, they'll chalk that up as a big year," he says.
Stirring Excitement In Tough Times
The Camaro is what Detroit calls a "halo car" — ideally, a flashy, hit vehicle that bathes the brand in a warm glow.
Last year, Chrysler launched a "halo" sports car in the new Dodge Challenger. Ford did the same this spring with a redesigned Mustang. Oldham says halo cars not only grab attention, but also lift worker morale during a tough time in the auto industry.
"I think they motivate the employees of the company," he says. "You know, not everyone got into the car business to sell boring sedans to boring people."
And not everyone wants to own a boring car. Take Lee Fleishman. He's 25 and manages his family's bagel store in Bethesda, Md. A couple of months ago, Fleishman bought the V8 Camaro — with a 426-horsepower engine.
"As soon as I got it, my wife said she didn't really believe me that people were really responding to it," Fleishman said. "About two seconds later, a Porsche 911 Turbo comes flying out of nowhere, yelling at me to slow down so he can take a picture."
Measuring the Camaro's success won't be easy, especially since GM won't make its sales target public. But as Fleishman's story shows, the Camaro is doing something most GM cars haven't done in a while: turn heads.