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And I'm Linda Wertheimer. General Motors finally can focus the public's attention on its cars instead of its finances. The redesigned Camaro is generating a lot of talk and a lot of sales. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: Some of Greg Smith's fondest memories were in a Camaro. He was 13, a friend's older brother was at the wheel, and they were barreling across the desert outside Tucson.
Mr. GREG SMITH: There's nothing like leaving your seat when you go over a little rise, you know. And even though you have your seat belt on, you still get a little air. And, yeah, you kind of feel like you're in a, you know, in another world.
LANGFITT: But buying a Camaro was never practical. Smith is now 53 and designs commercial signs for a living. This year, he couldn't resist. He ordered his Camaro in February, and picked it up last week in Maryland.
The car is jet black. Creased metal rises over the back wheels like big shoulders, and headlights shaped like sunglasses stare out from the long hood.
Mr. SMITH: I love the way it looks. It's all angles. It has almost a Battlestar Galactica, Darth Vader look to the grill in the front. There are not going to be any cars out there that look like this car - for a long time.
LANGFITT: This has been a dreadful year for GM - a forced bankruptcy, tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money. You know the story. Now, the company hopes the new Camaro can inspire customers like Greg Smith, and help bring some flash to a battered brand. Dealers say demand for Camaros is heavy. Neil Kopit handles marketing at Criswell Chevrolet in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Mr. NEIL KOPIT (Marketing, Criswell Chevrolet): I wish I had a thousand to sell tomorrow, because I could sell them.
LANGFITT: GM says it has 13,000 on back order. That sounds great, but Lonnie Miller says the shortage is by design. Miller works for R.L. Polk, an auto marketing firm.
Mr. LONNIE MILLER (R.L. Polk): They limit production in order to keep demand high, so the dealers sell out of available stock. You don't want to flood the market with this and make it a commodity car.
LANGFITT: GM is marketing the Camaro in a number of ways. One strategy is product placement. The Camaro stars in the new "Transformers" sequel, and GM has crafted ads with scenes from both films.
(Soundbite of movie, "Transformers")
Mr. SHIA LABEOUF (As Sam Witwicky): Fifty years from now, when you're looking back at your life, don't you want to be able to say you had the guts to get in the car?
(Soundbite of music)
LANGFITT: 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? One answer: Don't call it a muscle car. GM calls it a…
Ms. KAREN RAFFERTY (Marketing, General Motors): Twenty-first century sports car.
LANGFITT: That's Karen Rafferty. She markets performance cars at GM. Rafferty points out the six-cylinder Camaro gets 29 miles a gallon on the highway. That's not according to GM. That's from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott Oldham edits Edmunds' Inside Line, a consumer Web site for car lovers. Given the political climate, he says GM has to try to cast the Camaro in a greener light.
Mr. SCOTT OLDHAM (Editor, Edmunds' Inside Line): I don't think the guys in Washington that are, you know, 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.
LANGFITT: Despite the Camaro's early success, Oldham says it can't save GM. It's a niche vehicle with limited base of buyers.
Mr. OLDHAM: If they sell 75,000, they'll chalk that up as a big year.
LANGFITT: 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 can not only grab attention, but also lift worker morale during a tough time in the auto industry.
Mr. OLDHAM: I think they motivate the employees of the company. You know, not everyone got into the car business to sell boring sedans to boring people.
LANGFITT: And not everybody 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.
Mr. LEE FLEISHMAN (Bagel Store Manager): As soon as I got it, my wife said she didn't really believe me that people were really responding to it. 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.
LANGFITT: Measuring the Camaro's success won't be easy. 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.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.
WERTHEIMER: You can see the transformation of the Camaro at npr.org.
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