Pony Express

By J.G. Pasterjak
Jul 10, 2002 | Chevrolet, Ford | Posted in Shop Work | From the March 1997 issue | Never miss an article

When the dinosaurs were wiped off the face of the earth, lots of fire and explosions and tidal waves and cool stuff like that occurred. When the Camaro is eventually nixed, there will probably be no such theatrics.

It’s sad, too. We probably all realize that these cars are, indeed, dinosaurs-throwbacks to another age when V8s thumped, fat tires steamrolled the landscape, and live rear axles jittered over uneven parts of said landscape. While that may sound like a prehistoric description of motoring, it is one that will be sorely missed. Soon, Chevy will pull the plug on the Camaro (and the Pontiac Firebird will die as well). Luckily for enthusiasts, these cars will be remembered as models that just kept getting better right up until the day the big corporate meteor hit.

Our recent drive of a Camaro SS convertible showed that while the platform may be dated, it still works extremely well. The Camaro’s body structure, even with a sizable chunk of it removed, is reasonable stiff. Not Lexus stiff, mind you, but it goes over bumps without slapping body panels against one another, and the large, heavy doors close with a reassuring “thump” rather than the nightmarish “clang” of mid-1980s F-body cars.

However, GM is still behind the rest of the world in interior appointments-they just never learned to go to the same plastic store that Toyota visits, and certain controls feel dated. The turn signal/cruise/wiper stalk, for example, is straight out of a 1982 Buick Regal. The seats are comfortable, if a bit short in the leg, but support is fine for spirited driving, and the seat belt hugs you in all the right spots.

But Camaros aren’t about hugs. They’re about putting the top down, popping the T-tops, or simply opening the windows, letting loose the big V8 and allowing your mullet to flap in the breeze.

The 325-horsepower LS1 in the latest SS can certainly produce plenty of breeze, too. Coupled to a four-speed automatic in our test car, the Camaro jumped to 60 mph from a dead stop in a sho-lo stretching 5.9 seconds. The car seems a bit heavy coming off the line (and at nearly 3500 pounds, it is), but once all that mass is moving, the automatic is no detriment to performance. When you have 350 lb.-ft. of torque available, it really doesn’t matter what kind of gearbox you have, as long as the power gets to the ground.

Around corners, the SS is a typical Camaro: It has a nice, flat cornering attitude and tracks well thanks to its short/long arm wishbone front suspension. The car is easily upset by bumps in the rear thanks to its solid rear axle, but in the grand scheme of things, that really isn’t a big deal. If you autocross or road race a Camaro, chances are you do it on a relatively flat surface; if you’re driving fast enough on city streets that the rear end movement is a problem, then you’re going too fast, anyway.

Bottom line: press pedal = go; move wheel = turn; own Camaro SS = smile.

Ford SVT Mustang Cobra

The Ford SVT Mustang Cobra we sampled shortly after the Camaro seemed a great deal more refined than the GM product, but that didn't add up to any more or less fun. The Cobra is a great car, though, and its high-revving, 320-horsepower, 4.6-liter, four-cam V8 really sounds sweet when you wind it hard. The Mustang Cobra is, for all practical purposes, the Camaro SS' performance match. How it goes about producing that performance seems a bit more sophisticated, though. Where the Camaro is a classic hot rod-big tires, big engine, big thrust-the Cobra feels more refined. Interior appointments have a nicer, more European feel to them. (The suede seat inserts don't hurt, either.) The aforementioned engine makes its power through high revs and many valves instead of pure displacement. And the Cobra-spec independent rear suspension-somewhat of a Pony car coup-gives the Mustang's chassis a bit more stability in a variety of situations.

Please don't get the impression that we like one appreciably more than the other, though. Both are excellent cars that get the job done, they just go about it differently.

Mustang GT

Which brings us to the "regular" Mustang GT. Although the standard, twin-cam 4.6-liter gives away nearly 60 horsepower to the high-revving Cobra, in most situations it really doesn't feel all that different. In fact, the torque curve of the normal GT feels identical to that of the Cobra up to about 5000 rpm, where those exceptional Cobra heads free up a bunch of extra power for the high end.

On the minus side for the Mustang, the seats are a bit high, cutting into headroom and making the reach to the pedals a bit awkward for the short-legged. And the action of the throttle on both Fords is not at all progressive, providing about 25-percent throttle for about the first 75 percent of the pedal travel, and the other 75 percent of throttle for the last little squeeze on the gas. Our guess is that this was done as a fuel-saving measure to keep folks from roasting the tires every time they pull out of the 7-11. It does make spirited driving a matter of expert foot control, however.

Overall, we're happy with the current crop of pony cars, even if they are the last of the breed. Even the "regular" Mustang with its live rear axle gives little away to the Cobra and its independent rear suspension. And the performance of the top-of-the-line models would have put you in supercar territory just a few years ago. Bottom line, if you want one, get one now.

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