The Nation's Pulse

2008 Camaro: Dead on Arrival?

Who can afford to spend an extra $300 a month feeding a gas pig?

By 6.12.07

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Automotive journalists, bloggers and others have expressed great enthusiasm for the revived Camaro sports couple that GM plans to bring back to market sometime in mid-late 2008. Packing at least 400 horses in Z28 form and with hunky-looking retro-'60s sheetmetal, it's easy enough to understand the excitement.

But liking the car and buying the car are two very different things. GM may be in for a rude surprise -- and left holding the bag (again).

Consider it. I very much like Ferraris. But unless my financial situation changes for the better considerably, all my lust will never translate into an F430 parked in my driveway.

Now granted, the new Camaro is no six-figure Ferrari. But it is a double-digit gas pig. That comes with the big V-8 (and big V-6, in base models) under its hood. With gas cresting $3 per gallon, topping off the 20-something gallon tank of a V-8 muscle car will run you about $70. And that will last you about a week, maybe. So $300 bucks per month for fuel.

That has to hurt. For Average Joes, anyhow.

How many buyers in the 21-35 age bracket (the target demographic for V-8 muscle cars) can handle $300 for gas each month -- on top of the cost to insure a notorious hell-raiser and ticket-generator? Figure annual operating costs for the typical male driver, about 30 years old, at about $5,000 or so (that's $3,600 for gas plus an insurance bill around $1,500 -- which is probably lowballing it).

And it's not just buyers who have to worry about MPGs. Government fuel economy requirements (CAFE) are going up to 35 mpg for passenger cars. That may mean a "Gas guzzler" fine for the 20-something MPG (on a good day, with a very light foot) Z28. Tack that extra grand onto the sticker price -- and watch GM's "fleet average" CAFE numbers fall. Even the base V-6 car is not going to be a star, fuel-efficiency wise -- not when compared with smaller, lighter import sport compacts that can deliver equivalent (or better) performance with just a four-cylinder engine. No gas guzzler levies for them, either.

And unlike a 15 mpg SUV, the pending Camaro (like all Camaros before it) isn't even plausibly useful -- with its clown car trunk and for show-only rear seats. Try selling the wife.

Good luck.

So it comes down to what you might call an "indulgence purchase" -- but isn't that what the Corvette's already there for? For the Average Joe target demographic, meanwhile, the car's profligate ways present an unpleasant, perhaps insurmountable, impediment.

GM needs to step back and give this some thought. Because for the '08 Camaro to succeed, it must sell in pretty large numbers. And that requires Average Joes. And Janes.

Last go 'round, the honchos pulled the plug when the F-cars (insider speak for the Camaro and its now-defunct sister car, the Pontiac Firebird) slid to fewer than 40,000 cars sold between them, circa 2002. Gas was still cheap then, too -- around $1.50 per.

Now it's more than twice that, and very likely to climb higher. Four dollars per gallon by 2008 is not at all fantastic. It could easily happen, especially if things go sour with Iran (or even more sour in Iraq). Meanwhile, the U.S. housing market's gone shaky and unless you happen to be a Wall Street player or no-bid defense contractor, you're likely not feeling too strong, money-wise. That new Camaro looks great; bet it's a hoot to drive. I'd love to have one, myself. But $300 per month for gas? Uh, not for me, thanks.

Reality check time.

Okay, maybe there are some older, more affluent (and easier to insure) potentials out there who might be interested? Doubtful. Remember the new GTO? Older, more affluent buyers usually don't buy Chevys (or Pontiacs). Not a value judgment -- and no offense to Chevy intended. Just a fact. Once you get to the entry-luxury price point -- around $30,000 or so -- buyers in that demographic want a more upscale car. A BMW, or an Acura. Chevy just doesn't cut it, image-wise. (Ask VW about this. Nothing wrong with the Phaeton, either. But few buyers lined up to pay six figures for a "people's car.")

GM has more than just Camaro on deck, too. The new rear-drive/V-8 powered Pontiac G8 muscle sled is just now becoming available -- and at the worst possible moment. It comes to market as fuel prices are skyrocketing and sales of vehicles that lap unleaded premium like a diabetic Great Dane are tanking.

Ford's Mustang is also slipping badly, notwithstanding a universally well-received makeover just two years ago, and more standard horsepower (300) than any Mustang before it ever boasted. Ditto the Dodge Charger R/T. As wondrous as its 345-horse Hemi may be to play with, its obnoxious appetite for unleaded premium is simply unsustainable for Joe Sixpack. And it is upon the buying choices of Joe Sixpack that the success or failure of a car like the soon-to-here Camaro depends.

Consider this: According to auto industry analysts J.D. Power & Associates, sales of compact cars have grown from about a fifth of the market to nearly a third this year. And sales of high-mileage models like the Prius hybrid have absolutely exploded. They now account for 3.4 percent of the market, up from a mere 0.4 percent in 2004. Anything with a V-8 is trending the other way.

Bottom line: GM probably waited far too long to get back into the V-8/rear-drive game. There was a brief moment during the late '90s and until about 2004 (just before Katrina) when cars like the Mustang, Charger, and other mid-priced V-8 maulers made at least some sense. Because the middle and working class types who are these cars' natural market were in a position to indulge themselves. That window, however, has slammed shut so suddenly and with such force that those who didn't see it coming got their fingers caught.

In a world of $4 per gallon unleaded premium, the mass-market V-8 muscle car is an impossibility. It's one thing to keep a vintage '67 Camaro in the garage for the occasional pleasure cruise. It's quite another to expect fifty or sixty thousand Average Joes to sign up for a $400 monthly payment -- and a $300 per month gas bill.

Someone at GM has confused wishes and wants with signing a sales order. It's going to be a rude and ugly awakening come 2008.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.