DETROIT - Is there enough resonance left in the Camaro name to justify saving it?
That's the question General Motors is wrestling with as it prepares to kill the current version of the car and shut the plant in St. Therese, Quebec, where the Camaro and its F-platform mate, the Pontiac Firebird, are built.
GM has not announced officially its intent to drop the two sport coupes, although their demise has been an open secret in Detroit for more than a year.
Some dealers interviewed for this article last week said they have been told by GM that next year will be the two cars' last.
The 2002 models are slated to go into production in May. In an attempt to create a buzz for both vehicles, sources say, a 35th Anniversary Edition Camaro and a Firebird Collectors Edition are planned.
Weighing every option
In the meantime, Chevrolet acknowledges that it's looking at every possible option for keeping the Camaro name alive.
'We have every intention of keeping Camaro going. We're pretty much looking everywhere, on every program,' said Tom Wilkinson, Chevrolet's communication manager.
'As GM moves to global platforms, there are more options. But there's absolutely nothing approved yet.'
Pontiac, meanwhile, says it too is 'looking at possibilities' for a next-generation Firebird and will reveal its plans before the end of the year.
'Officially, no decision has been made. Nothing is in the works,' said Pontiac spokesman Tony Sapienza. 'We will have an announcement of some kind later in the year. Anything's possible.'
Withering on the vine
Despite a distinguished history - the two cars debuted in 1967, helping to define the muscle-car segment - F-car sales have been on downward spiral for most of the past decade.
While sales of the Ford Mustang rose 4 percent last year to 173,676, Camaro sales totaled just 42,131, although that was up 3.4 percent. Firebird sales tumbled 9.1 percent, to 31,013.
The current-generation cars debuted for the 1993 model year and have been largely untouched since. Analysts have been sharply critical of GM for allowing the two cars to wither on the vine by starving them of marketing and engineering dollars.
'Camaro is a great name. It's a shame that it's been allowed to flounder for so long,' said Jim Hossack, senior consultant at AutoPacific in Tustin, Calif.
'Ford has spent more time and effort trying to make the Mustang a success. Ford advertised it, marketed it and developed the product a little bit every year or every few years. If you don't nurture something, it dies.'
Gary Lapidus, an analyst with Goldman Sachs in New York, said GM should realize that the Camaro name still has some magic for car buyers, despite the poor sales.
'Lord knows, GM has only a few brands that mean a lot to the consumer, and that's one of them,' he said.
Is there a market?
Lapidus suggests that GM reinvent the Camaro as a sport sedan. Chevrolet marketed the Caprice-based Impala SS sedan from 1994 through 1996.
'If people think there's no market for a high-performance sedan, I think they ought to take a look at the BMW 3 series. If it is the right product and the right brand, you can make good money,' Lapidus said.
Reg Harris of SLP Engineering, the Troy, Mich., company that produces the Camaro SS conversions for Chevrolet and the Firehawk for Pontiac, said surveys of Camaro SS owners show that there could be a market for such a car.
'We receive comments from upscale owners who would love to have an American-made, 300-horsepower, four-door sports car,' he said.
A major issue for GM is how to rationalize production for a Camaro replacement. The car's sales volume makes it a difficult production candidate, Wilkinson said.
'There is not enough volume to justify running a (full-sized) plant, but it's not so low that you could justify doing a specialized plant or a specialized manufacturing setup,' he said.
'It is really hard to make a business case for anything in between.'
Wilkinson said many other questions also need to be answered before a decision can be made.
'What is a Camaro, what does it stand for as a brand, what does it need to be as a product? There are some realistic issues of how you work it into a platform strategy,' he said.'
The platform issue is crucial to enthusiasts. As more and more cars have switched to front drive over the years, Camaro and Firebird have stayed true to their heritage of rear-wheel drive and V-8 power. But what about the future?
'If you look at what the brand stands for, it has to have a certain drivetrain configuration,' Wilkinson said. 'The next car needs to be an appropriate evolution of the current concept.'
GM is developing a new rear-drive platform called Sigma for some next-generation Cadillacs and the replacement for the Buick Park Avenue, but it never was envisioned for inexpensive cars such as the Camaro, said Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific's Southfield, Mich., office.
Meanwhile, industry sources say GM has a development team discreetly creating the next-generation Camaro using financial resources siphoned from other product-development programs - similar to the way the current generation C5 Corvette was created.
But that is only one part of a product-development equation, Hall said.
'Now you have to put it into production,' he said. 'You have to get parts that are affordable to make a $25,000 car, or it's never going to make the hurdle.
'They want the car, but it is has to make financial sense. I don't think (GM President) Rick Wagoner is going to let stuff go through that is borderline or full of science-fiction numbers.'