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A Muscle Car to the Rescue for General Motors

2010 Chevy Camaro
Source: chevrolet.com
2010 Chevy Camaro

Believe it or not, General Motors has a hit car on its hands.

Amid the gloom of bankruptcy and a miserable market for new vehicles, G.M.’s new Chevrolet Camaro muscle car is winning over consumers looking for a little excitement in a bland landscape of look-alike sedans and watered-down sport utilities.

G.M. sold 9,300 Camaros during the month of June — more than either its entire Buick or Cadillac divisions could muster on their own.

And with G.M. expected to emerge Friday from bankruptcy as a newly constituted company, it is hardly surprising that the Camaro will play a starring role in the company’s coming-out party and news conference at G.M.’s Detroit headquarters.

G.M.’s chief executive, Fritz Henderson, and new chairman, Edward Whitacre, plan to offer the Camaro as proof that a comeback is under way.

A product renaissance, of course, cannot be led solely by a retro-styled sports car that harks back to the horsepower hysteria of the 1960s. But in its short time on the market, the Camaro has brought some much-needed buzz to G.M. showrooms.

“You need excitement at G.M.,” said Joseph Phillippi, a principal in the firm AutoTrends Consulting. “And you certainly need something new.”

The latest edition of the Camaro is tapping into nostalgia some drivers have for the glory days of the American auto industry.

Its long hood, rakish grille and brawny fenders echo the powerful look of the Camaro in its heyday, when G.M., Ford and Chrysler turned out tire-squealing cars that defined Detroit.

While it comes with a big V-8 as an option, the base model has a 6-cylinder engine that gets 22 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

It is also priced for the mainstream buyer — about $23,000 for the base version, and up to $32,000 for the loaded V-8 model.

G.M. began taking orders for the Camaro last fall, and buyers put down deposits on 14,000 of them before the first one was built in March at its plant in Oshawa, Ontario.

“The cars are coming into the dealerships, getting cleaned up and then delivered to customers almost immediately,” said Karen K. Rafferty, a Chevrolet marketing executive.

She said that G.M. had a six-day supply of Camaros nationally; 60 days is considered the norm in the industry.

That level of demand is rare these days, as automakers choke on unsold inventories in the worst market for new vehicles in the United States in more than 25 years.

It has been some time since G.M. could lay claim to having the hottest new vehicle on dealer lots.

The company’s sales in the United States during the first six months of the year were down 40 percent, compared with 35 percent for the overall market.

G.M. has also suffered through an avalanche of negative publicity since it first appealed for financial help from the federal government last fall.

The company has been subsisting on government loans since January, and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on June 1. By the end of the year, the Obama administration is expected to have spent $50 billion on rescuing G.M.

G.M. will be radically smaller as a privately held, government-controlled company. Four of its eight divisions, including Saturn and Pontiac, will be sold or closed, and several car and truck models will be discontinued.

With G.M. shrinking, hot products like the Camaro become more critical to its survival.

Chevrolet executives said the car was already providing a halo effect for more conventional Chevrolet products, like the Equinox and Traverse S.U.V.’s (now often called “crossovers” because they are lighter and more fuel-efficient than older sport utility vehicles).

“The car is bringing in people to the showrooms,” Ms. Rafferty said. “They’re looking at a Camaro, but they may end up buying a Traverse.”

The car has also gotten a marketing boost from its featured role in the current blockbuster film “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

It has been a long road back for the Camaro, which had its debut in 1966 but was dropped from G.M.’s lineup in 2002.

G.M.’s product comeback could get help from a decision by Robert A. Lutz, its long-time car czar, to stay with the company rather than retire at the end of the year. Mr. Lutz, an early supporter of bringing back the Camaro, is expected to announce Friday that he will remain with G.M. in an unspecified executive capacity, according to a person familiar with his decisions.

G.M. has consistently declined to reveal its sales targets for the Camaro, which ranked as the 13th-best-selling car in the country in June and outsold its traditional rival, the Ford Mustang.

G.M.’s senior executives are loath to make sales projections, particularly for a niche car like the Camaro that can fall out of favor just as quickly.

“We’ve been told rather strongly by top management not to put a number out there,” said Terry Rhadigan, a G.M. spokesman.

But G.M.’s dealers are less reserved.

“Interest has been phenomenal,” said Paul W. Doddridge, owner of Connell Chevrolet in Costa Mesa, Calif. “It’s the best car they have come out with in years.”

One of his first customers was Scott Wilbur, a 40-year-old elementary school principal who bought a silver V-8 Camaro in June.

Mr. Wilbur had not purchased a G.M. vehicle in a decade, and traded in his Honda Civic hybrid to buy the Camaro.

He even gave up his California-issued sticker to drive in hybrid-only carpool lanes to get behind the wheel of his new muscle car.

“I might not be as environmentally friendly, but at this point I don’t mind waiting in traffic to drive this,” he said.

Mr. Wilbur said the Camaro has improved his impression of G.M. to the point where he has put a deposit down on a Chevrolet Volt, the hybrid-electric model due out next year.

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