The Chevrolet Camaro might not be imported to Australia, but we sure get what it's about. Big, V8-powered cars shaped like Coke bottles are as much a part of Australia's national psyche as beer, beaches and barbecues. In fact Australia makes the best muscle cars in the world.
For proof you don't have to look any farther than the streets of Detroit, where you'll see plenty of 2010 Chevrolet Camaros — a car that had to come through Australia before it was good enough for America. We did the Camaro and the Pontiac G8.
In fact, we Aussies could have given you the next Pontiac GTO, if you'd given us the chance. It was the 2008 Holden Coupe 60, a real American-style muscle car that just happened to be conceived and built in Australia. You know, the country where all the good American muscle cars come from.
Bob Lutz Is an Aussie
By now everybody knows the story of the rear-wheel-drive Zeta platform that Holden began developing back in 1999. Prior to that, Holden's usual modus operandi was to pirate another GM rear-drive platform (usually from Opel), then make it wider and try to adapt carryover equipment. For a long time this meant solid rear axles, although the VT-VZ series Commodores (1997-2006) finally had independent rear suspension thanks to Opel's rear semi-trailing arms.
Once Opel said its rear-wheel-drive Omega would be no more, Holden knew that a carryover of the existing architecture would relegate the next-generation Commodore VE to an unprofitable Oz-only future. Thanks to Bob Lutz's global strategy, the all-new rear-wheel-drive Zeta architecture was developed instead, and although the Zeta plan nearly died when GM unplugged its Oldsmobile division in 2004, a slightly less expensive version was revived for Chevrolet and Pontiac.
You can measure just how good the Commodore VE is by comparing it with the last Holden Monaro. This two-door coupe became a legend in Australia, and you Yanks begged us to sell it in the States. But once we sent it to you as the Pontiac GTO in 2004, you kicked it aside like a cur and it disappeared after 2006. There was a scandal here when Holden stopped making it, but now the Commodore VE's four-link rear suspension, front-steer rack-and-pinion and nearly 50/50 weight distribution have made everyone forget about the Monaro. You just buy the Commodore SS and get on with things.
The Pontiac GTO That Never Was
The Holden HSV Monaro went down in Oz at the end of 2006, when the corporate bean counters reckoned there was no way that a new-generation coupe based on the forthcoming Commodore VE platform could pull its weight on the showroom floor. But there were some who couldn't let go of the past, and the Holden Coupe 60 appeared at the Melbourne auto show in February 2008.
By then, this Commodore-derived concept had already been dead for three years. It had initially been developed as a coupe study on the VE architecture, alongside the sedan, wagon and ute. "It's the same when we do any new architecture," says Peter Hughes, the Holden designer responsible for the Commodore VE. "We do all the variants that could possibly go ahead."
The Commodore two-door didn't move ahead, even though it had been discussed as a possible future version of the Pontiac GTO. We might never have known about it at all had it not been resurrected and dressed in fiberglass and carbon-fiber bodywork to celebrate Holden's 60th anniversary at the 2008 Melbourne Auto Show. CAD drawings and a donor Commodore SS-V sedan were sent to a secret prototype-building outfit in Japan and the show car came back just 12 weeks later.
Yet Here It Is
Though it sits on the same 114.8-inch wheelbase as the Commodore VE sedan (which you Yanks have known as the Pontiac G8), the Coupe 60 still has plenty of visual tension. It's clearly more sporting than the Commodore sedan, with a raked windscreen, a roofline that's lower by 2.4 inches and doors that are longer by 5.8 inches, and an upturned tail shortened by 4.8 inches.
The Coupe 60 actually feels roomier inside than the Commodore sedan. Its pillarless roof design, floating instrument pod and four racing-style bucket seats all help to create more light and space. Hughes admits, though, that the roof never would have made it into production, the recent efforts of Mercedes with its E-Class coupe notwithstanding. "It's still possible to have pillarless design, but you throw in extra tin and weight. It's possible, but ridiculously expensive," he says.
Though the Coupe 60 is a 100 percent runner, it's restricted to show duty by its tires, 245/35R21 front and 285/30R21 rear Kumho items with a tread pattern that hints at Hughes after-hours hobby, an MV Agusta F4 1000 superbike.
With an exhaust system free of catalytic convertors and outlets in the rocker panel, the 6.0-liter Gen IV V8 has a bark like a Ferrari V8, a full octave higher than the timbre you expect from a Detroit-designed engine. It's hooked up to a box-stock, six-speed manual transmission.
How does it drive? Firmly. True to the its "club racer" theme, the Coupe 60 sits somewhere between the sedans from Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) and a car from the Australian V8 Supercar series. It rides stiff as a board on these 21-inch tires, while minimal soundproofing makes even low-speed dawdling an adventure. Plus the minimal comfort of the hard-edged, carbon-fiber racing buckets makes you hope that whatever happens, will happen soon.
The Coupe 60 couldn't have — and wouldn't have — existed like this as a production model. Even so, Hughes takes pride in the Aussie ethic that made it possible. "We just can't spend millions and millions of dollars on show cars without the intention of going forward into production," he says. "It's pretty well known in the GM world that when Holden does a show car, it's usually quite realistic and quite buildable."
The Camaro Connection
The Camaro isn't any stranger to Australia. Naturally the Zeta platform began here, but so, too, did the development of this dramatically shorter version. In fact, the aggressive lines of the 2006 Camaro concept needed a thorough Aussie overhaul to be production-ready.
Holden exterior design manager Peter Hughes was intimately involved in turning the exterior of the Camaro concept (which had been built on a modified Cadillac STS chassis) into something that could be built on a production line. It [couldn't] be produced," says Hughes. "It was pushed to the very limits the way it was, in terms of pressings, proportions, slammed roof and overhangs. The challenge was to move it, and it was a 30mm difference in some areas."
Andrew Holmes, the Camaro's engineering program manager, points out that there's also more to it than looks: "The muscularity and proportions dictate this long dash-to-axle distance. And then, of course, we think 'Aha!' Since the engine goes back inside the wheelbase, the mass distribution gets better. The weight distribution is about 51.5 percent front. With VE it's about 53 percent, so yeah, the Camaro is a little bit better."
Quite unlike the Coupe 60, the Camaro is very clearly a 2+2, not a full-size two-door. It's around 7 inches shorter in wheelbase and yet 3 inches longer in the dash-to-axle measurement. This effectively means 4 inches has been chopped between the B-pillar and the rear axle.
Where the roomy Coupe 60 seems almost hot-tub friendly for four, everything in the Camaro is focused on the front two occupants. Visibility behind the B-pillar is pretty poor, but who cares when you've got that exterior-mirror view back to those squat, hard-edged haunches?
The only thing worse than the fact that we're not making the Holden 60 Coupe as the next Pontiac GTO is the fact that there's no Camaro for sale in Australia. GM canned its program for a right-hand drive Camaro back in February (remember, we drive on the left down here).
But now we hear that one importer experienced in low-volume programs is already engineering a right-hooker Camaro SS. Performax International has just announced that the car will sell for $128,500 (that's in U.S. dollars, not Aussie ones), which is about 50 percent more expensive than Holden Special Vehicles' top four-door models.
We'll be glad when the muscle car that Australia made great is actually on sale in Oz at last. You Americans don't deserve to have it all to yourself.
You lucky, lucky bastards.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.