2001 Chevrolet Camaro SS and Pontiac Firebird Firehawk First Drive

2001 Chevrolet Camaro Coupe

(3.8L V6 5-speed Manual)

F-Body Swan Song

Since 1993, the Camaro in Z28 form and the Firebird in Trans Am or Formula trim have been in a class by themselves. Sure, you Ford freaks out there (this author included) can get on your soapbox and croon all you want about your Fox-body 5.0s, 4.6 Cobras and current two-valve GTs, but c'mon guys, get real! GM's bad-boy F-bodies have been kickin' sand in your face at the playground ever since the LT1 — and now the LS1 starting with the '98s — came on the scene. The playing field just hasn't been level and the Bowtie and Tin Indian boys like it just fine that way, thank you.

Rewinding the American pony-car performance tape back 10 years reveals that the picture was exactly the opposite. You could go into a Ford dealer and buy a '91, 5.0-liter LX coupe or hatchback for about 15 bills that was simply twice the car that the '91 Z28 was. Yeah, you could get a TPI (tuned-port injection) 350-cube small-block in that third-gen F-car, but the potential just wasn't there. Today, that same Mustang 5.0 from the late '80s and early '90s is the '55 Chevy of the 21st Century. Third-generation GM F-cars are just old news.

But those '93 F-cars, oh those '93s. There was 5.7-liter LT1 power, a T56 six-speed trans and a super-sexy shape. It was sweet revenge against those Fox 5.0s that were ruling the roost ever since Ford EEC-IV fuel injection made its debut in 1986. From a pure thrill-inducing performance standpoint, the current fourth-gen F-bodies are now the best they've ever been. And to twist the dagger in a little deeper for those who bleed blue, SLP Engineering submits its current iteration of the Camaro SS and Firebird Firehawk for your perusal.

As we mentioned, the biggest recent update to the F-car platform was the addition of the GEN III LS1 small-block in 1998. Since then, F-car evolution has been relatively uneventful. And while the LT1 did the Mustang-spanking deed in fine fashion for the first five years, the LS1's tuning potential is really on another planet. Rated in the F-car at 305 horsepower from the outset in the '98s, the LS1 is the baddest factory small-block that Chevrolet has ever produced. For 2001, the LS1 is rated at 310 horsepower in standard Z28s and T/As. Add the SLP content to the picture and the prognosis for Mustang boys gets even more grim.

But we're only talking pure performance here. Most in the know, when it comes to the ongoing F-body/Mustang feud, have heard the story when it comes to sales figures. The Mustang outsells the GM twins by a margin of nearly two to one. And that's part of the reason for the likely demise of the Camaro and Firebird.

It's a downright shame when you look at what these cars are now. In typical GM fashion, once they really get something right, they decide to pull the plug on it. For example the '94-'96, Corvette LT1-powered Impala SS that was right on the money in its final year with analog gauges and a floor shifter. The whole B-body program at the Arlington, Texas, plant was snuffed after the '96 model year to make room for Tahoe/Yukon SUV production.

The word now is that the St. Therese, Quebec, Canada facility where Camaros and Firebirds are built is not going to be retooled for F-car production after the 2002 model year. So what plan of action does that leave for you? Quite simply, get one now, while you can — because once they're gone, that's it.

What we're talking about, of course, are the 2001 F-bodies that are seemingly only a year away from extinction. Our recent bit of seat time in these SLP-fortified bruisers drove home the fact of how sad it'll be when you can no longer buy one from your local Chevy or Pontiac dealership.

Involved with Firebirds since 1991, SLP Engineering is entering into its 10th year of upgrading Pontiac's F-body. Five years ago, SLP also teamed up with Chevrolet to debut the '96 Camaro SS.

But back in the beginning, SLP had a fairly humble beginning. Originally, SLP stood for "Street Legal Performance." Started by drag racer Ed Hamburger, who made a well-respected name for himself marketing mainly oil pans, Hamburger's oil pans became a standard for all kinds of NHRA professional and sportsman drag racers. At one point in 1994, the pans were also used by 83 percent of all NASCAR Winston Cup teams. Eventually, Hamburger wanted to switch gears and did so after realizing he wanted to modify a production street car and make it better.

Getting a start by offering SLP parts in the GM Performance Parts catalog in 1990, Hamburger successfully lobbied Pontiac for approval to do a limited-production version '91 Firebird Firehawk. At the time, the highest-rated, 5.7-liter TPI small-block in either Camaro or Firebird made 245 horsepower and could only be had with an automatic transmission. The SLP '91 Firehawk was a heavily modified car with significant internal engine upgrades to the tune of 350 horsepower. That car was a hit with the enthusiast press and would crack 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. The problem was that it was a $20,000 package on a $20,000 car and production of the third-gen ('82-'92) F-body was almost over.

Taking a hard hit on those first Firehawks, Hamburger was still undaunted. He came back in 1993 with a revised Firehawk based on the then all-new F-body. Working with Pontiac, Hamburger was able to market a car with a much less complex, but still distinctive package. With 300 horsepower (stock LT1s at the time were rated at 275) and an MSRP of less than 25 grand, SLP-fortified F-bodies were off and running.

From 25 total sales with the '91 Firehawk, the new car generated 200 orders in the first 37 days of the 1993 model year. In 1994, SLP sold 500 cars, while 1995 saw 742 Firehawks fly out of the SLP nest.

The biggest jump for SLP came when they got the full support of Chevrolet with the debut of the Camaro Z28 SS. Better known as simply the Camaro SS; this car is now the bread and butter for SLP. In 1996, 2,420 Camaro SSs were sold and 1997 sales jumped to 3,430.

As of July 2000, a whopping 8,900 Camaro SSs have been sold in the 2000 model year. In addition, Firehawk has done well with 721 deliveries in 1999 and about 800 for 2000. For 2001, SLP expects about 1,500 Firehawks to leave Pontiac lots, while Bowtied Camaro SS production is expected to be up around 10,000 units.

When talking about the 2001 models, we'll note again that significant mechanical changes to these cars have been minimal since 1998, when the 5.7-liter GEN III LS1 replaced the GEN II LT1 small-block V8. However, there are a number of things worth talking about, including the fact that now, while you still have the chance, is the time to get one of these cars.

As for what SLP adds to the standard Z28 or Trans Am/Formula, the most notable items are a functional cold-air inlet system (Ram Air on the Pontiacs) and 17-inch wheels and tires. From there, optional content on the SLP cars is extensive if not somewhat confusing. To try and put a finer point on it, however, we'll note that '01 SS models can be ordered with a custom grille with the SS logo, a new rear fascia treatment that includes center-mounted exhaust and rear ground effects, either the 10-spoke '00 style, or five-spoke '99 style wheels in chrome plating, BFG Comp TA KD 275/40ZR17 tires and a choice of two suspension upgrades. Both apply to the Chevy and Pontiac, and offer larger 35mm antisway bars up front (up from 32mm), while the rear bar is enlarged from 19 to 21mm. The Bilstein package includes SLP progressive-rate springs and Bilstein shocks.

A bit more radical is the 1LE package, which includes beefier upper and lower control arm bushings up front, in the rear control arms and in the rear panhard rod. The 1LE setup also includes Koni shocks.

An optional exhaust system on both cars adds 10 horsepower to the picture for a total of 335, while an Auburn limited-slip differential is also available that includes an aluminum axle cover.

Touching briefly on Firehawk-specific items, you Pontiac fans will want to know that all Firehawks will ride on improved Firestone Firehawk tires in the requisite 275/40ZR17 size. Furthermore, the Firehawk is celebrating its 10th Anniversary in the '01 model year. According to SLP, that makes it the longest-running niche car in GM history. This version will be black with gold stripes, gold exterior graphics and ornamentation; painted wheels with specific center caps; and a unique rear spoiler that has a full-width center high-mounted brake light. SLP plans on making 1000 of these cars available.

SLP is also going to offer V6 packages for the Camaro and Firebird, which will be known as the Camaro RS and Firebird GT. Along with some visual cues, the V6 cars will come with take-off V8 exhaust systems from the Z28 and Trans Am/Formula, which SLP says will add five horsepower to the 200-horse 3.8-liter motor. Optional will be 16x8-inch SS or Firehawk-style wheels and a suspension package that uses standard V8 front and rear antisway bars in 32 and 19mm sizes, respectively.

We drove all four cars — that is the Camaro SS, Firehawk, Camaro RS, and Firebird GT — and came away with a sad feeling simply because it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that these cars are going away. The V6s are the same as they have been since the 3.8-liter V6 came on board in 1997. The V8 cars also have the same overall feel that the F-car has had since the fourth-gen car appeared in 1993. That means serious grin-inducing thrust that's now good for 13-second quarter-mile blasts, enough grip on the street for plenty of backroad antics, less-than-ideal overall packaging (the Mustang is really smaller on the outside and bigger on the inside) and build quality that could always be better. As we've said, the 305 horsepower LS1 V8 that's been available in the F-body since 1998 provides an experience you won't find in any other car today — especially when price is factored in. And while the Mustang Cobra R and Corvette compete in the same league, the price of admission on those cars is considerably higher. Further comments can be found in our '99 Camaro SS and Firebird Formula WS6 road tests. Whatever is said there applies to the '01 models, since there are no significant mechanical changes to the F-body platform.

One area that's also worth commenting on for those of you looking to possibly purchase and modify an SLP F-body (or any LS1-powered Camaro or Firebird, for that matter) is the awesome tuning potential of the LS1. While speaking one day with a GM LT1/LS1 tuning shop here in the L.A. area, we found out that the learning curve on the LS1 is just beginning to flourish. In fact, getting an LS1 to make 400 horsepower with basic hot-rodding tricks like improved exhaust systems and cylinder head work is getting easier on an almost daily basis. Right off the bat, all LS1s are rated with at least 305 horsepower, compared to the peak of LT1 power which came in the '97s with 285.

It's clear SLP is working on a finite time line when it comes to GM's pony car. That's too bad, because it has done an impressive job over the past several years to add an exclusive touch to the lineup, especially when you consider that SLP receives absolutely no volume commitment whatsoever from Chevrolet or Pontiac. If no vehicle orders are received, no cars are built — plain and simple. The company has to earn the orders on their own. And judging from sales figures, SLP has earned the respect of not only Chevrolet and Pontiac, but F-body fans the world over, as well.

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