Camaro Z28 SS -- Bargain-priced speed

Driving the SS version of this year's Z28 Camaro is like motoring around with a big sign on your tail saying, "Arrest Me." Even the garden-variety Z28 carries a Corvette V8 which provides plenty of opportunity to put speeding points on your driving record. The $3,950 SS option injects 15 more horsepower into the already powerful Corvette engine. The result is about 320 hp at 5,200 rpm. Torque peaks at 345 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm.

Car magazines that have timed the SS-equipped Camaro say it does no better than conventional Z28s in 0-to-60 mph times (5.2 sec). However, the extra horsepower and bigger tires push the car to 100 mph in 12 sec, 1 sec quicker than the Z28. These reports also peg the SS version at about a tenth of a second quicker in the quarter mile.

Readers tempted to verify these times for themselves should know the SS rides on 17-in. wheels and Goodyear Eagle F1 high-performance tires. They put a 9-in.-wide track of rubber on the pavement, but replacements cost $238 each at the dealer we checked. In contrast, Z28s without the SS option run on 16-in. tires which go for a mere $150 a piece.

Topping off the SS option are dual 2.75-in. tailpipes, a power-steering cooler, and a high-performance ride and handling package. This basically adds higher spring and damping rates plus a beefier antiroll bar in the front. Externally, the SS Camaro can be distinguished from slower Z28s by a distinctive spoiler with an LED high-mounted stoplamp, SS badging, and a fiberglass hood with a forced-air induction scoop.

A six-speed manual Hurst stick is a $325 option that comes in handy for evoking fighter jet-style high-g acceleration. It takes some getting used to, though, and new drivers will probably find themselves missing the occasional shift. But its ease-of-use features emerge soon enough. A short throw makes for fast and smooth upshifts. And sixth gear is wonderful for highway driving, allowing the car to lope along at 70 mph while turning a mere 1,600 rpm. This road gear, plus the ability to optionally skip second or third during upshifts, boosts the highway and city mpg ratings to a decent 27 and 18, respectively.

Potential buyers who opt for acceleration slip regulation, a $450 option, will be pleasantly surprised by the performance of this behemoth on wet pavement. ASR keeps hydroplaning, and other potentially slippery conditions, from being much of a problem, despite the wide tires. Engaging ASR selectively applies braking to one rear wheel and cuts the throttle somewhat as a corrective measure. I'd recommend this addition to prospective owners, as the car tends to fishtail around corners without it.

Power and speed are clearly the strong points for the SS. Its weakest areas are probably fit and finish. Careful observers will notice a lot of gaps on the exterior sheet metal. For example, where most cars have a relatively small opening in the cowl to hold windshield wipers, the Z28 SS has a gaping chasm.Nor are ergonomics in the passenger compartment the best. There's a cup holder in the center console that will never be used because it interferes with the driver's shifting arm. "Bucketlike" back seats look better than ordinary bench seats but are still uncomfortable even for small occupants, as my 5-ft 4-in. wife will attest. Rear legroom is basically nonexistent, and trunk space is at a premium.

Still, roomy backseats and trunks have never been selling points for the Camaro. It's hard to knock the car for these minor faults simply because potential buyers already know they aren't getting a family sedan.Leather trimmed bucket seats are a $500 option that look and feel better than the cloth seats standard in the Z28. A preferred equipment package includes a six-way power driver seat and steering wheel-mounted radio controls which by themselves might be worth the extra $1,715. Also bundled in are an electronic speed control, a remote hatch release, fog lamps, power door locks, windows, and outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, a theft-deterrent system, and bodyside moldings.

Another option on the vehicle we tested was a $170 rear-window defogger, advisable because of the large window area over the rear deck. A remote CD changer and premium audio system accounted for another $695. The various add-ons plus a $535 destination charge brought the total vehicle cost to $29,070, from a base price of $21,265 for a plain vanilla Z28. Considering that Corvettes equipped with similar horsepower go for upwards of $40,000 or more, it's no wonder Chevy is reportedly working at full capacity to meet the demand for these screamers.

--Leland Teschler