Why make a V-6 Camaro?

You might think that the current chapter in the continuing “pony car” battle is all about which manufacturer can produce the model with the most earth-shaking horsepower. Not quite.

Sure, there are 400- and 500-horsepower-plus Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Challengers around that will rock your world and loosen your fillings the moment you drop the clutch and punch the throttle. However, the real battle is for sales volume and is being fought, for the most part, with lower-priced six-cylinder weaponry, such as the humble-pie V-6 Camaro.

General Motors’ Bowtie division has a bonafide hit on its hands with its newly reconstituted coupe. With stylish good looks and gobs of available V-8 power, what’s not to like?

Well, there are a couple of issues. First of all, the top-range SS model is currently the only way you can equip your Camaro with Chevrolet’s 426-horsepower, Corvette-sourced LS3 V-8 engine. And selecting that version will set you back at least $31,600, including destination charges. That’s at least $8,000 more than a base $23,500 Camaro LS. Eight grand will pay for plenty of gas-bar pit stops, groceries, mortgage payments or other necessities.

Also to be considered is that insurance firms tend to sock it to drivers of vehicles such as the SS. Then there’s the extra fuel costs (unless you’re able to drive the SS as if the gas pedal’s on fire) and the added expense of replacing 20-inch Pirelli P Zeros, likely on a more frequent basis with the V-8.

The six-cylinder Camaro’s chief competitors are the $23,500 Dodge Challenger SE that runs with a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and the perennial favorite Ford Mustang that rolls in with a $21,500 pricetag.

By playing it frugal and opting for the junior-edition Camaro, you’ll be passing up on the SS’s extra content and sub-5-second blasts to 60 mph, but then that’s not everyone’s cup of chamomile. The base Camaro delivers a gutsy 304 horsepower from its 3.6-liter V-6, which is 104 horses more than the previous-generation 1993-’02 Camaro and only 21 fewer ponies than the 5.7-liter V-8 in that year’s SS model. Note however that the latest V-6 Camaro’s portly 3,780-pound curb weight tops its 2002 ancestor by more than 450 pounds, yet it can still touch 60 mph from rest in the not-too-slouchy six-second range. Interestingly, the Mustang plans to introduce an upgraded base model with a 305-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 for the 2011 model year.

As with the SS, the V-6 Camaro comes with a six-speed manual transmission, or optional six-speed automatic with manual gear selection.

Straightline performance issues aside, the base LS offers a decent level of standard equipment beyond the expected air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors. A tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, remote keyless entry, power-reclining driver’s seat and a basic radio with external music source plug-in are also part of this entry unit.

Move up to the 1LT and the list grows to include foglamps, six-way power driver’s chair and 18-inch alloy wheels (18-inch steelies are standard), while the 2LT equipment group adds a floor-console-mounted gauge cluster, heated, leather-covered front seats, premium nine-speaker sound system and 19-inch wheels.

The optional RS content grouping has been designed to give the LT Camaro the look of the SS with 20-inch rims, a rear spoiler and unique headlamps and taillights. The RS is a head-turning machine, as opposed to a tire-shredding machine, with great road manners and sporty handling. Aside from some minor interior quibbles over signal-light placement (right behind the upper rim of the steering wheel) and what appears to be haphazard arrangement of the heating and ventilation controls, the only major complaint is a fatigue-inducing interior drone at highway speeds. And, of course, the obvious question, “Why would you get a Camaro without a V-8?”

Easy. Money. Studiously avoiding the temptation of the option sheet is obviously the best way to avoid bumping into the SS in the price range. In that way, you’ll be able to gloat about the savings you’ve achieved, while still enjoying the relative performance strengths of a strong-running V-6 that can at least nip at the heels of its SS stable mate.

Correction: Photos of a Lincoln MKZ and an Acura TSX were inadvertantly switched in Dec. 11’s “By Comparison” breakout box, which outlined the Buick Regal’s competitors.

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