Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser discusses the future of GM muscle cars
Ford’s next pony car will be offered with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but Camaro fans don’t need to worry. Chevrolet is committed to keeping its muscle car rooted in boisterous big-engine territory.
“We’re not following Ford,” said Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser during the SEMA Show while speaking about whether or not the Blue Oval’s choice to include a forced-induction four pot will weigh on future Camaros.
“As long as they’ll pay me to be the chief engineer, I’m going to fight for every horsepower I can and every cylinder I can,” he said.
It’s a reassuring if not predictable answer from the man largely responsible for Chevrolet’s current hot streak of high-performing pony cars. The Z/28 is perhaps the best indication of GM’s current attitude toward engine size: its 7.0-liter LS7 dwarfs everything else in the segment.
“It’s kind of the golden era of the pony car,” he said. But that doesn’t mean the General is ready to ignore impending changes to fuel economy standards.
“In the future – something I don’t think the public realizes yet – there may be a day when nobody: Ford, Chrysler or GM has a V8, or if they do it would be a very highly priced V8 because you’ve got to add your whole stable of cars and come up with a fuel economy number.”
Government mandated corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards will be revised in 2016 and again in 2025 in an effort to force manufacturers to tone down their tendency toward gas-thirsty performance cars.
“I would be remiss to say that we don’t have to comply with fuel economy standards in the future,” he said. But the question about how that will happen remains. There are certain track goals that each version of the Camaro is required to meet before it can gain final approval. According to Oppenheiser, being able to meet those standards boils down to three key areas: how much a vehicle weighs, the output of its engine and lateral grip from the tires.
Since the Camaro’s resurrection in 2010, Oppenheiser says his team has been careful not to stray from the original message behind revived editions of the car. Speaking of the third- and fourth-generations, he said Chevrolet lost its way. “We used names for marketing reasons that didn’t stay true to the definition,” referring to past Z/28s that didn’t live up to the track-focused original among others while pledging that under his supervision those mistakes wouldn’t be repeated.
In saying so, he also hinted at the future, saying that going too small in either body or engine would raise questions about whether or not the Camaro should continue at all. “We’ve established what the Camaro is. And if the Camaro ceases to become a Camaro, you’ve got to consider: Do you take Camaro out in the future,” he said, hinting that he would sooner kill the car off than water it down.
With a refreshed version arriving for the 2014 model year, Chevrolet still has room to plan its next attack. There’s a lot up in the air right now, too. Current Camaros are built on General Motor’s Zeta platform developed by Australian subsidiary Holden and first implemented in 2006. By the time Chevrolet is ready to unveil its next-generation Camaro, the number of vehicles build on Zeta will have dwindled to a trickle. Commodore sales are already floundering to the point where Holden reduced the price for this model year by almost $10,000 on certain models. With fewer Zeta vehicles being built, it might make sense for Chevrolet to change platforms a few years down the line.
Premium lightweight materials like carbon fiber will also be a serious consideration, although nothing has been solidified at such an early stage. The 2014 Corvette Stingray uses aluminum and carbon fiber to save weight and improve rigidity, and Chevrolet could reduce overall costs by spreading the material through more cars.
It also uses a seven-speed manual transmission. “If it’s a fuel economy enabler, we would definitely look at it,” he said when asked if that transmission might work its way into future versions of the Camaro.
Carbon fiber is still expensive, but it might be more likely to reach lower cost GM products than you think. During a separate conversation at a GM event in Las Vegas, Chevrolet Performance design manager Dave Ross spoke about the Silverado Cheyenne concept’s (pictured) extensive use of carbon fiber. It features a chin spoiler, mirror caps and most notably an entire bed made of the woven material. He hinted that GM’s increased use of carbon fiber might make it more feasible in less expensive products soon, but declined to say how close that day could be or in which vehicles.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more use of premium materials to lightweight cars, because in the end, it’s still going to come down to ‘How fast can the mustang and the Camaro get down the quarter-mile track, 0-60 and around a racetrack,’” he said.
GALLERY: 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
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