PLYMOUTH, MI – Talk about your transformations.

General Motors Corp. takes what was arguably its least sophisticated and most dated machine – even before it got placed on a 7-year production hiatus – and spins it into the ‘10 Chevrolet Camaro.

This Camaro, riding on the auto maker’s all-new Zeta rear-wheel-drive platform, is so packed with technology and refinement it will make folks forget about previous iterations in the 4.9 seconds it takes a Super Sport model to go from 0-60 mph (97 km/h).

Choose the standard powertrain, which swaps the 426-hp 6.2L Camaro SS V-8 for a 304-hp 3.6L V-6 with direct injection, and 60 mph comes in 6.1 seconds, regardless of whether the car is outfitted with a 6-speed automatic or manual transmission.

At the same time, more sensible, realistic driving with a V-6 model can yield an Environmental Protection Agency-rated 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) on the highway, while a muscular, modern and classically proportioned exterior design combines with a cockpit-like interior featuring subtle hints from Camaro’s earliest years to ensure passengers arrive in style no matter how quickly they choose to reach their destination.

Now that’s not just expert design and engineering, it’s downright heroic work for an auto maker struggling on life support from U.S. taxpayers.

Both powertrains perform excellently during testing along rural roads of southeastern Michigan. The spark-ignition V-6, which repeated last year as a Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner in the Cadillac CTS, provides a linear dose of power to the rear wheels whether mashing the accelerator from a standstill or pouring on the throttle out of a turn.

In fact, the more crooked the road the better. Unlike the Dodge Challenger or Ford Mustang – two cars that draw an inevitable but not entirely accurate comparison with the Camaro – the vehicle whistles in and out of corners like a true sports car, ditching its muscle-car past. In that way, the sport coupe manages to reclaim the roots it strayed from somewhere between the oil embargo and dot-com bubble.

The Camaro owes its nimble new feet to its first-ever fully independent rear suspension. Wheel hop is all but eliminated, despite mixing a heavy foot with the cobbled blacktop snaking through farm country here.

GM offers two suspensions – an FE2 setup with V-6 models that seems to offer the right combination of sugar and spice for our money, and a more tightly sprung FE3 system with the V-8 that enthusiasts likely will drool over.

In addition to the stiffer suspension, V-8 models receive performance launch control, which drivers can access by switching from regular to competitive mode. PLC, as GM calls it, reduces interference from the car’s electronic stability control to only the most severe circumstances.

But with what amounts to Corvette-like torque and nothing but a strip of gravel between the roadway and mud-slogged cornfields, the assurance of ESC seemed like the smartest route during our testing, so we’ll reserve judgment on PLC until GM offers some track time.

While the V-6 gets our nod as the better choice because of its recession-era pricing – cars with the base engine start at a relatively thrifty $22,995 – the V-8 SS model mated to a quick-shifting Tremec 6-speed manual is nothing short of an absolute joy to drive. Corvette sales may feel the sting of such a great powertrain combination.

Production of V-8 models with a short-throw Hurst shifter comes soon after the first units are shipped, an option the auto maker probably should have had out of the gate.

If the car has a weakness, it might be its interior. The deep-dish steering wheel and two-piece center console are both unique and refreshing looks, but there’s too much plastic throughout the cabin. The optional console-mounted gauges, while an excellent idea, are perhaps the greatest offenders.

Wind noise from the sunroof also seems excessive, but when the car is buttoned up it makes for a peaceful ride, with only the pleasant thrum of the dual exhausts sneaking through the sound dampening. GM made noise-vibration-harshness reduction a priority with the ‘07 Saturn Aura and successfully has taken what it learned into other products, which makes the sunroof snafu that much more regrettable.

‘10 Chevrolet Camaro
Vehicle type front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger coupe
Engine 3.6L V-6
Power (SAE net) 304 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 273 lb. ft. (370 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Compression ratio 11.3:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 112.3 ins. (285.2 cm)
Overall length 190.4 ins. (483.6 cm)
Overall width 75.5 ins. (191.8 cm)
Overall height 54.2 ins. (137.7 cm)
Curb weight 3,769 lbs. (1,709.6 kg)
Base price $22,995
Fuel economy 2WD/4WD 18-29 mpg (13.1-8.1 L/100 km)
Competition Dodge Challenger, Ford Mustang, Nissan 370Z
Pros Cons
Looks match performance Plasticky interior
High V-6 fuel economy Noisy sunroof
Low Price Tag Snug rear seating

Otherwise, GM executes a nice interior with the Camaro, using deeply set gauges with 1960s-era script to recall first-generation models. Its cockpit-like feel is what GM wants for all of its Chevrolet products, and the baseball-size shift grip ranks as a particularly thoughtful touch.

Rear legroom is tight, as one might expect for 4-passenger coupe, and makes calling shotgun a priority for passengers.

Little more can be said about an exterior design that started drawing raves the minute the Camaro concept was unveiled at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Modern and muscular with a face grinning like a Cheshire cat, the styling leaves no question about the car’s performance credentials.

Camaro’s best viewing angle, as GM chief designer Ed Welburn suggests, is from the driver’s seat looking at the massive haunch of rear quarter panel in the door mirror. We couldn’t agree more.

In a real coup for GM designers, the Camaro retains an excellent wheel-to-body relationship whether outfitted with standard 18-in. wheels or the optional 19-in. or 20-in. rims. Previous-generation Camaros never enjoyed such full wheel wells.

The coupe’s sheet metal wears paint well, too, with bold colors such as Victory Red and Rally Yellow jumping off the car. The colors help draw crowds, demonstrated by the number of people milling around and snapping camera-phone photos at a downtown park here.

By itself, the new Camaro won’t save GM like some friendly AutoBot in the upcoming “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” film, in which it plays a starring role. But it does represent another solid product in what’s becoming a string of well-done vehicles to come out of the auto maker in the last 18 months.

And with nowhere for GM to go but up, Camaro certainly will provide a much-needed boost along the way.

jamend@wardsauto.com