North American Int’l Auto ShowDETROIT – Hype is huge here for the return of the Chevy Camaro at the North American International Auto Show.

The 2-door muscle car concept that takes its cues from the ’69 Camaro but thrusts it into modern day with crisp lines does not disappoint.

“Right now, it’s purely a concept,” Bob Lutz, vice chairman-product development, says of the 2-door, 4-passenger car. (See related story: GM to Decide Quickly on Camaro Production)

Chevy Camaro concept

The interior pays homage to the original, with recessed gauges and a 3-spoke steering wheel. But it is designed to make its own statement, Lutz says.

The original clay models for the car were more in line with the early years of the Camaro, Lutz says.

It was Chairman Rick Wagoner who deserves credit for sending designers back to create a contemporary car that captures the spirit of the ’69, rather than slavishly repeating the past.

GM Vice President-Design Ed Welburn put a second team on it, led by Tom Peters, design director of rear-wheel-drive performance cars, who worked on the Corvette. There was a new clay model within weeks.

“When we saw it, we knew it was right,” Lutz says.

Should the Camaro get the green light, it would be priced to compete with the Ford Mustang, positioned slightly higher than the Pontiac Solstice, which starts under $20,000, Lutz says.

The Corvette and Camaro co-existed nicely in the past; the Corvette being the expensive sports car and the Camaro the affordable one. That relationship would be repeated, should the car be built.

The concept debut followed a parade of ’69 Camaros down a show runway, including a Camaro SS owned by Welburn that he says has spent more time in the design studios than on the road during the development of the concept.

The concept sports a long hood, short deck and wide stance.

Under the hood is a 400-hp small-block 6.0L V-8 mated to the 6-speed manual transmission found in the Corvette.

Lutz says a production version would run the gamut from an entry-level model with a V-6 to a high-performance 500-plus hp version, with every V-8 GM makes as a potential application.

The concept has GM’s Displacement on Demand system, now known as Active Fuel Management, which shuts down four cylinders to save fuel when its not needed. GM claims the car would be capable of 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) in highway driving.

The Camaro concept has a 4-wheel independent suspension. Wheels on are 21 ins. in front and 22 ins. in back.

The cockpit was inspired by fighter planes and takes cues from the new Corvette.

The Camaro concept joins the Corvette and HHR as the only Chevrolets allowed to deviate from the globally mandated Chevy front end.

GM got into muscle cars in the 1960s, at least two years after Ford Motor Co. first introduced the Mustang in 1964. Chevy sold almost 700,000 Camaros in the first three years.

Lutz says the pony cars of the past suffered when they lost their way, becoming bigger, heavier and more expensive.

Sales continued to fall, and GM decided to abandon the segment, leaving it to the aging Mustang.

GM discontinued production of the Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in 2002 and shuttered the Ste. Therese, Que., Canada, plant in preparation for demolition.

But resurgence is in the making.

Chrysler Group uses the auto show to unveil its own entry in the pony car wars, the Dodge Challenger concept coupe, riding on a shortened LX rear-drive platform that has yielded the Chrysler 300 Series, Dodge Magnum and Charger.

If Chrysler gives the OK, the Challenger could go into production in Brampton, Ont., Canada, as early as 2008.

The GM and Chrysler concepts aim to cash in on pony-car fever generated by Ford’s introduction of an all-new ’05 Mustang in the fall of 2004.

The redesigned Mustang has been well received from the start, with no real signs of slowing.

Ford sold 160,975 Mustangs in 2005, up 24% from prior-year, for an auto maker that saw overall sales increase only 2%.

Lutz says the Mustang has been a big success for Ford, and the Challenger should do well for Dodge.

While he likes both cars, he says, “They don’t really break any new ground, aesthetically.”

Although the competition has remained true to the original cars, GM elected to do a “thoroughly new car with totally new surfaces to make a new statement while capturing the spirit and essence of the original car,” Lutz says.

“The first time around, the Camaro was not as aesthetically far beyond the Mustang as this would be,” Lutz says of the concept.

Lutz was with GM when Ford first introduced the Mustang. He remembers hearing it was coming, and GM deciding not to do a me-too product, concluding the most it could hope for was 50% of a sports car segment the auto maker pegged at 100,000 units.

In its first full year, the Mustang sold about 440,000 units, Lutz remembers with a laugh, “four times the total market!”

Lutz says the sports car segment today probably is in the 300,000-400,000 sales range, depending on which vehicles are defined as sports cars.

apriddle@primediabusiness.com