Transformers - and the Camaro - return

Everyone knows it's been a cruel summer for General Motors. What gets less press is the lone bright spot in the company's current situation: the new Chevrolet Camaro.

The muscle car stars in the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (out today), and it's also a hero in real life -- for while its parent company crumbles like a skyscraper swiped by Decepticons, the Camaro has been ordered by more than 25,000 people. Not bad for a car that was built to appeal to retro-minded gearheads.
And if the aftermath of the car's leading role in the first Transformers film is any indication, those orders won't slow down anytime soon. The Camaro got its big break from Michael Bay, who goes way back with GM -- he used the corporation's Hummer in his Bad Boys films. The 2009 incarnation of the Camaro, which was first introduced in 1967, was just a prototype in GM's design facility when Bay handpicked it and cast it in the 2007 film as Bumblebee, who battles evil robots alongside Shia LeBeouf.

The movie grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, and the Camaro enjoyed priceless screen time. In a survey Chevrolet conducted following that film's opening, consumer awareness of the Camaro was up 97%. When the automaker slipped fliers promoting the vehicle in with 10 million copies of the Transformers DVD, released in October 2007, 800,000 people requested more information about the car.

Two years later, GM is cashing in on that publicity. Dealerships across the nation, many of whom were promised only one or two new model vehicles, reported 15,000 pre-orders for the Camaro (GM's last celebrated launch, the Pontiac Solstice, which starts at $25,000, rang up just 7,000.) The cars rolled onto the lots this spring, and the buzz hasn't let up since.

"The recession hasn't affected demand at all," says Lori Booker, a spokeswoman for the Holler-Classic Auto Group in Winter Park, Fla. "There's a huge emotional connection to this car. We've had grandparents buy it for their grandchildren for graduation, saying, 'I want you to have the car I drove when I was your age.'"

The only thing that could work against the Camaro in the long run? Chevrolet is trying to market it to a consumer group beyond the typical motor enthusiasts -- trendsetters who want but can't afford a luxury car right now. Mostly because, simply put, they probably have just a bit more disposable income than the average red-blooded Camaro loyalist.

"Camaro consumers aren't trading in a car, they're adding a car," says Camaro's marketing manager, John Fitzpatrick. "To do that, you need credit and equity, two things that are at a premium in this day and age."

But so far the car built for speed and power shows no signs of slowing down. "The sales have been phenomenal," says Carolyn Cross, general manager of Lone Star Chevrolet in Houston, TX. "I have never seen a car evoke such strong feelings. The older folks want to recapture something they had in the 70s, and the younger folks have never seen a sports car like it."

The economic downturn has affected the Camaro's debut in at least one way, though: it's created opportunities.

The first person on Cross's 36-member waiting list for the Camaro found, when car number one finally rolled onto the lot, that he could no longer purchase the car because of some credit issues. The next person who came in excitedly purchased the vehicle and drove to the bank to get his payment in order.

While he was gone, Cross says, "Another man came in and offered us whatever price we wanted to give him the car." Cross explained that they had committed the car to the customer already and couldn't sell it to him.
His solution? "He said, 'Well, just tell him you wrecked it,'" Cross recalls. "We told the man we couldn't do that. But it was tempting."

Strong feelings indeed.
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