The last two weeks have been filled with “car guy” moments – more so than what I usually get at my day job as Product Integration Manager at GM Performance Parts. The irony here is that even though I work for GM, and I’m constantly talking to the media, I rarely get the opportunity to test our latest vehicular product. So, it was great pleasure that I had two distinct changes to drive GMPP factory “hot rods” and new high performance GM vehicles as part of my assignment on the 2010 Hot Rod Power Tour.
In the last week of May, I had initiated the 2010 GM Performance Parts Ride and Drive program. In the past, this activity had been run as a larger GM function, with our friends at GM Communications leading the way. My partners in crime, Tom Henderson and Cheryl McCarron, were on assignment downtown, working on other projects, so I kept this year’s Ride and Drive event rather small – just so I could handle it. As the name sounds, a “Ride and Drive” is a program that GM puts together so that the media can get a chance to sample our product. Like everything that GM Performance Parts does, our Ride and Drive is a little different. One of the biggest concerns I have is to ensure that the media is up to the task of handling the power that some of our engineering mules put out. After all, we’ve got several crate engines in our portfolio that crank out over 500 horsepower, and it’s just a good idea to collect background on your media before you let them “pull the pin” on your project car.
For the 2010 event, the media invitation list was purposely kept small. Rick Jensen from the AutoTrader group, Scott Parker from GM High-Tech Performance, and Jim Campisano from Super Chevy made up my media group. Watch for loads and loads of features and technical information on all things GM Performance Parts coming from these sources. What did they get to do? Well, the first thing we did was take them to the assembly line for our new line of LSX crate engines. Not just a high performance block, GMPP now offers two new crate engines based on this bomb-proof beauty. Rick, Scott, and Campi got to see all of the secrets that make GMPP crate engines the best in the business.
Day 2 had the group on the Milford, Michigan GM Proving Grounds – hallowed ground for any GM enthusiast as it’s the place where all GM vehicles have been tested since the ‘30s. This drive served two purposes for us. It allows the media to sample our LS9 ’99 Camaro, the E-ROD ’55 Chevy, the ’89 LSX 454 Camaro, our LSA-powered ’96 Impala as well as a production Camaro SS and get a ride in a new ZR-1 Corvette. And, it gave us a chance to make sure that the LS9 Camaro and E-ROD could survive the ’10 Hot Rod Power Tour.
The most impressive part of this Ride and Drive for me was that the lowest horsepower rating of any of the car involved was 430 horses! Even with an emission-legal LS3, the E-ROD ’55 is an easy 12-second piece as it sits. At 3,500 pounds, a closely matched SuperMatic 4L70E and 4.10:1 gear, the E-ROD ’55 is a blast to drive. It’s quick, and with its LS3 power, it will embarrass most old school, small block muscle cars.
The ZR-1 Corvette ride was special. Out lead engineering, in charge of developing the “launch control” system on the car, took each of us for a ride on the Milford Military Straight. The ZR-1 is one of those cars that will redefine what you think a fast car is. I saw 160 mph in fourth gear in the car, and I was planted in the seat on the way there. When you consider all of the emissions, crash testing, and federal safety regulations that go into build a car these days, you have to be amazed that our engineers at GM could pull this car off. Hats off to the Corvette team on this one!
One of the most impressive cars in the GMPP arsenal is an LSA-powered ’96 Impala. You’ve seen this car before as a validation mule for one of the multiple iterations of the LSX 454 crate engine that our engineers have been running around in. With the LSA, it’s a blast to drive. The car gets to 140 mph faster than a, well, ’96 Impala SS, has a right to. My point to this one – check out the LSA. It’s a nasty little engine that you should know well and consider for your next project car.
After a pair of 16-hour days, we said our goodbyes, and my media friends heads home to write content, tell tales, and make up stories about the high-horsepower freak machines that they tested on the GM Milford Proving Grounds.
It was less than a week later, and I found myself in Newton, Iowa, for the start of the 2010 Hot Rod Power Tour. If you’ve never done the HRPT, you need to. Get your car ready, gets some friends committed to traveling at least part of the route with you, and just go for it. It’s not a race per se, but a traveling car show or car cruise that brings thousand of like-minded car people together. For me, HRPT is a job. Sure, I get to drive all sorts of cool cars, but we are ready to go at 7am, travel 200-400 miles, detail the car when we get to venue, and then answer customer questions until 10:00 PM at some stops. Do that for eight straight days, and it can become a little tiresome. Still, it’s the HRPT, so you get to meet hundreds if not thousands of new friends. And, as for bench racing, HRPT is the training grounds for what I consider the world heavy weight champions.
At HRPT, the team from GM Performance Division (Ken Morris, Scott Brewer, Craig Shantz, Bob Phipps, and Ron Rader) does an incredible job of acting as the true ambassadors to the hobby that Hot Rod magazine covets so dearly. We kept the GMPP presence rather straightforward for ’10 with only two cars of the 15-car lead GM pack. We brought out what I consider to be a headliner for the event, the E-ROD ’55 Chevy, as well the outrageous ’99 Camaro with the LS9 crate engine. The GMPD team had prepared these cars, and Mike Copeland acted the build manager on both cars. So, it was fitting that they would both make the trip to Mobile, Alabama.
In addition to our GM factory “hot rods,” the GMPD brought along several different version of the new Camaro, a Corvette Grand Sport, a HHR SS, and a Cadillac CTS-V. And, while I started out in the LS9 Camaro, I got a chance to rotate through all of these cars. Thanks to the freelancing prowess of Paul Huizenga, I was able to work with the LSXtv.com staff to bring you a number of “from the road” reports on all of these cars. Here are my thoughts on these cars after spending as much as two days in them on the road:
Camaro: Until Ford answered with the 5.0, this was the king of the pony cars. After a half a day in the SS, I understand why. Tom Peters did an incredible job of the design of this car, and Al Oppenheiser, the lead engineer, captured that design into a functional car better than anyone in the world could. The fact that Al has his own ’68 Camaro convertible should give you an idea of the passion that some GM brass have toward their daily duties. Al is the real deal, and I thought of him several times while changing gears of smashing the gas pedal in his ’10 Camaro.
I also got a chance to drive a concept car known as “Camaro Dusk.” At first glance, it looked like a stick-shift V8 car. But, the concept builders at GMPD had turned a 306hp V6 car into a SS lookalike. That combination is rather rare – certainly single digits of the percentage of Camaros sold to the population. Driving a V6 Camaro is different from a big V8 car. You need to feed it more gear – sixth is really only a highway gear for me. And, when you really dig into the gas, you are impressed with the V6.
Across the Camaro line there is one thing that I want to share with my larger drivers. I’m 6’3” with a 36-inch inseam, and I found the Camaro quite comfortable to drive. Get one without the sunroof to pick up an extra 1.5 inches of headroom. But, if you are a tall person, you can fit into the Camaro with some seat adjustment.
Corvette: I’m in the market for a new Corvette, so I was thrilled when Ron Rader tossed me the keys to the company’s brand new, bright yellow, convertible, Grand Sport Corvette. The 6-speed automatic backed the LS3, and this car was a blast to drive. The Corvette is a perfected platform with millions of fans the world over, and I couldn’t help but appreciate all of the refinement with this car. The NPP exhaust system was a hoot – slam the gas, and at around 4,000 rpm this things starts sounding like a NASCAR stocker. I love it. The Vette is comfortable to drive for long distances – even with the top down – and it attracts attention just like any super car should.
CTS-V: This car was the one that everyone was talking about at the end of the week. Steve Felix, the engineer who developed the GMPP E-ROD crate engine, wanted a shot at the LS9 Camaro early in the week, so he traded me into the CTS-V at an early week pit stop. By the time I had learned how to adjust the seat and turn off the radio, the rest of the pack had left me at the rest stop. I quickly got going in the CTS-V, banged the first four gears (yes, we had a manual shift version of this super car), and in no time I had caught up to the pack. I’m not going to print how fast I was going, but I will tell you that this car is completely under control at any speed. I know Tony Roma, the lead engineer on the CTS-V project, personally, and he is a demanding man. His personality showed through clearly in this car. It is refined, powerful, and gives up nothing. If you’ve never driven a CTS-V, I will tell you that it’s a car that will change what you think “muscle car” really means. The abilities of this car are well documented: there is nothing (no Mercedes, no BMW, nothing from Japan) that can touch this car in this class. The CTS-V is the king of the four-doors!
HHR SS: Not often thought of as a performance car in the LS crowd, the Ecotec-powered HHR SS is an interesting ride that won’t bore you while on the way to work. This one comes with a 260-horse, dual over head cammed, turbocharged, direct injection, 2.0 Ecotec four-banger that really can haul the mail when driven aggressively. Luckily, we had Bill Duncan, the GM engineer who developed the GMPP Stage Kits for the last two generation of Ecotec engines. Bill was making sure that the HHR SS was running right with his latest tune while he answered a surprising number of questions about this combination on each stop of the HRPT.
So, there’s a look at what a test drive looks like to me now. After a week of driving, I was able to walk away with a renewed sense of accomplishment from the larger GM enterprise. The bottom line is that GM has better product right now than we have had in decades. I invite you to stop by your local Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, or GMC dealer and get a test drive for yourself. If you are an LS fan like I am, there are a number of cars that you need to try out. And, even if you think you know what these cars are like, there are, as I discovered, many upgrades and surprises throughout the General Motors portfolio. Test drive a car, and let me know what you think.