The Old Trans-Am vs. The New Camaro

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I’ve owned my ’76 Trans-Am for more than 20 years. It used to be an incandescent gas hog relative to the new cars. It’s not anymore.right quarter

I have driven several during the past year that use about the same – or more – gas than the old Pontiac does.

My car averages about 16 MPG and can slide into the low 20s if driven gently.

Not bad for a 40 year old muscle car with a 7.4 liter V-8 and a carburetor!

So, how come?

The main thing is the overdrive transmission I installed. It dramatically cuts cruise RPM (to about 2,000 at 70 MPH).

But it is also comparatively light.

Though it was considered a heavy car in its day, my old TA weighs hundreds of pounds less than its modern equivalent, a new Camaro SS.

In fact, my V-8 Trans-Am weighs less than a base Camaro V-6: 3,750 lbs. vs. 3,802 for the Chevy.

A V-8 Camaro SS weighs almost 4,000 lbs.

The new car is huge – and heavy. Check out this side-by-side photo.TA camaro1

Which probably explains why – despite 40 years of technology leap-frogging – a new Camaro SS (with a much smaller engine) gets about the same gas mileage as my Disco-era Trans-Am: 16 city/24 highway.

And the V-6 Camaro’s not much better: 17 city and 28 on the highway.

MInd: That’s from a car with a 3.6 liter V-6.

As opposed to my TA, which has a 7.4 liter V-8 under its hood.

Keep in mind: All I did to my old car was replace the original (non-overdrive) transmission with an overdrive transmission.

Of course, my car also benefits from lower rolling resistance – due to its much smaller footprint 15×7 wheels/tires vs. the 18-inch wheels that are standard on the base Camaro (20-inch wheels are standard on the SS). And it probably benefits from the absence of a catalytic converter (less backpressure in the exhaust) while the poor Camaro is corked up with several of them.scoop

Still, it’s startling.

Keep in mind that the Chevy – unlike my literally ancient Pontiac (its engine design/layout dates back to the mid-1950s) has fuel-efficiency advantages such as variable valve timing and direct injection (the V-6) and its engines (both of them) are paired with transmissions that have two more gears than my TA’s retrofitted (’80s-era) four-speed overdrive transmission has. You can also bet your bippie that Chevy engineers – sweating under constant pressure from the apparat in DC to eke out even fractional upticks in economy (hence direct injection) have massaged wherever and whatever they could. From low rolling resistance bearings to ultra-lightweight lubricants. My TA has none such – because those things weren’t even on the radar back in the mid ’70s, when it was made. There’s heavy gear oil in the axle (and 10W-40) in the crankcase.

And yet, it’s still close.

Notwithstanding its basically ’50s-era technology, my  V-8 Trans-Am is not much more of a “gas hog” than the V-6 Camaro … and very possibly somewhat less of a “gas hog” than a new Camaro SS. It’s close enough that – were I to fit my old TA with a simple throttle-body (TBI) fuel injection system – I’d lay odds it could deliver better gas mileage than both of them. Simply because it is lighter. And a lighter car is inherently more fuel efficient than a heavier one. gasbusters

While we’re at it, let’s compare apples with oranges.

The “oranges” are pretty piggy, too.

A new (2014) Toyota Camry V-6 averages 25 MPG, according to the EPA.

A four-cylinder (gas) VW Jetta sedan averages 27 MPG.

This is a fairly representative sample.

And it sucks.

Or rather, they do.

For all the braying about “fuel efficiency” emanating from Washington – and notwithstanding 40 years of federal fuel economy mandates – modern cars are hungry muthas. I know. I drive a new one every week. And it is shocking how consumptive some of them are – ands not just the likely suspects (e.g., huge SUVs like the Infiniti QX; 14 city, 20 highway). That’s expected. What’s surprising is the fuel-inefficiency of bread-and-butter family cars. Many of them hardly use less gas than my Trans-Am. And why? Because – like the new Camaro – they are porkers.

And why are they porkers?

Simple: Each year, they add more stuff to them.lardy car

“They” being the government, chiefly – but the car companies no longer fight it. They decided long ago – decades ago – that it’s easier to placate the government (and increase their profits). Why fight the next new mandate when the cost can simply be added to the bottom line and passed on to the buyer?

The new Camaro – and new cars generally – are heavy because they have six or more air bags now (driver and front passenger, two side impact and head/curtain air bags) and – like the Wolverine from X-Men – have had their underlying structures heavily bolstered (and so, beefed) to make them “safer.”

But “safer” conflicts with “efficient” – at least, when cost is an object. A race car can be made both very light and very safe. But exotic materials such as carbon fiber and titanium come with exotic price tags. A production car must be buyable. If no one can afford it, it doesn’t matter how efficient – or “safe” – it is.

Thus, the dilemma.fatty

And the thirst.

If the new Camaro were several hundred pounds lighter than my old Trans-Am, the story would be very different. With its powertrain efficiency advantages, the Chevy would probably be capable of 30-plus MPG, a feat my TA could only match if pulled by a Prius.

But because Chevy engineers (and car engineers generally) are tasked with conflicting and largely irreconcilable goals – fuel efficiency and “safety” – we get cars like the new Camaro that weigh more than cars like my old Pontiac. And use as much or even more fuel.

Ah, progress!

Throw it in the Woods? 

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  1. I owned a 1966 olds Toronado, sleek land cruiser, I was in high school, 1977, previous owner hopped up the 425, damned thing could keep up with a 396 camero, and seat six (and a keg if the center back had a maxi coat, remember those) got around 15 to 18 mph and ran like a raped ape. unfortunately it suffered from tender loving abuse and too much beer, met a cement corner post on a country road, I walked away, pissed.
    much later I owned a brand new 83 Hurst olds Cutlass, great car still miss it, but you know marriage and kids, screwed myself out of it as they say. It was a peppy highway cruiser and got decent mileage also, had an overdrive, needed it with the 4:11 gears in the rear.
    Ah to be young again

    • Hi Dave,

      Great memories; I have some too. I’m a little bit younger than you but old enough to have been a teenager working as lot boy at a local Olds store in the mid-1980s. I can call up images in my head of a brand-new Hurst Olds rolling off the truck. Of the Lightning Rod shifter that formed the center piece of the car’s interior and the sound of the 307 HO… which I know wasn’t very “HO” by modern (or ’60s) standards but it still sounded good and how I lusted to get my hands on that car and put a few furtive miles on it before it went home to its new owner!

    • Hi Eight,

      It’s a helluva car… made by a company that has become a canker sore. GM will probably stop making these soon. Too “straight,” you see.

  2. I put a ’77 Olds 403 in my 1986 Buick Estate wagon. Got better mileage than the factory POS 5.0 Litre, and a quite a bit more horsies, too! The nice folks I sold it to were lockaholics, and one day locked the keys in it while it was running. The Auto-fan switch had failed at that point, and so it sat and overheated to death! Paranoia will destroy ya!

    • “All cars had them from ’75-up, you know.”

      That’s not true. In fact I’ve personally owned 1975+ vehicles that never had them. Even by 1980 there were still cars being sold without cats.

      • True, all domestically built cars sold new in the U.S. of model year 1975 and newer were required to have catalytic converters from the factory, and were required to have filler pipe restrictors requiring the use of unleaded fuel only. Light truck and vans were exempt until year of manufacture 1985. I am not referring to anything altered after original manufacture. Please feel free to ignore my blanket generalization above if it offends or contradicts your personal ownership experience.

          • This was quite correct. In 1968-69 Soichiro Honda got the word on the 1970 US Clean Air Act. Honda then implemented designs to meet those standards and, subsequently, the original CVCC Civic met those requirements without the need of catalytic converter. The US brands cried and boo-hood until they were given a 5-year extension by the Feds. Even so, most were unable to meet the 1970 emission standards before 1975, hence the fitment of catalytic converters for those that didn’t. And yes, there are laws prohibiting the removal of catalytic converters from vehicles so equipped from the factory. Enforcement is an entirely different matter. Not surprisingly, there are also laws prohibiting the removal of TPS sensors from vehicles so-equipped from the factory. Again, enforcement is another matter entirely. Especially when individual States have jurisdiction over what must remain in place thereafter. As far as I’m concerned, very little to any of it was necessary to begin with. Honda proved that nearly 50 years ago. I’d be just as happy to see it all go away at this point. Environmentalists and their government cronies have done far more economic damage that all the car manufacturers combined. What’s next, emission controls on all active volcanoes?

  3. I always wonder what a modern interpretation of an early-mid 90’s vehicle would be like.

    A 90-93 Mustang LX Stripper with new ergonomics, NHV refinements and suspension updates minus any mandated airbags, stability or traction control systems would be cheap and WICKED fast.

    Or a 93-2000 style Honda Civic updated the same way with a screaming 9k RPM VTEC motor for a daily driver.

    Those two vehicles would be the only vehicles I would buy for the rest of my life. I bet they would be dirt cheap and would sell like crazy because they are proven platforms whose development costs were paid for 25 years ago.

    Cheap to buy, cheap to fix, cheap to replace thus inexpensive to insure.

  4. That morbidly obese Bulldog, which you apparently intend to represent today’s heavy chevy camaro, is pretty misleading……unless he can outrun yesterday’s “greyhound,” and blow it away in the obstacle course too.

    A more accurate comparison would be a 6’6″, 275lb NFL tight end. Maybe not as fast as a wide receiver. But he can move downfield pretty damn quick, with surprising agility. And shrug off a lot of impacts that might get the lighter guy carried off on a stretcher.

    • Hi Mike,

      Have you had a chance to drive one of the new Camaros yet?

      I’ve driven several.

      I’ve also owned several second (and third) generation Camaros. And of course, I still have my Trans-Am, which is the same basic car (size-wise) as the same-year Camaro.

      The current Camaro feels enormous. Because it is enormous! Wide, tall – and fat.

      On narrow country road, it is not a pleasant car to drive – or, rather, to try to drive fast.

      Yes, it runs fairly hard in a straight line.

      But given the power (of the SS), it’s not all that quick.

      Because it’s just too damned heavy!

  5. Well, what did you expect from a government program? If the DOT/DOE ever succeeded in getting fuel economy up they’d be out of work. Same reason we still have chronic poverty in a country that continues to have cheaper everything. When you let the government “fix” something it will never be eliminated. And because they hate it when someone else tries to fix the problem, WalMart is vilified for serving the poor (although now WalMart has gone so far from their roots I think they are just another corporate welfare case. No, not because they don’t pay their employees enough to “live on” without EBT, but because I imagine a very large chunk of EBT credits get spent at WalMart, and remember the government pays full retail for that EBT, even though Uncle is clearly the biggest single food buyer in the nation and could demand discounts… but I’m way off-topic now).

    And there’s plenty of evidence that increased efficiency doesn’t reduce consumption of energy. is the technical observation of this effect. As efficiency increases, the cost of fuel is less of a barrier to technology, making it available to more people. We see this happening in the 3rd world now, where the 2 cycle motorcycles are being replaced by 3 cylinder super light plastic cars. We just see that we can have more toys and sound-deadening, along with Uncle’s mandates. There’s a very interesting discussion and video here that spells out exactly what the delusional “elites” have planned, along with comments from power grid operators and nuclear engineers. Worth the read even if your preferred energy source is gasoline not electrons.

  6. Eric,

    Well said.

    Simply put:
    Choose 2 of the following 3 choices for car design:
    Fuel efficient — inexpensive — super safe.

    Uncle (currently) demands Fuel efficient & super safe. With current technology, that can not be accomplished inexpensively.

    As an aside, I am curious how much safer a new 2015 Camry would be compared to a 1991 Camry. I drove a 1991 4cyl 4sp AT Toyota Camry (TC). While it may not be as safe as a 2015 Camry, I would not call the 1991 TC a death trap. It was a good A-B mode of transport.

    From Edmonds 1991 Camry

    From Edmonds 2015 Camry

    The mpg is better with the 2015, though not by much. (4,630 lbs. GVWR — 2014 model although 2015 should be similar)

    The 1991 Camry (4 cyl. 4-sp AT) brought me about 30-32 mpg combined (75/25 hwy/cty miles).

    1991 Camry GVWR ~2700 lbs.

    About 1800 lbs is not an insignificant amount of weight to carry. Much of the extra weight would be (I suspect) for improving the safety of the vehicle and making it larger compared to the 1991 TC. The increased weight also requires a larger, more powerful motor to move the extra weight around.

    Imagine the improved mpg that the 1991 TC could get just with an appropriately sized modern engine and with modern transmission and no other changes.

    • GVWR is not curb weight, it is the max load the vehicle is rated to carry (includes all cargo and passengers), thus you are overstating the weight difference between the two camrys. I would suspect the difference is closer to 800 than 1800 lbs.


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