It was at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2006 when Chevrolet first showed a concept car representing a modern recreation of the much loved 1967 Camaro. For the next three years, this concept coupe, later joined by a convertible version as well, appeared at major auto shows not just in the US, but in Europe as well. All the time, the clamour from the public was for Chevrolet to build it. After what seemed like an interminable wait, it was announced that the car would indeed go into production, and that it would become available in February 2009. When GM appeared to be sliding into oblivion and the only way out was to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it was feared that the car – by now fully developed – would never actually make it on sale. Thankfully, it did, and as promised, in February 2009, the first cars were available for people to drive and to buy. By this time, Dodge had launched their modern interpretation of their former muscle car, the Challenger, and the retro-styled Mustang was long established, having been on sale since 2005, so it was clear that the Camaro would have to be good if it was to succeed. Press enthusiasm for the car was considerable, with many opining that it was better than the Ford and that both had the measure of the Dodge.
It was at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2006 when Chevrolet first showed a concept car representing a modern recreation of the much loved 1967 Camaro. For the next three years, this concept coupe, later joined by a convertible version as well, appeared at major auto shows not just in the US, but in Europe as well. All the time, the clamour from the public was for Chevrolet to build it. After what seemed like an interminable wait, it was announced that the car would indeed go into production, and that it would become available in February 2009. When GM appeared to be sliding into oblivion and the only way out was to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it was feared that the car – by now fully developed – would never actually make it on sale. Thankfully, it did, and as promised, in February 2009, the first cars were available for people to drive and to buy. By this time, Dodge had launched their modern interpretation of their former muscle car, the Challenger, and the retro-styled Mustang was long established, having been on sale since 2005, so it was clear that the Camaro would have to be good if it was to succeed. Press enthusiasm for the car was considerable, with many opining that it was better than the Ford and that both had the measure of the Dodge. I too had seen the concept car several times, and thought it looked fantastic, and was eager not just to see it on the roads, but to drive it. Although Hertz have yet to put on any fleet (rumours are that this will change in 2010), Avis secured a significant delivery of cars for their larger locations in the summer of 2009. Every time I looked, they all appeared to be sold out, until I was planning my current vacation. Not only was the car available, but – and I could scarcely believe this – the SS version appeared to be significantly cheaper than the V6 model. Better still, the rate had unlimited mileage. Hurriedly, I made my booking, before Avis changed their mind. So, following a rather bumpy overnight flight back to Phoenix from Maui, which was also not really long enough to get sufficient sleep, I arrived at the rental car counter, full of eager anticipation for “my” Camaro. I even got to choose the colour, and deliberated between bright red or bright yellow. You can see from the pictures which I selected!
Before I describe the thrill of driving the Camaro, a bit more background. The car is available with 2 engines: a V6 and a V8. The 3.6 litre V6, which is available in LS and LT trim is no puny affair, developing a healthy 304 bhp, which is far more than the 4.0 V6 Mustang can offer (that will be fixed with the new 3.7 litre engine in the 2011 Mustang). The SS model has a 6.2 litre V8 which puts out 426bhp. Well, it does when fitted with the standard manual gearbox. I was a little disappointed to learn that the automatic (which, as a rental car, mine is) is detuned slightly, and only generates 400 bhp. Still, that’s a lot. Both the LT and the SS models come with a level 1 or a level 2 trim, and there are plenty of options allowing you to customise your Camaro. My test car is a 2SS, which means that it gets lots more features as standard. Externally indistinguishable, the 2SS additions include some very nice heated leather seats, four extra dials low in the centre console, and an upgraded stereo system, which complement a nicely trimmed base level car. The test car had automatic transmission ($1185) and a power operated glass sunroof ($900). Incredibly, this would make the list price of the 2SS Camaro just $36,795. Of course you could spend more if you went silly on the options page, but there was nothing missing from the test car that I could not live without. The LS V6 model starts at under $24,000. Now I know that cars are a lot cheaper in the US than they are in Europe, but at those prices, that makes the Camaro an absolute bargain, assuming it is any good. So: is it?
Short answer: YES. With a Capitalised Everything!
Oh, it’s not perfect, for sure, and those brought up on German premium marques will probably take one look at the interior and throw their hands up in horror. The inside of the Camaro is certainly not going to give sleepless to the good burgers of Munich or Stuttgart or Ingolstadt. But it is perfectly acceptable, and it is better than the Dodge, and better than the pre-facelift Mustang. It is heavily stylised and this sometimes triumphs over function. Take the extra 4 dials that you get (they do oil pressure and temperature, an ammeter and transmission oil temperature). They are mounted in front of the gearlever, low down in the centre console, and you cannot possibly see them without taking your eyes off the road. But these are not the sort of dials you need to keep looking at. Indeed, you get the impression they are almost there for show rather than function. The main dials are far more important. These are presented in two rectangular hooded shaped cowls, and are not that easy to read at a glance, as the markings on the speedo are only in increments of 20 mph and are fairly close together. The fact that the surprisingly large steering wheel is a bit too low (I wanted to set it higher, but it is on its maximum height setting, and I have the seat set as low as it will go) does not help as it cuts off the top corners.
You can set the computer function to show a digital reading of your speed – important in Arizona which is littered with speed cameras. The controls for the climate control system are also heavily stylised, with something of a retro look to them, but they are easy to operate and the air con system works well. The dash plastics are still of the rather hard variety, but the fit is fine, and I can live with the visual result. Thankfully, the old GM horrid indicator/wiper stalk I encountered in the Impala has been banished here and there are better quality more modern stalks on either side of the wheel. There are plenty of buttons on the wheel for remote operation of the stereo and for cruise control. There is a stubby selector for the transmission, and a large pull up handbrake. There is a swathe of dark grey plastic that is on part of the door casings and the central and passenger side of the dash, which probably does the interior no favours either, though I have seen far cheaper looking results. What do not look or feel cheap are the seats. The leather is beautifully soft and is far superior to the quality that you might have expected in a car of this price, or even one costing a lot more (like the Corvette, for instance!).
But enough of that. What matters is how the Camaro drives. Twist the key and the V8 bursts into life. I was expecting a noise not dissimilar to that which I experience in the Corvette, and what you actually get is rather more discrete than that. Indeed, with the windows up, I would say it is almost too quiet, but open the sunroof, or lower the window, and, well, who needs a stereo system in the passenger cabin when there is one under the bonnet. And also at the tail end of the car, as at idle, if you just blip the throttle ever so slightly, there is a rude noise out of the exhaust pipe that is truly wonderful. Into gear, and setting off, it is a veritable obstacle course of speed humps, kerbs and twisting bits of ramps out of the Sky Harbor rental car center, but within a couple of minutes, I am approaching the ramp up on to I10, and time to press the accelerator far harder than I have yet been able to do. Wow…….. the Camaro rockets forward, and I quickly realise that I will run out of ramp and will meet freeway traffic so have to stop pressing any harder. Be in no doubt, though, that this thing shifts. What a shame that Arizona is the US state most afflicted by the scourge of speed cameras, both fixed and mobile, all over the place, so far too much restraint is called for. Even in such a mode, I can tell that this is a quick car, and it has excellent acceleration. You can feel it straining at trhe leash when it is sat at the lights. It might idle at just over 500 rpm, and it is quite smooth when it does it, but you can just tell that this is not what the engine is expecting to have to do.
However, the Camaro feels refined, even civilised certainly at the speeds to which I was limited. You could view this as a disappointment, but actually, I think as an everyday road car, this could be a positive advantage. At 70mph, it is barely turning over 2000 rpm, which helps with noise and economy You really could use this as your daily driver, sitting in traffic jams, and then giving it its head when the traffic disappears and the open road beckons. You would have to live with a rather hard ride and a suspension which decided to tell me about all the ridges and joints in the road that it found, but it was nowhere near as bad as the Solstice for this, and what I experienced, I could certainly live with. The steering is not too heavy, and it has plenty of feel, and the handling at the speeds which I was able to do generated no alarm, unlike many potent rear wheel drive muscle cars of yore. The Brembo brakes are excellent, both being powerful and light enough to use. Even the fuel consumption was not too bad, with an average of just under 25 mpg (US) from a long trip down to Tucson and back. I had read reports saying that the visibility is terrible. Well, I concede that I have encountered better, but I have also experienced worse. The mirrors do a good enough job in traffic in helping you to see what is around you, but for parking, yes, it is hard to judge where the front and back are. That is so true of many cars these days. Over the shoulder rear visibility is the only real problem with the rather large rear pillars proving something of an issue. But overall, not an issue.
Is is practical? Well, the Camaro is a four seater, so I decided to see what it is like in the back. Sitting behind myself, so to speak, there is more than enough leg room. If the front seat was set as far back as it would go, you might struggle, but otherwise leg room is not the problem. Headroom is a bit tight, and I had to bend my head down slightly to clear the roof line. But you get that problem in an Insignia, and I know which car I would rather drive of the two! I had also read that the boot is pokey. Certainly the aperture is narrower than the Mustang, especially between the rear lights, but I managed to slot my large suitcase in with no problems and there was plenty of space for more. The boot probably is not as big as on the Ford or the Dodge, but it beats the likes of a Nissan 350Z hands down. In the cabin there are small door pockets, a good glove box, two cupholders between the seats and a deep cubby, which would be more than enough for the odds and ends. By my definition that all makes the Camaro practical enough for daily use.
Conclusion then? So, it is not as good as a BMW M3. Let’s head that off now. But, an M3 starts at well over $60,000 dollars before you get it painted in other than primer, so that’s probably not a fair comparison. For $36,000 this thing is an absolute bargain. It just delighted me and put a huge grin on my face starting it up and driving it. I love the looks, too. If I lived in the US and needed just one car, I would be awfully tempted by a Camaro SS. I liked it that much.