All photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
Like every other gearhead on planet Earth, we've been champing at the bit for the Camaro to arrive in production guise since its debut as a concept in 2006. Furthermore, when we made our way to San Diego for some long-awaited wheel time, we hoped beyond hope that its achingly attractive exterior would be backed by a chassis and drivetrain primed for global domination. We didn't need the Camaro to turn into a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot, but gut-rocking thrills were the minimum standard.
Walk up to the Camaro, and it's a spitting image of the coupe we've seen in a variety of forms for the past 1,100 days. It's big, it hunkers and it's angry – or at least perturbed. Built on a modified Zeta platform that underpins the Pontiac G8, the changes to the Camaro versus its sedan sibling include tweaks to accept larger wheels, a shorter wheelbase thanks to the rear wheels moving farther forward by about three inches, the base of the A-pillar was pushed back and lowered, and the front strut tower height was dropped to allow for a lower hood line.
Regarding its stance, the car has been designed to maintain the same tire-to-fender gap regardless of tire size: three fingers in front, four fingers in back. And while the massive face of the car appears to present various expanses of uninterrupted surface, take a closer look and you'll notice that a substantial amount of detail work has gone into its fascia.
The "trap hood", which means it's fully enclosed by body panels, features a negative angle along its sides where it meets the fenders. The windshield washer nozzles are hidden under the rear edge of the hood for an uninterrupted line. The reverse mohawk in the roof is meant to tie the car to the twin-cockpit silhouette of the Corvette. The side mirrors conform to legal standards, yet remain true to those on the concept. There are subtle crisp lines that tie the roof and C-pillar into the rear, and the deck features a diagonal cut line that gives the trunk a unique profile when raised.
Get in the car, and the Camaro's size asserts itself: it's dark inside. The high beltline, low roof and black interior don't let bundles of excess light to play within the cabin. It isn't dire, but it is somber. An optional sunroof can brighten things up, of course, but if you get the sunroof you lose the sculpted roof.
The interior is utterly straightforward. Fabric inserts in the doors and on the dash save you from being overwhelmed by black plastic. The controls and the contrasting materials, in a palette of slight variations, are clustered in such a way that even as a passenger they pull your eyes from the black expanse on the non-drive side.
While Ford's Mustang can be had with an astounding touch-screen, sterling navigation operation, dual-zone climate control, six-disc CD changer and a reversing camera, the Camaro gets no such fripperies. Climate control is an entirely manual affair, handled with two large knobs and four small buttons housed within. The best you can get from the factory is a single CD player, although Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port and iPod controls come with the Connectivity Package. There's also talk of an audible parking sensor system available further down the road.
Creature comforts aside, the cabin is striking. The deeply dished steering wheel is an attention-getter – and not only because it's huge. The seats, even in cloth, are compellingly sculpted. The optional analog gauges on the center tunnel break up the space, are a retro treat and are supplemented by an electronic display in the center of the dash when you want the kind of precision expected post-millennium.
If you opt for the RS package, you will avail yourself of a remote starter on Camaros equipped with automatic transmissions, HID headlamps with halo rings, a rear spoiler on the LT V6, unique taillights, and 20-inch wheels in Midnight Silver. And when the ambient lighting package arrives, you'll get body-colored metal in place of the fabric interior inserts and LEDs.
For now, though, you also get room. Lots of it. The Camaro is not a car that keeps all of its big on the outside. The front seats will be friends to anyone of almost any size, and in back there's a pleasant amount of space for heads and feet.
The Camaro is big everywhere, but it isn't necessarily butch everywhere. GM design chief Tom Peters said he wanted the Camaro to look like the baddest, meanest dog on the block. Mission accomplished. But start the car up and go, and the Camaro acts like a show dog – all mannered and polite. It wasn't too long down the road that we wondered: "Where did that mean-ass dog go?"
That's because the Camaro is... refined. Not Maybach refined, but it's certainly more subtle inside than you'd expect from The Return of the Muscle Car Icon. The size of the car swallows the perception of rapidity. Making the high-speed run-up on a series of highway on-ramps, we kept thinking "We're going quick smart, but it doesn't feel like we're going as fast as we know we're going..."
We'll start with the 3.6-liter direct-injected V6. It puts out 304 hp and 273 lb-ft which, and in the car's heaviest guise – the LS manual – has to pull 3,780 pounds. According to the EPA, the long sixth gear on that car will get you 29 mpg on the highway. So, while it weighs 379 pounds more than a 2010 Ford Mustang V6 manual, it has 94 more hp and gets three mpg more on the highway.
How does it go? Nicely. It's sufficiently fast to stay with the competition even if it doesn't necessarily feel it, and the car pulls so well that you'll never worry about having enough power to have fun on steep grades or pull off racy passing maneuvers. Interestingly, we found that you can also hear the V6 much more than the V8 inside the cabin, and even when it's being worked, it doesn't sound strained.
The 6.2-liter V8s – either one of them – are where it's at. Except for the fact you can barely hear the engine note once ensconced inside. That's a shame, particularly when you've stood outside, bathed in the V8's roar and then find once yourself seated inside, only to learn that everyone gets to enjoy the noises but you.
But the V8 also looks more like the Camaro we've come to expect, with a slightly different front fascia and 20-inch wheels that seal the aesthetic deal. Get it with the six-speed manual – all 3,849 pounds of it, 53 pounds lighter than the automatic – and you'll have the Camaro we want. This coupe will get down with the get down, and when you step on it you can begin to hear the long, low, muted rumbling exhale of the LS3's 426 hp and 420 lb-ft. (the automatic-equipped L99 engine gets 400 hp and 410 lb-ft.) Even though the V8 has Active Fuel Management that shuts down four cylinders, we doubt you'll ever think about it.
The Camaro offers two different independent, multi-link front and rear suspensions: the FE2 on the V6 and the stiffer FE3 on the V8. The FE2 is capable and fun, but if the road is seriously twisty you could find its limits before you expect. Nevertheless, although we didn't put them through a day of Hell, the single piston calipers never let us down when carrying excess speed and exuberance into yet another corner.
The FE3 suspension on the V8 is noticeably stiffer than the FE2, and you realize it immediately. The car bolts, brakes (with four-pot Brembos at each corner) and goes round the bends with assurance. Squat and roll are well managed, and it betrays no devotion to understeer. Still, it feels like there is a large helping of performance left on the table...
Part of that might have to do with the steering. One trait the Camaro shares with the Mustang is steering that isn't as crisp as we'd like. That also contributes to the sensation of the car "driving big" – well, that and the enormous steering wheel – that left us constantly wanting a better idea of where the wheels were. If we had a chance to tighten up the steering, we'd really know where we were with the suspension.
But don't get us wrong: the V6 and V8 Camaros were, during our two afternoons of driving, a heap of fun on straights and through turns. And even though we kept throwing the thing through corners to find out where its ragged edges were, we still wanted more and felt like the Camaro was up for it. We asked vehicle line executive in charge of the Camaro if we could get the car to handle like the Pontiac G8 GXP, he replied "You could get close." The truth is, we were at least $9,000 cheaper and not exactly far away.
While the Camaro "drove big," as muscle cars are wont to do, at no time did it drive heavy. The lightest V6 Camaro still carries 100 pounds more than a 2010 Ford Mustang GT Convertible and the Camaro SS manual is more than 350 pounds heavier than a Mustang GT. On a few occasions we felt it, but we never got the feeling it couldn't handle what we asked of it and there was always a sense that the Camaro had more potential lying in wait.
But the Mustang comparison isn't exactly fair right now – we've had a lot more time to get to know the 'Stang than the Camaro. Based on looks... well, that's entirely subjective, so we'll let you decide a winner for yourself. Based on features, the Mustang owns the modern convenience battle inside, but the Camaro SS smacks back with performance features like optional Brembo brakes, which aren't even an option on the Mustang Track Pack. Based on handling, it's too soon for us to tell, but we know the Camaro is ready and able to do plenty of walking to back up its talk, and if you lined up a 2010 Mustang next to the Camaro at a start line, we'd head straight for the Chevy.
Know for now, then, that the Camaro has handsomely paid the first dividend on its three-year promise. When one makes its way to the Autoblog Garage, we'll find out if it has all of the funds necessary for payment in full. And if we can get GM to let us try some performance parts on the car, the first things we'll ask for are straight headers and a growling exhaust. That way, at least we can hear Bumblebee as he takes the fight to the Decepticons.