The Camaro is an interesting creature. In an era of bland ergonomics, of cars that accelerate quickly but without punch, the Camaro stands out as a no-holds-barred muscle machine with but one purpose in life: high performance at an affordable price.
The exterior styling has been updated in recent years, and, in the case of our 35th Anniversary test vehicle, was dressed up with a bold stripes-and-flags graphic pattern that extended over the whole car. The interior is fairly no-nonsense, with good, clean displays and usable controls (our usual reservations about GM's cruise control apply). The large tachometer is a boon, especially given the speed with which the 325-horsepower engine reaches redline, but the 150 mph speedometer and swift acceleration make it hard to avoid speeding on roads with low speed limits.
Acceleration is phenomenal from any speed, with zero-to-sixty times of an unbelievable 5.5 seconds and, thanks to rear wheel drive, no torque steer. That's with the six-speed manual transmission, in our case a Hurst model with a big H embossed into the plastic gearshift knob. That transmission is somewhat hard to use, in keeping with the American muscle heritage; the six speeds seem somewhat unnecessary with an engine of this torque range, though it does help to keep gas mileage up, with incredible EPA ratings of 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. That's better than any SUV we can recall.
Reverse is all the way over on the right - on a six-speed, the German system of putting reverse to the left of first seems to make more sense. However, it's easy to get the Camaro into reverse. Sixth gear is very tall, allowing the engine to barely tick over at legal highway speeds. While that reduces the acceleration on tap, it also allows for the incredible 28 miles per gallon, and reduces engine noise considerably on the highway. It's a nice gear for long trips - or for cruising at above-legal speeds.
The clutch is heavy and will quickly build up your leg muscles. The optional automatic transmission shifts firmly but decisively, and matches the general feel of the car - it's not a slushbox.
The engine makes a traditional muscle-car growl (at least, on the SS, with its forced air induction hood and low restriction, dual outlet exhaust). It's an exciting noise that is very much in keeping with the raw power and acceleration, though over the course of a few hours, it can become tiring - which is another good reason to use sixth gear. The noise attracts attention and longful looks, mainly from men and boys.
The Camaro may feel like a muscle car with its big (by today's standards) 325 horsepower, 5.7 liter engine, but it has a few interesting amenities. First, handling is far better than any 1960s or 1970s vehicle, and indeed better than most contemporary sports cars; though oversteer is but a goose of the pedal away, the Camaro quickly comes back under control. It is not a car to be taken lightly, but handling is excellent. Despite this, the ride is not too jarring; indeed, it's better than many Japanese sedans with considerably lower performance. Just watch out for the rear end swinging around to where the grille should be - an issue in just about all rear-drive vehicles with massive engines. (Front-drive cars tend to understeer instead, which means that instead of turning sharply to the right, you might end up going just a little to the right). The Camaro does feel a little heavy - which it is - but that's not necessarily bad.
More advanced features than you might expect in a car which retains a basic early-70s feel include GM's incredible computerized oil life monitoring system (standard), four wheel antilock brakes, an advanced theft deterrent system with a starter interrupt built in, a low oil level indicator, and a 500 watt stereo. Braking is also excellent, matching the engine if not the muscle car image.
The Camaro, as you have probably surmised, is quite a mixed bag, perhaps showing GM's reluctance to put money into the platform. The keys go in teeth down, and there is one key for the doors and ignition, another for the trunk (an advance over the old system where there was one key for the doors and trunk, another for the ignition. We never understood that one.) Yet, each of the unnaturally small keys has a little radio device built in to prevent theft.
The interior, despite what you have read in other reviews, does not look or feel cheap; however, the turn signal on models without cruise control is a straight-from-the-60s design which probably influenced some writers. The equally retro climate control system can be a bit of a nuisance; one knob determines which vents are used (and whether a/c is on), with other knobs for fan speed and heat mix. It's not a "use with a glance" system, but it gets the job done. The heater is very effective, with blast-furnace air coming out very quickly, and the air conditioner is powerful yet takes little toll on acceleration (a big surprise, there).
Our model had the T-top, which is a little more practical than the convertible. Because the windshield is raked so far, the T-tops start at just over the driver's head, which makes them more fun for the rear passengers than for the driver. However, to their credit, the T-tops are very easy to remove and reinstall, and fit into depressions in the trunk for safe transportation. They also lock into place with a key. The T-top can be very handy for those who carry children in the back seat, since it provides much more room to reach in and buckle car seats.
The rear seats are actually more spacious than one would expect, though of course not up to the standards of a sedan. It is quite possible to inhabit the back seat for a stretch of time without ill effect. However, the front passenger seat has almost no legroom, thanks to a raised floor; the seat itself is only a couple of inches off the floor.
The hatchback design maximizes trunk space, so that it is really possible to use the Camaro to transport things around. There are indentations for safe storage of the T-top panels, as well. Convertibles have almost no trunk space, but standard models do pretty well. Unfortunately, shutting the hatch itself requires a much stronger slam than we would expect. The hatch also tended to re-lock itself when we released it with the key or remote, so that we had to unlock it while lifting.
The interior is well designed for the most part, with a very good stereo boasting actual audio control knobs. Well placed demisters quickly defog the windshield and side windows.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Camaro is its ability to provide full throttle acceleration with total traction, no spinning tires or burnouts required. It makes the Camaro easy to drive quickly, even with the stick.
The Camaro is an amazing performance car for the price, if you get the standard version. For example, the Z28, on which the SS model is based, costs $22,300, including the 5.7 liter, 310 horsepower engine. Add the SS package, which includes the air induction hood, 17" aluminum wheels, spoiler, high performance suspension, and muscular exhaust - along with 15 extra horses - and you've just spent another $3,600. Our model, including the Hurst shifter ($325), T-top ($1,000), and other options, was $32,780.
The future holds a brand new Camaro series, after a two or thee year hiatus. The original was based on the Nova, which, along with its descendants (such as the Caprice), is now gone. With the Camaro basically sharing only a few components with other vehicles (such as the Corvette), the car is no longer economically viable. The good news is that GM plans to replace it with a brand new design, using a new rear wheel drive platform and, of course, V-8 power. Given GM's latest innovations in V-8s - such as displacement on demand and direct injection - we expect the next Camaro to be a killer, much like the current model. But if you lust after a Camaro or Firebird, you'd better buy one now. It's your last chance to get the traditional fire-breathing monster.
Competitors: Chevrolet Corvette, Firebird Trans Am ... (sort of) Mustang GT, Subaru WRX
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