A print advertisement for the 1974 Chevrolet Camaro featured pictures of the redesigned coupe with its new government-mandated five-mph bumpers and stated boldly, “With Camaro, you can be practical. Or go bananas.”
In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine bought a used 1974 Camaro, a car whose details float vaguely in my muscle-car memory. It was black with a black interior, had a 350-cubic inch V-8 and a four-speed manual transmission — probably the car’s most redeeming feature. Memory recalls a two-barrel carburetor, which a recent web search identified as the fuel mixer for the L65 V-8, producing a tire-squeaking 145 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque.
The 2016 Camaro exhibits a level of performance that mid-1970s fans of the pony car couldn’t dream of owning, even if they threw wads of cash at their Chevy dealer. Today, even the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the base Camaro is more powerful than the top-of-the-line Z/28 of four decades ago, claiming 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of peak torque versus 245 hp and 280 lb-ft for the old Z. The new Camaro SS comes with a 6.2-L V-8 that puts out a massive 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque.
We’re testing the $29,095 Camaro LT, equipped with the optional 335-hp 3.6-L V-6 for an extra $1,645, which is delightfully connected to a six-speed manual gearbox. It’s also equipped with the $2,145 RS package, which adds HID headlamps, a rear spoiler and 20-inch wheels with performance tires.
Despite looking strikingly similar to the previous model, the 2016 Camaro is all new and built on a platform now shared with the Cadillac ATS. It’s a bit smaller than before — 5.7 centimetres shorter, two cm narrower, three cm lower and with a wheelbase shortened by four cm — and it also boasts a weight reduction; the V-6 model is 133 kilograms lighter, according to GM.
The car, especially with its red paintwork, turns heads of all ages. Pre-adolescent boys point and smile, maybe recognizing it as kin to the Camaro featured in Transformers, while bearded baby-boomers nod and smile, possibly reminiscing about when the Camaro was their high school dream car.
Although the brawny exterior draws compliments, the car’s interior feels claustrophobic; two different passengers made that exact comment, unprovoked. The claustrophobic feeling comes from the black interior, the narrow slivers that pass for side windows and the high door sills; it’s the only non-supercar I’ve ever sat in where the sill sits above my shoulder. The narrow windows don’t do much for visibility, either; turn your head to check the blind spot and all you see is the C-pillar.
But this car isn’t about practicality. You don’t buy a Camaro — or a Ford Mustang or Dodge Challenger, for that matter — thinking of all the mundane things you’ll be doing in it, like getting groceries or commuting. You buy a Camaro to escape those driving chores. You also buy it to be seen and heard.
The exhaust note falls a bit flat, however, even with the optional, $940 dual-mode exhaust that enhances sound mechanically, either by selecting one of the drive modes or via the infotainment sub-menus.
The exhaust note is deep and rich, but the V-6 drone isn’t what you expect of a muscle car, and even those unfamiliar with muscle cars associate the Camaro with the sound of a V-8.
A neighbour with a 2014 Mustang GT noted the difference immediately and even taunted me by revving his engine mockingly. But the benefit of the V-6, of course, is very respectable fuel economy. Our tester averaged 9.4 L/100 km overall, meaning you could travel about 765 km on a 72-L tank full of gas.
Of the three drive modes — Touring, Sport and Snow/Ice — Sport became my default, returning a responsive throttle, agreeable sound and firmer steering. It is possible to custom tailor each mode, so the firmest steering setting was set as default in all of the modes. When firmed up, steering is refreshingly communicative and well weighted. The ride is firm with minimal body roll when cornering aggressively, though there’s a fair level of harshness over sharp bumps, most likely attributed to the 20-inch low-profile run-flat tires. The gearbox has short throws with firm, positive feedback and clutch effort is light, making it easier to deal with heavy traffic.
Somewhat disappointingly, however, there’s a fair amount of road noise that infiltrates the cabin, especially from the tires. This is easily drowned out by cranking up the volume on the optional Bose sound system, which is mirror-blurring powerful with crystal-clear sound.
My biggest gripe (well, aside from the poor visibility) is with the OnStar navigation system. To select a destination you must first speak to an OnStar rep using the dedicated button on the rear-view mirror, after which the route is downloaded automatically. The system only prompts you when to make a turn but does not display a map. If you take a wrong turn, it says you are off route but not how to get back on, which is difficult without a map. A construction detour during one trip forced me to use my smartphone to get back on track.
A large trunk facilitates long trips, swallowing all of my gear and luggage for a three-day trip with room to spare. The trunk opening is small, though, and a carry-on bag needed some coaxing to get inside. The rear seat folds down for more trunk space if needed, and it’s probably better suited for luggage anyway, because it’s very cramped back there.
Despite the monumental improvements over its ancestor, if asked to make a choice presented in the old advertisement, we’d take the fruit, because “practical” is not part of the Camaro’s job description. It is too compromising to serve as an everyday car, even less so in the winter, because it’s a rear driver, it’s low and it’s stiff. It is, however, a pleasure to look at and a lot of fun to drive, especially when there are more twisty bits to your destination than straight ones.
— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016