The guy in the '89 Pontiac Firebird knew. So did the Acura driver in the traffic jam on US 101. So did the trucker on I-5. And there were several more.
They all knew I was a lucky s.o.b. to be in a new Chevrolet Camaro SS, and were moved enough by its road presence and the glowing test reports to wind down the window and holler across to me.
Within 10 miles of stepping into it, I was pretty aware of my good fortune, too. My misgivings about its shallow windows, my worries at the prospect of a belligerent stick-shift, and doubts over how much steering-wheel feel there might be – they'd all been laid to rest. The 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS is a well designed, well executed, charismatic car.
In fact it's two well designed, well executed, charismatic cars. We had the opportunity of several days with both the manual and the auto/semi-auto and I'm happy to report that each variant has way more pluses than minuses. As an arch-rival to the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger, the Camaro is right on target. In some important areas, it's the superior car to the Mustang, and in a multitude of areas it's better than the Challenger.
Let's get one thing clear from the start: I have no particular favoritism to FoMoCo, GM or Mopar. In my dream garage, I want a 1968 Mustang, '69 Camaro and '70 Challenger, so I am at least objective in this test of Chevy's tilt at the title of King Pony Car of the 21st century. Also worth bearing in mind is that RACER's parking lot has not yet been graced with the presence of a 2010 Mustang GT with the Track Pack, nor, at the other end of the scale, the V6 Camaro. There are holes in our baseline.
But even taking the Camaro in isolation and it's something to relish. For one thing, its extraordinary value is impossible to ignore. Not long ago, 400+ horsepower was not available in a practical, everyday-user package unless you wanted to go for large prestige automobiles, mainly from Germany, or you were a very dedicated Porsche 911 Turbo owner. Now, thanks to Chevy, you can get that power (426hp for the manual, 400 for the auto) from a $31,000 car. (Don't bring number of seats into this comparison: When was the last time you saw an AMG Mercedes-Benz carrying more than two people?) The General has brought high-performance (we're talking 4.6sec 0-60mph/10.5sec 0-100 times here) to we blue-collar masses who aren't completely won over by the undoubted allure of the Subaru Impreza WRX.
The styling is a matter of personal taste. Don't believe the hype that it looks like the near-sacred 1969 Camaro SS. OK, it does slightly from the front, given that it's grille pulls out into a central V and it has just a single pair of headlights, but its round wheel arches and its window waste-line show far more echoes of the '67/'68 models.
I'd never call it elegant, whereas I believe the Mustang is. But what the Camaro has – partly through its relative rarity at the moment, partly because of its styling and stance – is presence. Not quite to the threatening, sinister, roadhog extent of the Challenger, but still it draws attention. Within 200 yards of my first drive in our Victory Red manual example, there had been a flash of headlights and a thumbs-up from a FedEx van driver, and an envious look of appreciation from four kids in a rat-pimped Civic at the stoplights.
They were soon in the rearview mirror. The 426hp that the 6.2-liter (that's 376cu.in. to the old school warriors) LS3 V8 pumps out is a serious bit of kit, and combined with a docile and positive gearchange, there aren't many vehicles that could threaten an SS on a dragstrip. The gearbox is not quite as user-friendly as the short-throw box found in the latest Mustang GT, but is way better than a Hemi-powered Challenger. And given Road & Track magazine's quarter-mile figures for the SS – 13.0sec @ 111mph – a driver needs to contain his enthusiasm. It's much too easy to find yourself the wrong side of the legal speed limit, because this car can be seriously refined.
Sure, under hard acceleration, the car sounds as gorgeous as a muscle car should, and third gear will have you at 110mph by the time you nudge the 6500rpm redline. But for relaxed cruising, this car is better than cars twice its price. At 80mph, it is pulling just 2000rpm in sixth gear, but the engine note is well muted, easily drowned out by the superb nine-speaker Boston Acoustics stereo, and the road noise is very well suppressed. My only aural complaint after 1000 miles in the car, was a rustling wind noise around the B-pillar.
It's not quite the consummate Grand Tourer, however. The stiff, independent rear suspension on the SS, while a massive benefit in terms of cornering, is not the driver's friend on rough road surfaces. So flat and limited in vertical movement is the rear that you can't help but feel that, as in open-wheel, ground-effect racecars of the early 1980s, it's the sidewalls of the tires, rather than the suspension springs, that are trying to soak up the road imperfections. It feels like your butt is much nearer the rear axle-line than it is.
Fortunately, the seats are relatively plush, and though I initially had problems with the short seat squab being unsupportive of my right thigh for long cruises, eventually this revealed itself to be my fault for not investigating the seat's full range of movement, and a comfortable compromise was finally reached.
That would have been one of very few complaints about the interior of this Camaro. It feels solid, there's plenty of room (though, as with a Mustang, you wouldn't inflict the rear seat on anyone you cared for) and there's enough silver plastic to break up the dark colors. The evocative dashboard and the four extra gauges (part of the 2SS package) on the transmission tunnel look great. I would want the main dash binnacle to move along with the steering column, however, since I like the steering on its lowest setting and, as with most cars, that means the top of the wheel obscures the tops of the speedo and rev-counter. Given that, in the Camaro, these dials are small and near-square, that means an awful lot of vital numbers are missing from my line of sight. Try to get off a speeding ticket with that excuse…
Thankfully, the pod between speedo and tacho contains a digital speedometer and that is easy to read. The control stalks are nicely weighted, and the buttons on the steering wheel spokes, for such as cruise control and XM Radio are instinctual, and don't require you to take your eyes off the road. The view out is fine, despite shallow windows, and all-around visibility is good, despite thick C-pillars. Being able to see the car's wide hips in the door mirrors is also a major boon in tight parking lot maneuvers.
So the trade-off for the stiff ride is supposed to be sharp handling, and contrary to some reports, it works. Yes, on corners tighter than 90 degrees, the big V8 does send the nose wide, but that feeling is exaggerated to the driver because the steering rack ratio just seems plain slow.
Once the outside front tire does start scrabbling, you have the option in the auto – whose semi-auto mode is, aggravatingly, governed by buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, instead of paddles – of clicking down an extra ratio mid-turn, and, if the traction control is off, using the gas to pivot the car on the nose.
You wouldn't want to do the same in the manual, of course, because the speed with which you depress the clutch and shift the lever is unlikely to equal the speed of the auto box in a down change, and because the slow steering means on tight bends you want both hands on the wheel for full control. Thankfully, though, the steering does have a fair amount of feel.
But given that the manual has 426hp and the auto has 400, and both have six ratios, it's easy to pick the right gear for turns you know, and you can use a surfeit of throttle as you hit the apex in order to counteract the understeer (even with traction control on, if you're prepared to be thuggish with the gas pedal). On longer, faster turns there is mild turn-in understeer but this can easily transition to gentle exit oversteer should you wish, because when you plant the loud pedal and the nose should be at its lightest, the car is well balanced – for fast road use, at least.
However, the SS does have one curious trait, more pronounced than in any other high-performance car I've driven: the rear suspension feels much stiffer than the front. The body-roll seems to emanate entirely from the stern, while the 20-inch rear tires are digging in, ready to gun you out of the corner at an impressive rate. Like I say, at road speeds, it's not a problem, but a major thickening of the front anti-roll bar would be the first mod to make if you wanted to use your Camaro on track.
Whatever else, though, the setup leaves the driver with a feeling of utter security, and that rear-end stability is one of the areas where the Camaro has the edge over the standard Mustang GT. Although the Ford changes direction more adeptly, its live rear axle could never feel as secure as the Chevy's i.r.s. setup at such an early stage of any given corner, especially if the road is rough. In a Mustang, the enthusiastic driver is going to wait for the outside rear to settle before getting back hard on the gas. (The counterpoint is that I'd be willing to wager the Mustang's softer rear end makes it easier to drive fast in the wet.)
So what are the other plus points for the SS when compared to its most direct rival? Well, of course one is the $ per hp ratio: for approximately an extra $3k, you have another 111hp and that's enough to counteract Camaro's 270lb weight penalty and translate into stronger acceleration off the line (according to Road & Track magazine, the SS is 0.7sec quicker to 60, and 2.2sec quicker to 100 than a Mustang GT). You also get an extra gear ratio and of course the automatic has the semi-auto option. The auto's L99 engine also shuts down four cylinders when on a constant cruise, in order to save gas.
I also reckon the Camaro has better steering feel, better noise-suppression, better brakes (the Brembos are seemingly tireless, and have excellent feel) and better headlights (in terms of distance reached). Even more subjectively, some feel the Chevy is better looking, though the only true comparison will be when the Camaro is as common and therefore familiar as the Mustang.
That's something the Camaro deserves to be. In SS form, it offers a great driving experience, is excellent value, and it has enough areas of superiority over the Mustang to make it a true rival in a way that the Dodge Challenger couldn't hope to emulate. If you have $30k to spend and don't need more than two seats, Chevy has produced a “must-try” machine.