Chevrolet’s Camaro muscle car arrived in 1966 to challenge the rampant Ford Mustang, but left US dealer forecourts to Ford’s popular ‘Pony Car’ in 2003. After stunning motorshow audiences with the 2006 Camaro concept car, General Motors relaunched the Chevrolet Camaro in 2009. Sharing GM’s ‘Zeta’ rear-wheel drive platform with the Vauxhall VXR8 and Holden Commodore, the new Camaro range starts with a modern 3.6-litre V6 putting out 304bhp.
In an era of engine downsizing can a V6 Camaro tackle its rivals from Japan and Korea, while still providing muscle car thrills? Read on for CAR’s review of the Chevrolet Camaro V6 find out.
Chevrolet Camaro: why not go for the V8?
With even the US manufacturers talking about downsizing and turbocharging their muscle cars it certainly sounds like the V6’s time may well be now, even with petrol prices stabilising and the US economy edging back into growth.
That’s why we’re here in San Francisco with a Camaro V6 – to take a look at what the future could hold for muscle car fans, while disrespectfully laying some rubber on its arch-rival’s turf; the northern Californian city being forever synonymous with the dichotomous charms of flower power and Frank Bullitt’s Mustang.
Does the Camaro still look as good as the concept car?
I blip the keyfob into the pre-dawn darkness of an anonymous carpark that might once have played out a Columbo doublecross. When the Camaro’s sawn-off shotgun rear lights illuminate it’s impossible not to get excited. Yes, the design’s a pastiche of the ’60s stuff, but it’s a damn good one; the kicked-up tail, the twin exhaust pipes, the scowling eyes and down-turned mouth, the blocky, bulging body – all of it gels the past and present with a conviction that retro recreations like the last Ford Thunderbird couldn’t quite pull off. The fifth-gen Camaro stares at you like Clint Eastwood chewing on a cigar, mulling over just how to beat up the lowlife scumbag before him. Camaro 1, Mustang 0, I’d say.
What’s the Camaro like inside?
You don’t have to be sectioned to appreciate the Camaro’s looks but, sadly, it might help when you climb inside. It’s cheap in here, with nasty plastics, a faux retro binnacle and lacquered fibreglass panels backlit with a nightclub blue neon that speaks of cocktails, cocaine and Duran Duran.
Still, the essential info is easily legible on pared-back instruments, plus the driving position is decent and the deep-dished, leather-wrapped steering wheel is pleasingly tactile. But this thing’s a bitch to park, the high waistline and chunky D-pillars hindering your rearward vision. Worse, the driver’s window would render a pillbox sniper claustrophobic – it’s so narrow that I get my admittedly long head wedged when I try to pop it out to look at the kerb. Jim Carrey would be proud.
Chevrolet Camaro: the engine room
Our test car comes in 2LT trim, the upper of three V6 echelons that also include LS and 1LT, the V8s split between 1SS and 2SS. All the V6s get the Caddy CTS’s 3.6-litre engine with a still-healthy 304bhp and 273lb ft to dispatch the 60mph dash in 6.1sec. They also, however, trade the V8s’ Brembos for single-caliper stoppers and make do with standard 18-inch wheels – or 19s in the case of our 2LT.
I can’t spot the difference between the V6 Camaro and the V8, so what are we downsizers missing? The SS – as all the big vees are tagged – gets a 6.2-litre V8 and a chunky 426bhp and 420lb ft. It’ll dash to 60mph in 4.7sec, stop fast thanks to those Brembo brakes and rides on 20-inch wheels as standard. That is seriously strong, M3-scaring performance and it’s yours from $31k (£18.5k) if you can get your hands on a green card or know a man with a boat.
The DOHC 24-valver is impressive. Boasting direct injection and variable valve timing, it’s got a few more bhp than the last-gen 4.6-litre V8 Mustang, nearly 100bhp more than the last-gen Mustang V6, 50bhp more than the Challenger V6 and equivalent performance to a Nissan 370Z. And all with a $23k (£14k) sticker for the base LS, or $26.5k (£16k) for this V6 range-topper – Brits only just scrape into the cheapest, slowest BMW 1-series for that kind of wedge. With 35mpg on the open road to the V8’s 30mpg, the V6 is naturally more parsimonious too.
Driving the Chevrolet Camaro: cue ‘Bullitt’ theme music
We pull onto Highway 101 and head towards downtown San Francisco, its cluster of skyscrapers illuminated in the near distance. The Camaro’s a comfy cruiser, smooth-riding even on our car’s optional – but must-have – 20-inchers that form part of the $1450 (£900) RS package that brings high-density headlights with BMW-style angel eyes, a rear spoiler and fresh new taillights. We’ve also got the optional six-speed auto, a transmission that makes a good, smooth-shifting companion for the fuzzy brake pedal, smoothly refined engine and light, lifeless steering.
If it sounds like I’ve copied and pasted a Mercedes S-class review in here, I apologise, but this isn’t a bad place to be when you’re on a four-laner at 55mph. Not what I was expecting. Then again, the Camaro does sit on the same Australian-developed ‘Zeta’ global rear-wheel drive platform as the Vauxhall VXR8, and the sensations aren’t too dissimilar.
We cut into the belly of the city on Van Ness Avenue as the darkness morphs to a milky dawn. The next hour we spend cruising around, noticing that the Camaro’s ride is a little thumpier in town, edging up the kind of inclines I’ve previously only experienced on off-road courses,
What’s the Camaro like on the open road?
We leave San Francisco as the tourists begin to dribble into the city, catching Highway 1 out of town and over the Golden Gate Bridge to the hills beyond, keen to see if this car – so closely matched to a 370Z on paper – can match the Nissan’s thrills on the twisting roads to the north. We don’t get far.
It’s impossible to break traction from a standstill (unless you go into full left-foot-on-the-brake burnout mode), it doesn’t feel 300bhp quick and the auto transmission insists on dumping the maximum number of gears when you floor it, which causes the V6 to spiral into uncharacteristically vocal harshness. Go hard into a corner and the body will also roll alarmingly and the steering, while quick, refuses to reassure. It’s like trying to rodeo a beached whale. The Camaro is a big, heavy car and in V6 form it may be usefully swift but it never gives the driver the sense of agility and eagerness you get from the 370Z.
As the future of muscle cars it needs some work. Not that the Camaro V6 is without merit. If you want the pose but can’t stomach the running costs of a V8 and don’t really care for unleashing such stellar performance on the road, then the V6 will no doubt fit the bill; it’s comfortable, hard to differentiate from its big brother and easier on the wallet too.
And, to be fair, talk of the V8’s demise is much exaggerated. It still tops today’s range, offering proper performance and a more driver-focussed experience, all of which leaves the V6 space to offer a different twist on the same theme.
The SS is certainly where I’d put my cash. After all, petrol prices have come back out of orbit and the economy seems to be wobbling back onto its feet. Might as well enjoy that V8 thunder while we can.
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