The third-generation Camaro, so much swoopier than anything else on the road back in 1982, looked more like a concept car than a production car. The throaty V8, though pitifully weak by today’s standards, at the time was easily capable of getting a 14-year-old’s pulse racing. Some critics dinged the car for its impractical packaging, size, and weight, but I didn’t care. I wanted one, badly. Never did get one. By the time I could afford a Camaro, I agreed with the critics. From frenzied test drives in the Toyota Corolla GT-S and Honda CRX I learned the joys of high-revving multi-valve engines and agile handling. GM recently introduced a fifth-generation Camaro. What has it learned in the last 28 years?
In form and spirit, the 2010 car’s big, bold exterior is very much that of a Camaro. My 14-year-old self would have loved it. I thought my kids would love it, but instead they seemed puzzled that a car with such exaggerated styling could exist outside of a cartoon. Many people do clearly love the look of the new car, and virtually everyone has a strong opinion about it. GM deserves credit for crafting a shape that is at once current and readily identifiable with its ancestors. The lesson not learned: the racier the styling, the shorter the shelf life. Sales have been strong so far, but where will they be in 2012?
Size remains a big issue. Compared to previous generations, the new Camaro is about as long (190.4”), wider (75.5”) and heavier (3,860 lbs.). The original Camaro was based on a compact car platform. The new one is based on GM’s largest car platform. You’d never guess that gas prices reached record highs during the car’s gestation. Another lesson not learned.
Check out the 2010 Camaro’s back seat, preferably from a safe distance, and as with past iterations you’ll wonder where all of those exterior inches went. Adults who don’t regularly practice yoga simply don’t fit beneath the low roof. My skinny nine-year-old son complained about the lack of room and his inability to see out of the small, high-mounted windows. His comment on the car: “Everything is big except what you want to be big, and that’s small.”
Slide between the widely-spaced bolsters of the front seat, though, and you’ll wonder if the Camaro was designed for giants. You sit low behind a hulking instrument panel. Both the deeply dished steering wheel and shifter are super-sized: Camaro drivers best have big, manly hands. The retro-styled interior possesses some interesting elements, but it’s overly plasticky. The silver-painted trim bits are so thick they come across as clunky. The bulging center stack with its pair of oversized round HVAC controls (I’ll avoid references to the female anatomy) appears more 1990s GM than late 1960s. Sometimes there’s a fine line between retro and dated. The most attractive part of the interior: the door sill trim plates. Too bad they’re no longer visible once you clunk the door shut.
The windshield is much more upright than with the third-generation Camaro, and perhaps even the second—a retro touch I can definitely live with. Sitting low and gazing over a long hood as the V8 rumbles provides a badass feeling you just cannot get in a Mustang. Visibility? It’s as bad as everyone says, but still livable.
When paired with the six-speed manual, the 2010 Camaro’s 6.2-liter V8 puts out 426 horsepower at 5,900 rpm. Years ago GM claimed they could get pushrod engines to breathe well at high rpm, and they’re rightly proud of the peak output they’ve been able to wring from this one. But there are downsides to this approach. With only two valves per cylinder, breathing cannot be optimized separately for low and high rpm. So tune for high rpm breathing and the low end suffers. The 6.2’s torque peak is a fairly lofty 4,600 rpm, so there are only 1,300 rpm between the peaks.
Then there’s the way the Camaro’s engine sounds and feels when racing for the redline. Its raucous roar (with stray mechanical undertones) borders on violent, with much of this violence seemingly directed towards the engine’s own internals. Put another way, under hard acceleration at high rpm the big V8 sounds like it wants to tear itself apart. At the other end of the spectrum, the idle is a bit lumpy, which is typical of a cammy old-school V8.
Shift feel is similarly unrefined. Throws are moderate in length, but can feel clunky, and in casual driving it takes conscious effort to shift the car smoothly. Go too easy on the throttle in first and the shifter will take you straight to forth, an old GM trick to bump the EPA rating. The V8 is torquey, but shifting into fourth so early still lugs it. Even if this feature is avoided—and I didn’t encounter it at all the first few days I had the car—the gearing feels too tall. Fuel economy ranged from 13 in hard driving to low 20s on the highway. Figure 16 and change in moderately aggressive driving around town—nearly the same I observed in an Altima Coupe.
Then there’s the chassis, which seems to have received all of the refinement the rest of the car did not. The nicely weighted steering doesn’t communicate much, and the Camaro handles like the large, heavy car that it is. But body roll is restrained without killing the ride quality, and the precision with which the car can be steered with the right foot (a trait shared with the late, lamented Pontiac G8 and the Corvette) should serve as an example for other manufacturers. (Nissan, I’m talking to you.) Add in good balance and very grippy tires, and you’ll rarely come anywhere near the Camaro’s limits on public roads.
In the final analysis, outside of the chassis GM hasn’t learned much in the last 28 years. Some things they didn’t need to learn. The driving position might compromise visibility, but without it the Camaro wouldn’t be a Camaro. And a Camaro should be boldly styled and chock full of big, vocal V8. But the fifth-generation car is at least a half-size too large, a few hundred pounds too heavy, and far too unrefined. Sure, a Camaro should be raw, but not raw all over. Like hair that has been painstakingly styled to appear disheveled, rawness must be carefully distributed. The bits that enhance the driving experience should be retained, even amplified—as raw as it is, the Camaro could feel more visceral. But the other rough edges, that cheapen the car and disrupt the driving experience, should be excised. The good news: the chassis would be the hardest thing to fix with the refresh that needs to happen before the styling goes stale.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.