The Victory Red 2013 Camaro Super Sport that awaited me on the third floor of what I still think of as the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s “new” rental car facility was not my preferred choice. It was, instead, the vehicle that had appeared at that perfect intersection of my desire to drive something fun during my brief trip home and my own innate frugality. It was, I thought, a good-enough-for-who-it’s-for kind of car, a convenient compromise made possible by a friendly rental agent who had offered it to me for the low-low rate of just $100 per day. But now as I approached it and saw first-hand the car’s cartoonish silhouette, its low roof line, its impossibly high windowsills and its over accentuated, nee, bulging curves, – a modern, steroid-era rethink that has changed car design in the same way that the grotesquely overdeveloped bodies of professional wrestlers have usurped the rightful place of Michelangelo’s David as the embodiment of the perfect male form – I wondered if I shouldn’t have suppressed my frugality just long enough to drop the extra cash for a BMW 5 series.
Of course, I had known when I struck the deal just what I would be getting. Camaros aren’t exactly exotic and I’d seen plenty on the street. Although I had yet to drive one, I had sat in one during a visit to my local dealership a year or two ago and so I knew that being in the Camaro was a little like sitting in an uncomfortably tall bathtub. Time had muted that feeling but, as I opened the door and slipped behind the wheel, that impression returned with real force.
The Camaro is not like my little cute-ute or the family minivan and, as I sat in it, I had my doubts about my ability to make myself comfortable in what I looked like a fairly small and restricted cabin. After some simple adjustments, however, I found the interior of the car a nice place to be. The leather seats were a tad too low for my taste, I prefer to sit up high and to have my seat back almost bolt-upright. But thanks to the power seats’ wide range of adjustability I was able to make myself comfortable without much trouble. The seats themselves were quite supportive and, although they were deeply dished with high side bolsters, I never felt like I was too big – or too wide – to fit. Leg room was very good and this was the first time in a long time that I haven’t had to have my seat all the way against the rear stops in order to be comfortable.
Taking stock of my surroundings, I noted that the inside of the car was well-appointed and very well put together. I spent a lot of time looking for imperfections and didn’t find anything of note. The stitching on the seats and the leather dash cover were flawless and the various panels all fit together without any annoying gaps or spaces. The controls were well placed and everything my hand touched felt good under my fingers. On the downside, the gauges, specifically the plastic bezel that surrounded them, looked cheap. Also, I was not especially enamored with the gold-colored hard plastic on the console and I noted that the one in my car had several nasty, deep scratches, indicating to me that this surface may become an unsightly problem after a few years of normal use. The radio was easy to use and although I never really cranked it up, it sounded passable. The climate controls, which looked a lot like a 1980’s boom box I once owned, were retrotastic tacky but easy to figure out and intuitive to use as well.
The view out of the car was much more of a mixed bag. The high windowsills, something I was really dreading, had almost zero effect on my overall driving experience. Thanks to all the liquid sunshine, I never felt the urge to put my elbow on the windowsill. Visibility out the front was, despite A pillars almost as big around as my leg, surprisingly good. Even the car’s low roofline did not prove to be a problem, and I didn’t need to duck my head to see out, as I did when I sat in the last iteration of this car back in the 90s. The high hood and low seat position did make it hard to judge where the front of the car was and, while this was never a problem while I was out on the road, it made me feel especially vulnerable while moving around at slow speeds in parking lots.
The view out the back was a flat mess, with noticeable blind spots on both rear quarters made worse by small sport bike-esque sideview mirrors. The interior mirror was just as bad and, although it was large enough to block out an entire car at a four-way stop, it offered only a panoramic view of the tiny rear window framed by the car’s package tray and interior trim parts. At the very least, the car I drove was equipped with a back up monitor that I much appreciated, but since it only worked while I was backing up, I needed to exercise extra caution before making lane changes on the highway.
The drive between the Sea-Tac airport and Snohomish takes about an hour, and uses the same roads that I once spent great amounts of time traversing as a part of my daily commute. Generally, the roads are in good shape and I whisked my way northward without incident in a car that I had already determined I really didn’t care for. The steering felt heavy but precise and the car’s big, wide tires seemed to find every imperfection in the pavement. Still, despite the fact that I hit almost every bump for 50 miles, I simply could not find fault with the way the Camaro drove. The suspension felt perfect, firm but never rough or jarring, and the car motored up the freeway with only the steady drum of tires on pavement finding their way into the interior.
After a stop at my mother’s house in Monroe, I decided to take the Camaro up into the hills, to those roads that I have written about on these pages so often, where I determined that I would, once and for all, ring the snot out of it. On the climb up and out of the valley, I noticed the first thing I felt was a real problem with the car, a transmission that seemed devoted to fuel mileage rather than performance. The car was constantly looking to up shift as quickly as possible, and I caught it several times lugging the engine at lower speeds on the flats or failing to downshift on grades. The answer to my problem was, of course, to put the car into manual mode and control the shifts myself via the paddle shifters located behind the steering wheel. I had hated the Autostick in my 300M and seldom used it, but the paddles on the Camaro worked well and gave crisp shifts as I ran up through the gears. I was more reluctant about manual downshifts and engine braking with an automatic, but I soon found that the car handled most of the downshifts on its own, leaving me solely responsible for the up shifts or on those few occasions when I needed to downshift to bump up the revs.
I’m not going to say I went crazy out there, the roads were wet and in the decades since I left the hills hundreds of new homes have been built where once only woodland creatures walked, but the Camaro handled itself well on the twistiest of what were once my own personal twisties. With 426 horsepower under the hood, this is hands-down the most powerful car I have ever driven, and it should have been easy to get the car out of shape, but that never happened. Despite the wet surface, the wide tires clung to the road with real tenacity and the big brakes were always quick and accurate when hauling the car down from high speed. On my favorite stretch of road, the one with the curve known locally as “devil’s elbow,” the Camaro set such a blistering pace that I could hardly believe how slow my old Shadow and 200SX felt in comparison.
In the days that followed, I took the Camaro out into the hills at every opportunity and soon I noticed a strange thing happening. Little by little, I began to connect with the car. Just like when I still rode sport bikes, there came a point where the machine just fell away and I found myself working the vehicle automatically while my mind ranged out ahead of my forward progress. One mile at a time the Camaro and I began to gel, and I realized that what I had originally believed to be major faults with the car were just tiny little annoyances that were wiped away by everything the car does right.
On Saturday morning at 3:00 AM, I rolled out of my brother’s modest abode and made the hour drive back down to Sea-Tac. The rain had abated, and the pavement on Interstate 405 was mostly bare and dry. This time, the roar of the car’s tires did not bother me and somewhere within it, if I cocked my head just right, I could recognize the sound of the engine as I motored smoothly down the freeway. From my seat I looked out through the windshield and across the broad, bulging hood as the road rushed towards me and wondered why it was exactly that I had decided not to like the car in the first place.
The Camaro SS is one of those cars that makes no secret of what it is. It is a Mr. Hyde who does not hide behind the facade of Doctor Jekyll, an Incredible Hulk free to roam about with no concern for Dr. Bruce Banner. It is the monster in its purest form, loud, brash and in your face, even if it is overwrought. Chevrolet has built something amazing here – maybe it just took me a little longer than some to realize it.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.