Let’s have a warm welcome for Michael Briskie, who is contributing a guest review of a rental Camaro. Feel free to offer him tips and opinions regarding the review. If you have a car you’d like to review here, please drop me a note in the comments or elsewhere. Thanks! — jb
As the National Car Rental shuttle pulls up to the Emerald Aisle, I’m already looking out the window scouting my options. Nissan Versa, nope. Camry, nope. Dodge Durango R/T… hmmm. Now we are getting somewhere. I jockey for position getting off the bus and beeline for the blacked out Dodge. Feeling pleased that I scored a mammoth V8 truck-wagon for my three day trip to St. Louis, I climb aboard and prepare to navigate the beast out of the rental lot. But then, something gives me pause. Just across from the aisle, the next wave of cars was being readied to replace ours. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a flame red Camaro soon to be cleared! Hesitant to lose my Durango, I ventured over and caught a glimpse of 20” wheels. Yes indeed… an SS. Must be my lucky day.
It was cold enough in St. Louis to light up the summer-only Goodyear Eagle F1’s with just a touch of throttle leaving the parking lot. I would have three days getting to know this symbol of American hooliganism, but in the first 5 minutes I’m already looking for a U-turn to hang the tail out. It’s a massive understatement to say this car encourages misbehavior.
The model I’m driving is the 1SS. It’s not the cheapest way to get into the 450hp club anymore – that distinction goes to the fresh-faced 460hp 2018 Mustang GT – however the Camaro still wins the tug of war contest with 455lb-ft of twist versus the Stang’s 420. Rental companies are undoubtedly paying substantially less than the $37,995 MSRP, which is about $1000 more than Ford’s comparably stripped out rocket.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about the Camaro’s 6.2L Corvette-sourced motor, but I’d be doing readers a disservice if I didn’t devote a paragraph to this brute. This a spin-the-tires in 2nd gear at 40mph type of muscle. Cold air temps and summer tires conspire to make traction an ordeal, but it’s mostly the torque hitting hard. This isn’t “progressive” power delivery in the slightest sense, unless I try hard to make it so. At low speed, any punch of the gas in a low gear instantly kicks the back end out and my head back. It can catch you off guard if you stab the gas, making it essential to re-learn judicious throttle application, something that’s just not necessary with low torque cars. With traction control and stability control engaged, it will allow a few degrees of rear slip angle before putting a nanny lid on the fun, but there is a sweet spot with TC-off and ESC-on, allowing me to play with wide, healthy slides at parking lot speeds, and brief controlled power oversteer at higher speeds. Turning off everything is just for the movie-hero drifts.
On the road, I found no problems changing lanes with the rear-view and large side mirrors adjusted correctly, but to be fair, I am drawing on comparisons to my last three cars: a 370Z, Lotus Elise, and Aston Martin V8 Vantage… none of which are paragons of rearward visibility. Resting my elbow on the open window ledge is an effective stretch of my lats and delts, but it does not make for a cool and casual draped arm.
As far as the equipment is concerned, the 1SS doesn’t need to make too many apologies compared to its more expensive 2SS brother. The power adjustable cloth seats have just-right side bolstering, and the deep buckets feel comfy-cozy for long trips, although I was a bit surprised to find no lumbar controls. Some might find it worth it to upgrade to the leather-lined 2SS, because the few soft-touch materials spanning the dash and door panels more closely resemble spongy rubber than high grade plastics, however the exposed stitching, usable dash layout, and large aluminum look vents class up the joint and help redeem itself. The view over the hood feels less enormous than a Mustang, and reveals a couple of neato heat extractor vents.
All of the in-dash digital wizardry infiltrating today’s new cars does not usually impress me, but I found myself quickly smitten with the tire temperature gauge and in dash G-meter. Each new corner is an opportunity to beat a previous high score, and it was interesting to know what a steady state 0.5G feels like versus an abrupt 0.8G, for instance. Pulling more than that on public roads is not only imprudent, but truly difficult… although I won’t say I didn’t try. But this raises an interesting question: Most top heavy CUV’s can handle close to 0.8G of lateral load before losing grip, which means there is very little this Camaro can accomplish on city streets that Nancy and her 3 kids couldn’t… right?
Wrong. It’s wrong because practicality is for the meek. Because burnouts. Because blat-blat exhaust. Because this car makes juvenile hellions out of people on business trips like me. Nearly all of the points I can possibly award to this car go to the engine. It is oh-my-god levels of power to anyone who’s made the unfortunate error of buying a turbo hot hatch (let alone your typical rental car customer). Look, the Focus RS is a great car, as is the GTI, WRX, [enter your car here]. But I have to say it. The Camaro is a superior driving experience in almost every way. Just 30 minutes in this car is enough to make sedan and wagon owners wonder, do I really ever use my back seats or trunk space?
If you find it remotely justifiable to forgo a degree of practicality in favor of a big fat dose of adrenaline, you would be foolish to overlook the Camaro even in this lower trim. I quickly got in the habit of parking with the exhaust pipes facing the doors of my hotel, because remote starting lights off the small block LT1 with a surprisingly loud crackle that turns every head within earshot. Yeah, I turned into that guy. The optional valve-actuated exhaust would be even better. A few times behind the wheel I did gripe about the 8-speed auto’s pokey manual mode, and even though full auto mode is smooth and responsive, you should definitely NEVER buy it over a 6MT, which I longed for achingly. Otherwise the driving dynamics won this enthusiast’s heart. The standard suspension is firm, but has enough travel to be relaxing, calm even, and the vertical body motions are well controlled. On center steering is artificially heavy, and belies the fact that this Alpha-platform car lost hundreds of pounds compared to its similarly styled predecessor, yet the tightness of the wheel was appreciated, especially compared to most hot-rodded FWD or AWD economy cars that fall into similar price points. The weight builds even more substantially mid-corner, reminding me of my departed hydraulic-steering 370Z, and although it doesn’t have the “snap” I would like returning the wheel to center when unloading the wheel quickly, the electronically assisted rack is quick and the response from the nose is immediate. This is a much sharper car than the last Mustang I’ve driven, a 2016 GT Premium.
The obligatory drive mode settings are certainly present on a console button, but I’m not entirely sure they do much. Throttle response is jumpier in Track mode, but Sport and Touring felt the same to me, and steering felt the same across the board. On a car with the magnetic suspension, these options should prove much more useful.
Driven daintily, the Camaro makes a very livable daily driver if you’re under 6 feet tall. The imperceptible cylinder deactivation should get you 25mpg+ on the highway at cruising speeds. I averaged 14.9, because every trip in this car makes you want to stomp the gas and cannon-fire noisy exhaust all over the dullards driving around you in their boring cars. Compared to the Camaro, nearly everything is boring. When you find yourself in neutral at every red light, feeling the idle shake and firing off blips and revs, it’s hard to imagine much vehicular drama costing less than this. The behavior this car elicits from the driver is public-nuisance level, which I guess is why a lot of people out there scoff at Camaro drivers. But I get it now. They’re just having more fun.