Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Test Drive: 2011 Chevy Camaro SS 6MT

The modern retro revival theme, originally started with the introduction of the Ford Mustang, was continued when GM brought out the new Chevrolet Camaro. Billled as a true pony car successor to the F-body version that had been so popular during the late 90's before its demise, the new Camaro borrows themes from the classics and gives them a modern interpretation, creating an exciting looking car, powered by the ubiquitous LSX motors shared with the Corvette and several other GM products. The car was an exciting entry when it came out, promising a cool look and great performance to rival the latest Mustang and Challenger. But does the Camaro deliver as a performance car or is it an anachronism dressed up in modern mechanics?

My time with the Camaro was relatively short, but there was plenty of time to develop some solid impressions about the car and understand its characteristics. The model I got to drive was the full bore SS with the LS3 V8 producing a tire-shredding 426 hp/420 lb-ft of torque and the 6-speed manual transmission. From the outside, the car is aggressive, with its low slung roof, wide stance, and angry looking front fascia. The overall impression is one of menace, which is perfect for a pony car. Large dark color 20-inch wheels shod with wide sticky rubber offer a large does of good looks in addition to tons of grip. A pair of stripes gives this particular car a proper pony car feel.

Inside, the retro themes continues, though much to the detriment of the usability of the car. The gauges are difficult to read and the cluster of four auxiliary gauges in the center console offer not entirely useful information while looking more than a little dated. The entire feel of the interior is that it is too stylized and trying a little too hard to be cool. A little too much form over function. At least the materials do not feel terribly cheap, a common issue in GM cars, and the seats are well bolstered for performance driving. However, the seating position is terrible and there was not enough adjustability to find a comfortable balance between driving comfort and visibility. The long hood, low roof, and tiny windows dramatically reduce visibility, making the interior feel somewhat tomb-like and stifling. Not exactly a place I would want to spend much time.

Firing up the car, the LS3 V8 burbles to life and settles into a lumpy sounding idle without any harsh vibrations. A stab at the throttle sends a shudder through the car, accompanied by a throaty growl from the exhaust. Just the sound alone is sufficient to get me to consider overlooking the interior shortcomings. Dip the clutch, select first gear, and get the car out on the road. Power is plentiful, as expected from this small block, with torque on tap everywhere in the rev range to haul the car up to extra-legal speeds. Accelerate hard and then let off the throttle to be met by burbles and pops on the overrun. Hammer the Brembo brakes and the car pitches forward as the very solid brakes bring the car to a stop on a dime.

However, what should be an exhilarating experience is marred by a few rather troublesome characteristics in the overall tuning of the car. The clutch, for instance, is vague, offering little feel, making the engagement point difficult to detect at times. The shifter, while satisfyingly solid, does not like to be rushed, making quick shifts an exercise in frustration. The steering, while sporty in its stiffness, is vague and offers only a fraction of the feedback one would expect from such a performance oriented car. Grip is plentiful, but the ride is odd - compliant on smooth roads, but even the smallest bumps unsettle the chassis causing a floaty sensation. Given that this Camaro has an independent rear suspension, I had higher expectations for handling and ride tuning, but somehow it feels incomplete. Almost like the engineers got to about 90% and then just went on break and never finished tuning.

Returning to the dealership, I could not help feel just a little bit let down. The Camaro has all of the components to make a wonderful performance car. Appearance-wise, it is a fantastic looking car and makes such wonderful noises. The motor is excellent and is a testament to engineering genius as its basic architecture dates back many decades, yet is still not only competitive in terms of power, but in terms of cost, weight, and even fuel economy. There is so much to like about the Camaro, yet it just feels unpolished; as if it is somehow incomplete. Hopefully, the successive years of this car will see incremental improvement.

As a used car bargain, however, this is one of those great opportunities for someone to pick up a powerful car that could be great fun. However, this is far from a perfect driver's car, and prospective buyers should certainly be aware of that going in. Still, if you have an opportunity to drive one, you should absolutely take advantage of it. And if the opportunity arises for me to test the newly introduced ZL1, I would not turn it down.