By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Back in 1987, I was very happy with my 1980 Z28 — which had less than half the horsepower of the 2012 Camaro SS I just spent a week with. Ye gods, the base 2012 V-6 Camaro puts out 133 more horsepower than my old 350 V-8 Z28. And despite having twice the power of my old Z, the ’12 SS also gets twice the MPGs — probably more, if you’re gentle — than my poor old Disco Machine Z28 ever managed.
So, what’s not to like?
Well, not much. But there are a few bugs. Some are subjective — my personal issues, maybe having to do with being an over-the-hill Gen X’er. But the others are pretty objective.
I’ll tell you — then you tell me.
WHAT IT IS
Camaro is a two-door, four-seat revisitation of the ’60s-’70s muscle car concept: Big car, big V-8 (in the SS). Truckloads of ‘tude.
Base price is $23,200 for the V-6 LS coupe. An SS starts at $31,850. Both are available as convertibles, too — with base prices for those versions starting at $30,100 for the V-6 and $37,900 for the SS.
Main competitors are the Ford Mustang ($22,310-$40,310) and the Dodge Challenger ($24,915-$43,995).
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The base V-6 now produces 323 hp (vs. 312 in 2011) and the SS gets a revised Sport suspension. All versions get interior tweaks, including a new-design steering wheel and trim bits. The formerly optional RS taillights with darker lenses and chrome trim are now standard on all versions.
There’s also a 45th Anniversary Edition of the SS (tested model) and — later in 2012 — Chevy will resurrect a legendary ultra-performance Camaro nameplate — ZL1 — to compete against the ultra-ultra performance versions of the Mustang (Boss 302) and Challenger (SRT-8).
Base V-6 puts our more power than most classic-era V-8s – and can deliver 30 MPG on the highway.
SS Camaro (426 hp) has more power than Mustang GT (412 hp) and much more power than Challenger R/T (375 hp).
Drive an icon. Get lots of attention.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Mustang is much lighter — and so, significantly quicker.
Challenger’s about $2k cheaper — and has usable back seats. Plus a trunk, too.
Bouncy ride (SS) on super tall wheels/tires.
Maybe 25 percent too big — definitely 25 percent too heavy.
UNDER THE HOOD
The standard Camaro engine is a 3.6 liter V-6, now rated at 323 hp. It is the most powerful of the three latter-day muscle cars’ standard engines — and also more powerful than most of the V-8s used in the original-era muscle cars. Just for perspective, the 1969 Camaro Z28’s 302 V-8 was rated at 290 SAE gross hp (today we use a less optimistic SAE net standard that measures engine power in factory tune with full exhaust and accessories installed). My 1980 Z28’s larger 350 cubic inch (5.7 liter) V-8 was rated 190 hp, SAE net. Even as recently as 2000 — just before the last generation Camaro was retired — a Z28’s 5.7 liter V-8 produced only 305 hp (320 if you ordered the SS on top of that).
The V-6 comes with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. It’ll get you to 60 in the six second range (that’s quicker than a stock ’69 Z28 and much, much quicker than my ’80 Z28) and still manages to deliver fuel economy no old-school V-8 could ever dream of: 19 city, 30 highway. Again, for some context, my 8.5 second to 60 MPH 1980 Z28 was rated 14 MPG… on the highway.
Not enough? Choose the SS, which packs a 6.2 liter, 426 hp V-8 and a 5 second 0-60 timeslip. It’s not quite as quick as the slightly less powerful (but several hundred pounds lighter) Mustang GT, which does the deed in about 4.8 seconds — but it’s quicker than the less powerful (and even heavier) Challenger R/T, which gets there in 5.5 seconds.
As with the V-6, you can go manual (six speed) or automatic (ditto). Gas mileage with the 6.2 V-8 is 16 city, 24 highway but unlike the V-6, which is slightly more efficient when teamed with the optional automatic, the big V-8 loses a few MPGs (14 city, 22 highway) when you pair it with the six-speed automatic. That’s also slightly worse than the automatic-equipped Mustang GT (18 city, 25 highway) and the manual-equipped Challenger R/T (15 city, 24 highway).
In spring — a few months from now — Chevy will resurrect the ZL1, a Camaro that will make the SS seem toothless, or at least loose-toothed.
Back in the late ’60s, the ZL1 was a special-order Camaro with a Corvette 427 cubic inch big-block V-8 under the hood. For 2012, the concept will be similar: Under the hood will be a version of the current Corvette ZR1’s supercharged 6.2 liter V-8 with output expected to be 570 hp. This would be the most powerful factory-built Camaro ever.
And most importantly, stronger — by far — than the current SRT8 version of the Challenger (470 hp) and also the Boss 302 version of the Mustang GT (444 hp).
ON THE ROAD
It’s a mixed bag.
Camaro — especially the SS, with the new sport suspension — has very high levels of grip, like all modern high-performance coupes. But few high-performance coupes are this big — or this heavy.
Camaro is an enormous car, by any measure — and not just relative to other coupes. It rides on a 112.3 inch wheelbase, is 190.4 inches long, 75.5 inches wide, 54.2 inches tall and weighs a ponderous 3,860 pounds empty. This is only two inches shorter, nose to tail, than a current Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan — which only has about an inch more wheelbase (113.2) and weighs just slightly more (4,084 lbs.). My 1980 Camaro’s wheelbase was only 108 inches — and it weighed about 200 pounds less than the current model. I parked the SS next to my ’76 Trans-Am (same basic car as a mid ’70s’ Camaro) and the TA, a big car in its day, looked almost dainty in comparison.
A more direct comparison is to compare the Camaro to its most obvious rival, the current Ford Mustang. The Ford’s wheelbase is much shorter — 107.1 inches – and the car is about three inches less, end to end (188.1 inches). It also weighs almost 300 pounds less — which explains why the GT is quicker than the SS, even though the 5.0 liter V-8 is a bit less powerful than the SS’s larger, 6.2 liter V-8.
All that weight — and all that wheelbase — combined with those mongo 20 inch wheels (SS 45th anniversary) wrapped with super low-aspect ratio (very short sidewall) ultra-performance tires results in a car that’s quite a handful. Also on the bouncy side if the road is less than perfectly smooth.
This isn’t to say Camaro’s not a tenacious cornering fiend — it absolutely is. But it takes a meaty hand on the wheel to keep it all on track. Mustang handles extremely well, too. It’s probably a draw — or a question of fractions of a second — as to which goes around a road course the fastest and even that will come down to who’s behind the wheel more than any other single factor.
But on the street, I have to say I’d rather be behind the wheel of the Mustang. You don’t feel like you’re constantly running out of road on either side; you’ve got much better to-the-side (and rearward) visibility because the ‘Stang’s roof is not so cartoonishly low-cut. And it’s not as bouncy on less-than-perfect pavement.
Why does Camaro have to be so huge? You don’t even get a usable back seat in return! (More on this below.)
AT THE CURB
Camaro has curb appeal. Most people — most especially young guys — seem to really like it. I got multiple thumbs-up and waves from the 18-35 set during the week I had the car. On this count, it beats the Mustang — which though an excellent driver and arguably (my opinion) a better car overall, is also everywhere. The roads are saturated with Mustangs, so owning one does not set you apart from the herd. Even a brand-new 5.0 GT draws no eyes, or very few anyhow. But because Camaro had been gone for so long (nearly ten years) and also because the new car is heroically outsized in every respect — everyone looks. They are still enough of a novelty to stand out like Hulk Hogan draped in feather boas at the airport. The styling is like nothing else on the road.
My 45th Anniversary car, painted Carbon Flash charcoal metallic with two asymmetric red stripes on the hood and decklid — stood out from the crowd even more. This special model also gets LED headlight surrounds, special 20 inch wheels and interior trim, most notably matching charcoal leather seats with accent stitching.
The Dodge Challenger also stands out, for exactly the same reasons. There are not many out there — and the styling of this car is equally bold. The Challenger, incidentally, is even bigger (and heavier) than Camaro, weighing in at a truly obnoxious 4,082 lbs. empty. It is also about eight inches longer — and rides on an incredible (for a coupe) 116 inch wheelbase. That is almost four inches more wheelbase than Camaro! But, there is an upside: You get a real trunk: 16.2 cubic feet — which is more trunk than the current Benz E-Class sedan and much more than the Camaro’s ridiculous — for such a big car — 11.3 cubic inch trunk.
You also get usable backs seats in the Dodge, something neither the Camaro nor the Mustang have. Check some stats: The Camaro’s back seats are tighter than the bottom half of a 50 gallon oil drum, with only 29.9 inches of legroom and 35.3 inches of headroom, if you want to call it that. In the Challenger, backseaters get a human-friendly (or at least, human usable) 32.6 inches of legroom and 37.4 inches of headroom.
Now, the Mustang is also cramped in the back — but in its defense, it’s not so huge on the outside, as Camaro is. Probably my biggest criticism of Camaro is its poor use of space — and its out of proportion proportions.
Well, there is one other thing… .
Camaro was originally a fairly inexpensive car. Even my old ’80 Z28 had an MSRP of just $7,120 brand new. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $19k in today’s Fed funny money. Mind, that was for a Z28 — the top-of-the-line Camaro back in 1980. The SS I just tested was $43k-plus and even without the 45th Anniversary package, the base price of a new SS is almost $32k. That is near-BMW (or Lexus or Cadillac) money nowadays.
And the Camaro’s interior does not match that MSRP. The layout is fine but the materials and small details aren’t. Look at the gauges, for example. There’s nothing wrong with them, as far as how they are laid out or how they work. But the faces and detail touches are very plain. There is also too much hard plastic, which even leather girdles here and there (as in the 45th Anniversary model) can’t completely hide. The Mustang’s interior just looks better to me. Maybe you disagree. I expect lots of hate mail from Chevy people, but there you have it.
You look and see for yourself.
I do like that GM has kept the nanny crap to a minimum. Turn the TCS off and it is off. You can do a burnout or slide the ass end through a decreasing radius curve, hollering like a crazed hillbilly as you go.
Sixth gear in the manual is a really steep overdrive gear and the engine is almost dozing off at 80 MPH, barely turning 2,000 RPM. Also excellent. And the GM LS-series V-8 is a magnificent piece of engineering, a two-valve, pushrod unit that spins as high as many three and four-valve/DOHC units, like the Ford 5.0. It is totally unstressed, with massive untapped potential. A few choice mods here and there and this engine can pump out 600-plus hp without a supercharger.
Hands clapping like a seal awaiting a mackerel.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s far from perfect, not family-friendly and will probably annoy your wife. But isn’t that part of the charm?