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Expert Reviews 1 of 11
By Joe Wiesenfelder
September 11, 2009
The V-6-powered 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is a better car than the V-8-powered Camaro SS. It's neither more powerful nor quicker, nor does it sound as good, but for what it is, it's a stronger entry. Likewise, its acceleration and gas mileage give it a leg up on base versions of its muscle-car competitors. Even so, I find the Camaro's character inconsistent, and its main shortcomings are substantial and (effectively) permanent.
An earlier review covers the whole Camaro lineup, and you can see how the Camaro SS fared in a comparison with the Dodge Challenger R/T and the Ford Mustang GT here. This review is based mainly on a V-6 Camaro 2LT, which is one of two LT trim levels that fall between the base LS and the V-8 SS. Just to complicate things, our test car also had the RS option package, which includes mostly cosmetic changes. Exterior & Styling The 2010 Camaro's styling doesn't light my fire, but neither did the classic Camaros that inspired it. What matters, though, is how the masses react to a car, and it's been clear since the Camaro concept was introduced in January 2006 that this model's styling would make it a big hit. So far it is. Of the two Camaros we've tested, the maroon Camaro LT attracted much more attention than the black Camaro SS. The black paint must have hidden the car's character — I'd say too much. From the side, especially, many people thought it was a Mustang.
This time around, gawkers stopped and stared at the maroon LT, due in part to the optional $1,450 RS Package, which adds a subtle rear spoiler, chrome-rimmed taillights and xenon headlights with stunning halo rings. (One could argue the halos were lifted from BMW's drawing board, but, hey, if it works, it works.) The RS Package comes with 20-inch wheels, but our car upped the ante with a set of 21-inch wheels that the kids reverently call "sick." Again, the wheel design wasn't my taste, but it's hard to dispute how good a car looks with large wheels.
Less impressive was the dealer-installed ground-effects option package, which added not-so-subtle charcoal-gray plastic to the side sills and lower rear bumper — plus a relatively handsome chin spoiler. The complete misfire, though, was the combination of dark ground effects with the standard chrome exhaust outlets. In my opinion, the exhaust portholes aren't well-executed to begin with; they're too large, and it's too easy to see the real exhaust pipes, to which they're not connected. This approach works in some cars; here, not so much. On our car, they dominated the rear end, drawing the eye down toward the street and away from the taillights and other, more important design elements. Onlookers agreed: It's what the kids call a complete "fail" (which is like "failure" but easier to spell). Drivetrain Thanks to direct fuel injection, the V-6 provides 304 horsepower — more than you'd expect from a non-turbo 3.6-liter. The torque — 273 pounds-feet at a high 5,200 rpm — doesn't quite match, but that's where the automatic transmission comes in: Six speeds and the torque multiplication that comes from a good old-fashioned torque converter mean you're not waiting around for the drivetrain to get a move on. Yes, the revs must be higher than they would need to be with a torquier engine or a lighter car, but they're on tap as soon as you need them, accompanied by a nice — if slightly high-pitched — exhaust note.
In terms of performance, the six-speed does the job and is configured the way I like it, with three distinct modes: a Drive setting that upshifts early for lazy acceleration and better gas mileage; an automatic Sport setting that kicks down more quickly once you shift to the M (manual) position; and sequential manual shifting that lets you shift using buttons behind the steering wheel. The transmission isn't the most responsive one you'll find, but it's consistent, which goes a long way with me. I'm not a fan of paddle-shifting, but I know good from bad, and here the Camaro has a major shortcoming: The paddles aren't paddles.
When viewed from the driver's seat, the steering wheel appears to have paddles, but they're just little flags to indicate that the left side downshifts and the right side upshifts. The triggers themselves are relatively small buttons behind the spokes. Many cars have large paddles for a good reason — they're easier to hit, especially when the steering wheel is in motion. Unlike some cars, in the Camaro you don't have the alternative of reaching down and smacking the gear selector to effect a shift. I know these non-paddles are just a quirk, but it's a hard one to understand, especially in a car that took more than three years to find its way to market.
Whether in manual or automatic mode, the V-6 Camaro does zero to 60 in the low 6 seconds. The Challenger SE with 250 hp takes 7.8 seconds and the lighter Mustang V6 with 210 hp manages only 6.9 seconds. So is it wrong for me to look at the Camaro's 304 hp and expect even more? The Camaro's Weight Problem The Camaro is heavy: 3,719 pounds at minimum, which is 1 pound shy of the larger and similarly weight-challenged Challenger. The Mustang V6 starts at 3,405 pounds — significantly less, even after accounting for the fact that the Mustang is a couple inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the Camaro and 1.6 inches narrower. What matters more than the numbers is how the cars feel, and the Mustang feels relatively light. The Camaro feels heavy. A passenger told me he felt it on the very first turn. The V-6 does a great job beating the other guys to highway speed, and it delivers an impressive 17/29 mpg on regular gas, and you can't take that away from it. But imagine what the lighter Mustang could — and someday might — do with more than 300 hp to work with. Changing Directions When it comes to handling, the Camaro is a paradox. It's superior to the Mustang on paper — with an independent rear suspension rather than a solid rear axle — and in practice in some regards, yet it's always struggling to overcome its own weight. I track-tested the SS model and found it deceptively easy to drive fast in the straightaways. It's quiet and comfortable, but when you spike the brakes or turn the wheel you feel the heft. The Camaro is controllable — there are no surprises as you work to keep the car's inertia from driving you afoul. What's unfortunate is that you have to work at it.
I didn't take the V-6 model on the track, but I found its behavior similar in spirited driving. Our enormous 21-inch wheels were fitted with Pirelli P-Zero summer performance tires. The ride quality was by no means soft, but I expected far worse from the low-series tires. With the standard 18-inch wheels, the LS and LT should be comfortable cruisers. Though the V-6 is known to spin its wheels a bit when teamed with the manual transmission, it didn't happen with the automatic and summer tires. The rear end occasionally lightened up when powering out of turns, even at modest speeds. With the automatic transmission, all Camaros give up the standard mechanical limited-slip differential, and that might have played a part, but I was surprised anyway. These are serious performance tires, but I think even they agreed that this is a heavy car. The Inside I point out some of the highs and lows in the accompanying photos, but a Camaro review wouldn't be complete without mentioning the visibility issue. The car's chunky C-pillar and compromised rear view are often discussed, but I haven't heard as much about the forward view. The A-pillars are rather wide and they extend forward, giving the windshield its fast angle. I don't think I ran down any pedestrians in my week with the Camaro, but I can't be sure. I never learned where the front bumper was, and when I raised the seat in an attempt to find out, I lost my view of traffic signals, and the portion of my forward view that the rearview mirror blocked went from an appalling 40 percent to more than half. Some buyers will happily accept the tradeoff for the Camaro's styling, but the other two muscle cars on the market look pretty good to me with far fewer obstructions. I'm comfortable saying the Camaro's sightlines are among the worst on the market.
I also had some trouble with the seating position. I felt like I was sitting too low, with my legs stretched out in front of me. It never felt quite right, and when I wore work boots or any shoe with much of a heel, operating the pedals became a clunky exercise. As mentioned above, raising the seat to improve matters only allowed the rearview mirror to dip farther into my line of sight.
Though the 2009 Challenger and Mustang lacked electronic stability systems, the 2010 models now include it, so there's parity among the models' active safety features, which also include antilock brakes and traction control. The Camaro has one advantage in terms of passive safety features: It has standard side-impact airbags for the front seats and standard side curtains that serve the front and rear seats. The Challenger has the curtains but no torso airbags in front, and the Mustang has seat-mounted side airbags (with head protection) for the front only, and no curtains. See a full list of the Camaro's features here. Unfortunately none of these three coupes has been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, so actual performance remains a mystery. Camaro in the Market Some of the Camaro's quirks and shortfalls can be attributed to its young age. In all-new models, some things can be ironed out in subsequent years and others might have to wait for a full redesign. My preference for the Mustang comes in part from its years of refinement — not in the general sense, because the car is a little rough (which is arguably desirable in a muscle car) in ways the Camaro is not. But the Mustang GT in particular is consistent from nose to tail. The drivetrain, chassis, brakes and basically everything work extremely well together. That's where newcomers like the Camaro fall short. Though I question how many American-muscle-car fans would cross-shop a new model out of South Korea, the capable, bargain-priced 2010 Hyundai Genesis coupe newcomer is another good example. It too needs some tweaking here and there to make it a complete package.
Compared with the Camaro, though, the Genesis coupe's shortcomings are potentially short-term. It's a light, nimble car with reasonable sightlines that has the performance basics covered. But the Camaro's weight, visibility and seating position? They're all but permanent. Weight loss in cars happens by the pound and the tens of pounds, not by the hundreds. When a car's foundation is heavy, you need stronger and heavier components to compensate — engine, brakes, suspension, tires and so on. Weight breeds more weight, in a phenomenon known as mass compounding. Essentially, a heavy car is going to stay that way, pure and simple. Contrast this with the base Mustang, which is one turbocharged EcoBoost engine away from blowing Chevy's boat out of the sea.
Ironically, driving isn't everything, and ultimately it's the Camaro's obstructed sightlines that strike me as its greatest liability. Shoppers can determine if they're a deal-breaker after a careful test drive. Many lesser cars have succeeded on their looks alone, and the Camaro's comfort and efficiency are sure to satisfy minds after its styling wins hearts.