Our view: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro

Photo of Kelsey Mays
Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

Anticipation notwithstanding, Chevrolet’s resurrected Camaro carries all the inglorious timing of walking into an interview today with a stint at AIG on your resume. Sports cars tend to be discretionary purchases, and your local barista can tell you how the economy has affected those. More than ever in this market, success doesn’t hang on V-8 power and quarter-mile times, it’s about having a base model that’s equal parts practical and desirable.

The good news for long-suffering Camaro fans is that Chevy gets the job done, and then some. The Camaro isn’t perfect, but the V-6 moves with authority and refinement, and it returns decent gas mileage, too. Other aspects, from handling to ride quality, augment the car’s big-tent potential. A lot of people will not only want it, they’ll be able to make a legitimate case for buying it, even amid economic malaise. Will the Camaro save GM? Not on its own, but it is a very good sign.

Oh, yeah — the V-8 Camaro is stupid quick, but less impressive overall.

Base LS and uplevel LT variants get the V-6, while the Camaro SS gets the V-8. Either engine comes with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. I drove all four drivetrain combinations near GM’s proving grounds in Milford, Mich.

Sort of Retro
To appreciate the Camaro’s looks, you must see the rear fenders. Viewed straight-on from the front or rear, the car’s boxy lines recall Cadillac’s oddly proportioned XLR. Walk a few steps left or right, though, and the Camaro’s oversized flanks — drawn outward by those fenders — reveal the beef. So do the wheels, the smallest of which measure 18 inches. If you want more, an RS appearance package changes key visual elements. Check out the photos to see more.

Though loosely styled after the 1969 Camaro, the 2010 model lacks the vintage look of the current Dodge Challenger or Ford’s 2005-09 Mustang. It’s still compelling, to be sure, but in a thoroughly modern way — think Megan Fox, not “Foxy Lady.”

History does repeat itself on one count: The Camaro slots roughly between the larger Challenger and the smallish 2010 Mustang in exterior size. That’s in keeping with each competitor’s inspiration, the 1967 Mustang and 1970 Challenger.

The Six Kicks
The base Mustang is sort of quick, and the base Challenger isn’t even that. The entry-level Camaro is flat-out fun. There’s less punch from the get-go than Ford’s 4.0-liter V-6 drums up, but wind out the engine to higher revs, and the Camaro pulls away from its Motown competitors. I’d ask for a deeper exhaust note, but such is the price of the drivetrain’s utter refinement.

Credit the Camaro’s 3.6-liter V-6, the same engine you’ll find in the Cadillac CTS and STS sedans. Saddled with a couple hundred pounds less weight, it’s even more impressive here, churning out fluid power all the way to its 7,000-rpm redline. Chevrolet says the V-6 Camaro goes from zero to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, regardless of the transmission. That blows away the Challenger (7.8 seconds for the V-6 automatic, according to Dodge) and stays well ahead of the lighter Mustang (6.9 seconds for a V-6 automatic, per Road & Track’s test; Ford doesn’t provide acceleration figures).

The stick shift has medium throws and good overall precision. It’s not as precise as the Nissan 370Z’s stick, but it’s far better than the heavier-duty V-8 manuals in the Camaro and its Detroit rivals. You have to chuck those into gear; this one can be flicked about.

The optional six-speed automatic holds onto low gears long enough for high-revving acceleration, and it ticks through upshifts seamlessly. Sport mode, one notch below Drive, holds low gears longer and kicks down more readily, but it manages to do so without feeling choppy around town. My only complaint concerns the automatic’s tendency to shift gears as you accelerate through a corner — that’s when you need seamless, hiccup-free power. Should it get too annoying, you can pick your own gears with the included steering-wheel paddles. The transmission responds quickly enough, though if you try to downshift two or three gears at once, the engine stair-steps through the intermediary ones.

No doubt Chevrolet will market the V-6’s EPA-estimated 29-mpg highway rating to death. It’s very good, to be sure, especially considering the Challenger and Mustang top out in the mid-20s. Combined city/highway ratings close the gap a bit: Depending on the transmissions you compare, the V-6 Camaro rates anywhere from roughly even to about 15 percent better than its competitors.

Camaro Drivetrains Compared
V-6 V-8
Base price $22,245 (Camaro LS) $30,245 (Camaro SS)
Displacement 3.6 liters 6.2 liters
Horsepower (@ rpm) 304 @ 6,400 426 @ 5,900 (manual);
400 @ 5,900 (auto)
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm) 273 @ 5,200 420 @ 4,600 (manual);
410 @ 4,300 (auto)
Transmissions 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto
Acceleration (zero to 60 mph, sec.) 6.1 (manual or auto) 4.7 (manual or auto)
EPA gas mileage (city/highway, mpg) 17/29 (manual);
18/29 (auto)
16/24 (manual);
16/25 (auto)
Recommended fuel Regular Premium
Source: Automaker data

Ride & Handling
Drag-strip purists will bemoan the loss of a non-independent solid rear axle, which the Mustang and older Camaros employ, but I suspect the vast majority of buyers will appreciate the four-wheel-independent setup. It absorbs bumps with little cabin noise or jostling, and the wheels stay grounded over tricky dips and rises in the pavement. The Challenger exhibits similar qualities; I haven’t driven the revised 2010 Mustang yet, but the ’09 shimmied about whenever the road got bumpy.

The steering wheel has enough power assist to make the daily drive bearable, yet feedback and turn-in precision are good enough to suit curvy roads. Understeer creeps in at the limits, but the Camaro never feels overly nose-heavy. It’s not perfect — the brakes are mushy, and even with the optional 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires, there’s a bit too much body roll to toss the car from corner to corner — but given this is the V-6, I can’t complain. Road noise with the 18- or 20-inch wheels is low. So is wind noise, even at 60 or 70 mph.

Camaro SS
The Camaro SS is quick. Silly quick. The Challenger R/T is thunderous in its own right, but it can’t touch this. You can amble along uphill at 1,500 rpm or kick the accelerator to hit the passing lane, no downshifting required. Equipped with the Corvette’s daddy-loves-torque V-8, the Camaro makes usable acceleration available virtually anywhere on the tach. Wring out the gears from a standing start, and GM says 60 mph comes in 4.7 seconds with either the automatic or the manual. That handily beats the Challenger R/T (5.5 seconds with the manual or automatic, according to Dodge) and edges out the Mustang GT (around 5 seconds with the manual, per various tests).

Sadly, other aspects of the SS fail to impress. The manual transmission — the SS gets a heavier-duty unit to handle the V-8’s torque — feels more trucklike than the one in the V-6, with muddier linkages and more force required to shift gears. The automatic drivetrain loses 26 horsepower, but the transmission in this version behaves much the same as it does in the V-6. At least the extra power makes untimely shifts less consequential.

The steering has the same ratio as the base model, but there’s less power assist and no greater precision than the V-6 offers. At parking-lot speeds, it presents pockets of unexpected resistance. The SS’ performance-tuned suspension, which rides 20- or 21-inch wheels, quells body roll nicely, but it doesn’t seem to keep the wheels as well-grounded as the V-6 setup does. On several mid-corner bumps, the car skittered sideways excessively. Not good.

Some bright spots: The brakes — Brembo four-piston calipers on beefier discs, versus the single-piston calipers on V-6 models — are strong; there ought to be an upgrade package on the V-6 to get these. Ride quality, despite the larger wheels and retuned suspension, remains livable. The burly exhaust note missing in the V-6 is alive and well here.

Maybe this is the way the Camaro SS is supposed to be. There’s more power than anyone should ever need, but at the expense of refinement — perhaps meant as a raucous throwback to this genre’s halcyon days. The more refined V-6 is expected to account for two-thirds of Camaro sales, Chevy says. Given the V-8’s narrow appeal, I wouldn’t be surprised if that proportion went up.

The Inside
GM has been making strides in interior quality for some time, and the Camaro’s cabin — with nary a parts-bin piece in sight — is a summary result. It looks more retro than the exterior, with a deck-like dash and a separate floor console that recall the ’67-69 Camaro interior. Plastics are hard to the touch, but they don’t look that way, and low-gloss finishes across the doors and dash impart quality. It’s hard to believe this comes from the same company that makes the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G6.

The unique center controls may be off-putting for some. The stereo adopts an attractive new design, but loses some of GM’s carefully honed user-friendliness. The climate dials are futuristic, but not so attractive, and their pinky-sized buttons may take some time to master. Quality is impressive, however — from the window switches and A/C dials to the turn-signal stalks and radio buttons, there’s no shortage of well-oiled precision. The quality level approaches that of Honda’s controls, which to my mind is the gold standard among non-luxury brands.

Overall roominess trails the Challenger, but I found enough headroom and legroom up front. The optional moonroof takes away about an inch of headroom, according to Chevrolet, and a 6-foot-4 fellow journalist said he didn’t have enough room in test cars that had it. Thanks to a lot of range in the vertical seat adjustment, though, most drivers should be fine. A six-way power driver’s seat comes on all trims but the LS, which has a manual seat-height adjuster. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel, which the Challenger has but the Mustang still doesn’t, is standard.

The standard stereo is a six-speaker CD system with an auxiliary input jack. For a base stereo, it doesn’t sound too shabby. Full USB integration for iPods and other MP3 players is available, as is a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics audio system. I listened to it back-to-back with the entry-level system, and while it does crank out more bass, it doesn’t do much to improve sound clarity.

The Camaro’s practicality score takes a hit when it comes to the trunk and two-position backseat, both of which are tiny. Check out the photos for more details.

Features & Pricing
The Camaro LS starts at $22,245, about even with the 2009 Challenger and $1,250 more than the 2010 Mustang. Standard features include power windows and locks, keyless entry, A/C and cruise control. The V-6 can be had in 1LS, 1LT and 2LT trims, while the V-8 comes in 1SS and 2SS. The 1SS starts at $30,245, about even with a Challenger R/T and $2,250 more than the Mustang GT. The six-speed auto runs $995 to $1,185 depending on the engine. Fully loaded — with heated leather seats, a moonroof and a litany of exterior add-ons — the V-6 Camaro can top out around $40,000. The V-8 can run up to $45,000. Note that there’s no navigation system offered, but OnStar’s Directions & Connections service — which routes GPS-linked directions to a display between the gauges — runs $23 to $29 per month, depending on how long you choose to sign up.

The Camaro has yet to be crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but standard safety features include side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. (Click here for a full list). Neither the Mustang nor the Challenger can boast that many standard features.

Camaro in the Market
I’d be remiss to ignore Detroit’s current straits, especially when discussing such a crucial car. Bankruptcy for GM remains a possibility as I write this, and purchasing a Camaro from a company in Chapter 11 — or a Challenger from a bankrupt Chrysler, for that matter — carries obvious risks. But doing so may not be as ill-advised as you think. You’d likely get a handsome discount, and given that both companies are interested in convincing buyers they’re here to stay, they are likely to make honoring warranty claims a priority.

If the General can avoid bankruptcy reorganization, or at least emerge on the other side to fight again — and most experts I’ve talked to are confident it will — the Camaro will be a major asset. These days in particular, sports cars are only as good as the versions most people end up choosing, and the Camaro is very strong in this regard. In the quest to make daily driving fun again, GM hits the mark. Let’s hope for some repeat performances, and soon.

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