Driven: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro, Decisions Decisions…

By Rex Roy

March 30, 2009

The obvious comparisons surrounding the all-new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro pit the reconstituted pony car against the Mustang and Challenger. Well duh. We submit, however, that the obvious overlooks something right before your eyes; a Camaro versus Camaro face off.

Our premise is this: the most important decision regarding the purchase of a new Camaro does not pit the Chevy against Ford or Dodge, but against itself fitted with either the V-6 or the V-8. After spending hours behind the wheels of Camaros with each of the four available powertrains, this new car revealed two distinct personalities based solely on cylinder count.

The Powertrains
Since General Motors first showed the Camaro Concept in January 2006, we've known something about which motors would power the reconstituted icon. At first, everybody focused on the V-8, and that only stands to reason because past V-6 Camaros tended to be eminently forgettable. At best, such cars were dismissed as mere "secretary cars." (For younger readers, this was a blatantly derogatory descriptor with roots in a time when executives had low-wage earning female secretaries compared to today's better-paid, gender-neutral, administrative assistants. In other words, V-6 Camaros used to be cheap chick cars.)

This classification for the 2010 V-6 Camaro would be incorrect. New Camaro LS and LT editions use the 3.6-liter direct-injected V-6 first seen in the Cadillac CTS. But even though this all-aluminum V-6 produces V-8 levels of power (304 horsepower), its EPA highway fuel economy bests many four-cylinder cars; 29 mpg. (This is but one marvel of direct injection, a technology we looked at carefully in Winding Road 42.) City mileage for the V-6/six-speed manual is 17 mpg, and 18 mpg for the six-speed automatic.

To put this engine's power into perspective, Mustang's V-8 produces 315 hp, while the V-6 Dodge Challenger produces a meager 250.

Moving up the Camaro SS—the V-8 edition that's in everyone's mind's eye—there are two distinct engines based on the driver's transmission choice. Both are 6.2-liter V-8s sourced from the Corvette. The L99 V-8 goes with the six-speed automatic, and benefits from variable valve timing and active fuel management (that enables the engine to run in V-8 and V-4 modes). Horsepower and torque are 400/410. EPA numbers are 16 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

The LS3 6.2-liter V-8 is matched to the manually-shifted six-speed Tremec TR6060. The LS3 puts out 426 horsepower and 420 lb.-ft. torque. Mileage is a respectable 16/24.

The V6's Personalities
The above numbers explain something of the new Camaro's personality, but they don't fully describe the dynamic differences between the V-6 and V-8 editions.

Camaros running the V-6 and automatic come across as being an accessible sports car for people who think a clutch is a small purse. The engine's lively response works well with the six-speed automatic. Enthusiasts may find the combination benign, but the Camaro chassis helps make the complete package enjoyable.

The new suspension was developed by GM's Australian Holden group, the same team that developed the Pontiac G8. It's buttoned up. While Ford has elevated the 2010 Mustang's ride using a refined live rear axle, the Camaro's independent rear suspension simply drives better, smoother, and with less twitchiness.

Drivers who know what a third pedal is will vastly prefer the V-6/ six-speed manual combo. It begs to be driven like a Nissan 370Z or an Infiniti G37 Coupe. The V-6 revs willingly to its 6400 rpm horsepower peak and doesn't redline until seven grand. The lightweight engine helps the car feel smaller than it is. The shift linkage moves directly through its gates with throws that are short enough. The linkage isn't perfect because it lacks that mechanical magic some gearboxes possess, but it works well enough. According to Chevy, the V-6/manual Camaro will bump into its electronic speed limiter at 155 mph.

If you know where to look, the back roads of Southeast Michigan offer plenty of flat, open sweepers. Bending into these camber-free corners quickly reveal the car's attitude and whether understeer will surface to spoil the fun. On these roads, it never did.

Powering through corners, the suspension responded immediately with little roll. The steering felt communicative and responsive. In nearly all circumstances, the Camaro felt completely neutral, a characteristic that gives the car an exceptionally agile feel. Compared to the Challenger’s softer set up, the Camaro is significantly tighter.

With the manual, the linear throttle response proved easy to control. This made easier work of mid-corner power adjustments, and helped us carefully build lateral loads in a controlled, exploratory manner.

The V-8 Attitude
Be warned, torque is an addictive drug, so use with caution. Under its influence you'll be drawn to deserted cul de sacs to perform ruckus doughnuts that produce so much tire smoke that squirrels will be smoked out from surrounding trees. We know. It happened to us, and we were plenty thankful for the 6.2-liter V-8's soft rev limiter. The engine is so powerful that once the tires break loose, the tach swings toward the red faster than you can say, "We need to leave now."

The power difference between the Camaro's two 6.2-liter V-8s isn't something most drivers will notice. Only the most experienced backsides can pick out a 26 horsepower increase when it accounts for only a six-percent increase, especially when a torque converter helps mask the difference. Pulling the trigger on either model brings up 60 mph in less than five seconds … about 1.5 seconds faster than the quickest V-6 combination.

Because the V-8 is also all-aluminum, the Camaro SS maintains the neutral handling first experienced in the V-6 car. Chevy's specs reveal that there is only a 69 pound difference between V-6 and V-8 editions with manual gearboxes. No wonder they feel so similar, and no wonder the Camaro SS responds so readily to the V-8's extra umphf.

Full-on accelerations runs recall fond memories of Camaros past when big-block power rocketed the primitive cars forward. While the sounds may be similar, the LS3 roars mightily but comes across more refined than anything you could have driven back in the day.

Other Impressions

Practically, there's more to the Camaro that what's under the hood. The total Camaro experience must recognize the car's visual magnetism and the fact that it's a 2+2. The feeling of mild claustrophobia caused by the low roof and the wide roof pillars takes some miles to dissipate. And practically, while the back seats are much roomier than a 911, there's precious little room when the front chairs are adjusted for taller occupants.

Those who have experienced the 2010 Mustang might find the Camaro's interior lacking because the Ford's offers more interesting style and detailing along with genuinely top-flight leathers with the premium interior package. Certain of Camaro's cues, like the twin-pod gauges are interesting, but the door panels and the balance of the dash are dull. One could hypothesize that the interior design team ran out of budget after the gauge package was finished.

Overall, the examples we drove were higher quality than any production Camaro that's ever turned a wheel. For those who have driven old Camaros, that may not be saying much, but the 2010 editions compare favorably to anything wearing a Toyota badge.

Past and Present
Memories are a funny thing. They color life's past, tending to make the good better or the bad even worse. Memories certainly affect what we believe regarding cars, too. Those of us who grew up with pony and muscle cars likely recall their explosive thrust and intoxicating exhaust note. These reminiscences cloud the truths of weak brakes, wallowing suspensions, and recirculating-ball steering gears better suited to trucks than performance cars.

The new Camaro makes peace with our memories. The newest member of the pony car clan is what we hoped the old cars were, but weren’t.