This is the story of how a sensible, middle-aged guy fell from sensible car grace. Have mercy on me.
Let me be honest right up front here: I am most assuredly not a “muscle car” fan. I was a nerd/geek/dork in high school (in spite of doing two sports–do you think being in Drama and the Computer Club had something to do with it?), and the guys who had, or wanted to have, muscle cars were the kind of guys would give guys like me wedgies, stuff us in lockers, turn us upside in trash cans, and all that kind of thing. Not a crowd I ran with. Not a crowd that I wanted to even have anything in common with. So no, I wasn’t a muscle car guy.
When I got older, I had: a Toyota, a VW, a Honda, another Honda, another Toyota, a BMW Z3 (middle-aged crises!), and another Honda. We had a Dodge Grand Caravan for less than a year, and it broke down so often we ditched it for a Honda Odyssey. No muscle cars. Not even any American cars. I wanted to buy an American car; I tried hard to like American cars; but every time I rented them or test drove them, they just weren’t for me. American cars seemed to have really wide, spongy seats that didn’t cradle your body. They all had those “auto-on” headlights. All the gears and levers and dials and switches were all moved around from where I was used to. (e.g., on Hondas, the headlight switch is on a stick on the steering column; on American cars, it’s almost always on the dash.) They felt over-big, with bad fit-and-finish. I just didn’t like them.
Just the kind of car the bullies of my high school drove and/or lusted after (a 1980 Pontiac Firebird)
And then I rented a Camaro.
I was in California with my son to get a medical procedure done, and I had reserved a compact car from Enterprise. But as we stepped out of the elevator and were led to our car (a Dodge Caliber; a car I’ve driven before and really don’t like much), we went past a pitch-black Camaro. My son Joseph, who is an absolutely car net, went bananas. He wanted to rent it, bad. Needless to say, I didn’t. Aside from the extra money it was, well, a muscle car. I didn’t have any interest. But Joseph wanted it so bad, and the Enterprise guy said we could get it for only an extra $4/day. So I thought, “Ah, what the hell.”
I loved it. From the first moment my flabby, middle-aged behind hit the seat.
You can read any of David Goodspeed’s Gear Diary car reviews of the Camaro, so I won’t bore you by repeating stuff he already covered with a greater level of expertise; I’ll just tell you some of my impressions. (Gist: he loves ‘em, and he’s a muscle car far. So the fact that a fan and non-fan both like it definitely says something, I’m thinking.) Here’s what Chevy has to say:
Sure, it looks good on a pedestal, but Camaro lives on the road. The open road, the closed track, the driveway, the highway – as long as there’s pavement, Camaro owns it. So get out there and tear it up.
Take it out in the rain, the wind, the sun. Let it breathe. Feel the whip of the wind. The roar of the road under your rubber. With its awe-inspiring design, pulse-racing performance and impressive efficiency, Camaro is a forward-thinking machine that’s meant to be driven. And loved.
Typical over-heated corporate hyperbole, but I have to say, I kinda agree. Let’s see what struck me:
The first thing that struck me was that I was comfortable. I’m a very average-sized guy–5’10″, average build–and so I fit in most cars pretty easily, but in this one I felt comfortable. The seats were firm, the pedals, steering wheel, and controls were all handy, and the car felt solid without being, I dunno, huge-feeling. In my experience, I get into an American car, and the door is thick, but it feels kind of hollow rather than well-built; the seats are squishy, the interior feels cheap, the fit and finish are questionable. That is absolutely not the impression I got from the Camaro.
Any time you rent a car, you have to get used to the layout of the controls, the stereo buttons, the A/C and temperature controls, the cruise control, mirrors, and everything. Again, with American cars in my experience, I could never seem to find anything quickly–”Why did they put the cruise control there; I almost couldn’t find it!” “How the hell do I program a favorite radio station?” “That’s the mirror controls? Whose idea was that?” and so on. And once again, that’s not what happened with the Camaro. I found everything quickly, puzzling out the vagaries of the stereo controls took little time, and most everything seemed like it was laid out intuitively. Even syncing my iPhone to the in-car Bluetooth system was quick and easy; Joseph was astonished when I answered a call from his sister via the in-car speakers.
David pointed out the rather weird steering wheel (as well as some other issues with the interior), and he’s right: it’s weird. But you know what? I didn’t care! And it looked cool. In a couple hundred miles of driving over 4 days, it never bothered me even a little bit. And with the dials and layout, again it looked cool, and I didn’t have any problems with it. One man’s opinion.
On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more about the visibility out of the car–it sucks, honestly. The A-pillars–the big posts on either side of the windshield–are huge, and I had to move my head around quite a bit to look around them. The rear window is pretty small–not 60s-era VW small, but still pretty small–and the pillars that hold it up are durn huge, too. So overall, we’re talking blind-spot heaven. The mirrors help, of course, and if you have the optional rear-view camera package, that would help a lot, but yeah, visibility ain’t great out of this thing. That’s definitely a price you pay for The Cool factor.
Speaking of which, you might be wondering about the whole point of the muscle car exercise: the engine. As I mentioned earlier, I am a Sensible Car guy who drives Sensibly. The Camaro has a 323 horsepower, V-6 engine, and my model came with a 6-gear automatic, plus those flappy-paddle shifter things that allow you to over-ride the automatic transmission. It’s completely silly to have that much power and those flappy-padal things–but I loved it. I loved being able to accelerate like a lunatic, even if I hardly ever did so. I loved playing with the gear shifting–I have a bad neck, and a standard floor-mounted clutch is bad for me, so being able to shift without adding to my chronic pain was both convenient and fun. And while the growl of the engine doesn’t match a Farrari or Aston-Martin (or even a V-8 Camaro), it still beats my poor Accord all hollow. “Fun” is definitely the right word.
And amazingly, the gas mileage was pretty good. I didn’t clock it, but I drove somewhere around 200 miles, and the tank only went down by about 1/2 to 3/4. For a muscle car, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to cause people to ditch their Priuses, but it was still respectable. (And a lot more fun than a Prius.)
And finally, this was simply a gorgeous car. I had an all-black model, and it was striking. Even I–fashion-challenged, non-car-guy lunkhead, could see that, and I actually good comments on it. I mean, look: I’ve been driving for damn near 25 years. I’ve driven the mileage equivalent of the journey of the crew of Apollo 13. I’ve been on the road a lot, for a long time, in all kinds of cars, from that snazzy Z3 to rattle-trap 60s-era VW bugs to a staid family minivan (in grey, no less). And this was the first time in my life that people, without prompting, complimented me on the car. They gave it second looks. They asked about it. “Nice car,” the guy at the drive-thru window said, and you could tell he wasn’t being sarcastic; he had that “car lust” look in his eye. It was, quite literally, a unique experience for me. (I bet David Goodspeed gets it a lot, though!)
So what’s the bottom line?
I had been reading, for years, how American cars were becoming equivalent in quality to European or Japanese cars, but my experience hadn’t matched that. Until I plunked myself down in a Camaro, and saw one of the reasons that GM was doing much better. I’m still not totally convinced–I had an Impala for several days when the ol’ minivan was getting repaired, and it was nothing short of “Meh”. But judging by the Camaro, they’ve come a long way.
I’m not buying a car any time real soon–I just don’t have the scratch–but when I do, you can bet your bucket seats that I’ll be looking at the Camaro again. Congrats, GM; well done.
So there you have it: my fall from Sensible Car grace. What do you think? Have you driven any cars lately that caused you to react with mindless enthusiasm, like I did with the Camaro? Share below!