Chevrolet Camaro SS Review : a US force in LA

The Chevrolet Camaro may be coming to Oz in its next generation - so how does the current one stack up in its home town?

When country-pop-rocker Sheryl Crow watched the sun come up over Santa Monica Boulevard, she wouldn’t have pondered that it would take the globe another six or so hours to spin some sun Australia’s way.

Nor would the sleepy passengers on my long-haul flight, a long reach over the Pacific Ocean, have considered that the mighty Boeing 747 can’t match the pace of a sun rise – it takes 14 hours to depart Los Angeles and arrive in Sydney.

So why am I musing this?

Because last month when I parked a Holden Commodore SS V Redline at the delightful Scarborough Hotel that sits on the coastline south of Sydney, I didn’t think I’d soon be doing much the same thing with its long lost cousin.

Having looked east over the Pacific Ocean through the windscreen of a Commodore, I’m now peering west over the same body of water from the front glass of a Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE Performance Pack.

It will take many more hours, days, weeks, months and years for the Camaro to show up on our shores, but following Holden’s announcement that there will be a V8 coupe joining its range from 2017, all eyes are on the next-generation two-door muscle car to make a journey at sea (and that will be one vessel our border protection cohort hopefully will not turn back).

Just following that announcement made at the Detroit motor show, I found myself with the Camaro SS 1LE Performance in Los Angeles; the timing could hardly have been better.

The irony is, of course, that the Camaro I’m driving is closely related to the Commodore from back home, yet it doesn’t come to Australia; but the next-generation one that will come to our country, actually won’t share anything with the sedan that will have its nameplate reborn into a new, front-wheel-drive import for its next generation.

Los Angeles has long been a kangaroo-hop between Holden’s Melbourne offices and the General Motors headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. There isn’t a plane that has enough fuel range to take you from our east coast to the north-eastern United State.

Having never driven a Camaro, I’ve long wondered how close to a Commodore it might be. It was designed and engineered in our backyard on the Zeta platform that underpinned the VE Commodore in 2006 and continues to do so in the overhauled VF.

The Camaro has changed much less over the same time period compared with VE to VF, though. However, there has been new stuff added such as the contents of this 1LE Performance Pack, where Holden has chosen (or needed?) to leave brawnier performance to the Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) division it doesn’t own.

This Camaro SS 1LE Performance Package gets the same 6.2-litre V8 engine fitted to the entry-level HSV, the Clubsport, rather than the 6.0-litre fitted to the Commodore that wears the same SS initials.

Disappointingly for us, the export Commodore SS, called the Chevrolet SS in Yank-land, gets the extra 200 cubic centimetre capacity.

Unlike our home-grown four-door sedan, however, the bow-tied coupe sits low and looks menacing. Painted white, with a matt-black and power-bulged bonnet matching the 20-inch alloy wheels and front and rear lip spoilers, the Camaro SS 1LE Performance gets noticed.

It sits about 100mm lower than a Commodore, and the longer doors are frameless. Don't know about you, but I prefer the pre-facelift tail-lights that are larger with more pronounced indents into the rear bumper than the slimline new units.

The cabin design looks old, and feels cheap with its swathes of hard plastics, lurid green lighting and cloth trim inserts.

A reminder of its age comes in the form of a mobile phone holder clearly designed for an iPhone 4; but it won’t quite fit my iPhone 6. There is also no semi-automatic reverse parking feature, or blind-spot monitor, or head-up display, or forward collision warning - all of which are standard in Commodore SS V Redline.

The cabin has been updated with GM’s excellent MyLink infotainment system, however, and the Camaro’s is largely identical to that we’ve seen in Cruze and Commodore, only it adds the Sirius XM digital radio not to be found on any Holden.

Look to the rear and there’s little space, and the same cloth trim is used – contrasting with the heavily bolstered, leather and suede-trim Recaro sports seats that add US$1995 to the price.

When the next Camaro comes here, don’t expect VF Commodore-like space and class.

On the upside, the optional (US$3500) 1LE Performance Package brings in addition to 20s, spoilers and Recaros, a suede gearshift lever and steering wheel, performance exhaust, rear parking sensors and camera (yep, not standard!), satellite navigation and a suspension package (we’ll get to that later).

First, the exhaust – oh the exhaust.

From the first time I fire up the Camaro (using the same key as a Commodore) I realise that it may well be a little different. The crank sound from the engine is the same, but the boom from the exhaust is nothing like even an HSV.

This really is one of the great tailpipe tingles, simply because it doesn’t just pop and bang away all the time like an A45 AMG, to name one example. It forces you to work for its noise, and depending on how it feels it will sometimes crackle, sometimes feed out staccato pops, or occasionally bang and blurt – but even after nine days I was always excited to discover when.

Threading through busy LA traffic, I feel right at home in the Camaro, almost literally because its old-school hydraulic-assisted steering is a facsimile of the VE system before the VF switched to electric assistance.

It doesn’t have the on-centre sharpness of the newest Commodore, but jeez it is arguably filled with more lovely feedback and tingling, yet extra progressiveness that characterised the older Commodore.

The six-speed manual is chunky and long-throw as you’d expect from a muscle car, but at the same time it is easy and fluid, and the engine just gives and gives once it’s wound up. But there’s no flattering turbo boost down low here, and thanks to tall gearing you have to keep it on the ball.

These are all first impressions, so I park the Camaro for the night at my digs near Venice and when the sun does rise tomorrow, I take the Chevrolet to the hip and hippy strip called Abbot Kinney for some good coffee.

Yes, good coffee, not cawfee, in America. Intelligentsia comes highly recommended.

Around these parts I just don’t think the Camaro 1LE Performance Pack fits in. As people sit kerbside drinking flat whites that are a “new thing” here, a barista tells me, the Chevrolet burbles and blurts.

Soon I realise the Californian contrast.

Electric vehicles are everywhere, thanks to the huge tax incentives given to consumers if they choose something that forgoes using fossil fuels, because with a greater population of 18 million, LA has a smog problem.

Teslas are the darling child, obviously, but I also saw a new Golf EV, and plenty of i3s and Volts and Leaves.

Yet as much as I’m embarrassed to say this, the Californian car culture seems to trounce ours. Clearly I entered Abbot Kinney feeling as though I was bringing an HSV with a ‘zorst’ past John Howard’s residence in Wollstonecraft on Sydney’s lower north shore. But I was wrong.

Yanks still love their muscle cars. When unleaded petrol is around 70 cents per litre, hot-hatchbacks simply get passed over for Dodge Challengers, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros. So you get EVs or muscle cars – the Cali contrast.

Even if I was wrong, though, muscle beach is only a few minutes away, a place where the Camaro should feel right at home. It did, so while I decide to keep my top on, I instead park and simply enjoy the view.

Apparently I’m driving the newest and one of the best Camaros, given the attention this thing gets.

“Oi man, nice ride,” shouts a young bloke from a battered Honda Accord in the carpark.

“Are you returning tonight, sir?” the valet at my hotel asks, politely and formally, upon leaving one morning. When I reply in the affirmative he is almost beside himself: “I just love this car man,” he exclaims.

I place a note in my phone to check tyre tread and the fuel gauge tomorrow.

Back home, the only time your sports car is dignified is when someone sees you indicate and then rapidly accelerates to close the gap in traffic. Or if the highway patrol dislikes your muscle and wants to flex his.

In the 900km I travelled in the Camaro over 10 days, I saw no highway patrols. On the sprawling highway towards Camarillo, where I did some shopping if only to test boot space – about three quarters a Commodore, for the record – everybody does 130km/h-plus in the fast lane. I join the brisk convoy, and find the Camaro's tall-geared transmission lets the engine sit at an astonishingly low 1900rpm in sixth at 130km/h.

Returning to Sydney the following week, ‘Operation Saturation’ is in full force and I see eight HPs in the space of a one-hour, 70km drive.

With my credit card in dire straits, I tuck into an In ‘N’ Out burger so loved by many people I talk to, and head back south to Venice the good way instead of the freeway that splices through the Hollywood hills.

There are plenty of great driving roads only a half-hour away from the Los Angeles city centre. The Pacific Coast Highway is a lovely, curvy road that reaches all the way to San Francisco, and is more like Victoria’s Great Ocean Road than the horrible roadworks minefield that is the NSW/Queensland Pacific Highway.

There are mountains in between the coastline and Camarillo, with lots of squiggly lines on the nav, so I explore them (and the Camaro’s abilities) before choosing to, oh baby, drive away, to Malibu (thanks, Hole).

The Camaro is largely Commodore, but in some ways better.

The harder suspension and semi-slick Goodyear F1 Eagle tyres means that on one hand there's less classic Commo behaviour – rolling onto its outside rear wheel then coaxing its driver to use the throttle to ride it out of a corner like a wave – because the rear feels tighter, more planted. Weight transfer feels just as pushy at times, though, but the Chevrolet grips tightly.

Thanks to sublime throttle reponse that only comes from a naturally aspirated engine, tweaking back end behaviour is easy enough that you can be millimetrically perfect.

Comparisons of cars come flooding into my head – along with the sound, and the tingling suede-trimmed steering, the Camaro 1LE SS Performance Pack is like a budget C63 AMG coupe; yet its racecar-like damping feels taut, but sophisticated the way it rounds off big bumps and never feels harsh, like a Renault Sport Megane RS275 driven recently or a Porsche 911 GT3 driven too long ago.

So good is the Chevy that I bypass my plans to head to the levey that night – which I’d, ahem, assumed isn’t dry – and twist back on other roads through Calabasas, which my boyfriend excitedly tells me is where the Kardashians live.

Being rubbish at celebrity spotting, I power on towards Mulholland Drive on the edge of Hollywood, famous in most parts for the excellent David Lynch psycho-thriller of the same name. There are great views of the city and a certain large, white suburb-indicator sign from up here, but tour buses slow pace to less than what the Camaro deserves on such a hilly, twisty road.

What I’m less rubbish at is car spotting.

The next day I walk down Montana avenue in Santa Monica, the lofty café strip where everyday people like to play pap. Over a tuna sandwich and fresh lemonade, I spot a Cadillac Catera, which is a rebadged version of the 1990s Opel Omega that was loosely used as the basis for the Holden VT Commodore that launched in 1997.

A Pontiac GTO powers past, the VT-based Holden Monaro shipped to the US in the early-2000s; I ponder whether anyone except my nerd self would make the connection that the Catera and GTO actually share exterior door handles, interior door locks and a basic body shape.

After that apropos of nothing the Camaro and I head back towards the beach to watch the sun set over the Pacific before it needs to be returned and another 747 sends me 14 hours west.

The lights are bright and colourful on Santa Monica Pier, with roller coasters zooming and the famous ferris wheel spinning. But I run into a sign that tells me my time here is over. It reads ‘66 End of the Trail’, referring to the 4000km stretch of Will Rogers Highway that stretches to Chicago, Illinois. Almost back to where I began this trip in Detroit, in fact.

With that, and a quick nightfall shot of the Camaro in front of the entrance to the Pier, it was time to head to LAX.

Unexpectedly, I fell in love with the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE Performance Pack. Compared with the Commodore SS V Redline it’s cramped and cheap inside, but it’s also more raw and sharp. The coupe complements the sedan rather than competes with it. In fact the same could be said for my affection towards the two coastlines that share a big bit of water in between.