2018 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS review

Australian first drive

Aussie muscle car fans have a new option in the form of the Chevrolet Camaro, thanks to a RHD conversion by HSV, bringing American style and performance to local shores at a near-OEM level.

It’s time to finally put to bed the notion of American cars as heavy, imprecise, blunt instruments only good for a quarter mile at a time. The Chevrolet Camaro has arrived in Australia with a score to settle.

It’s certainly not the first time the Camaro has been made available to Australians, with limited availability previously via low-volume conversion operations. Now, though, with the help of HSV, Aussie customers have access to the Camaro as a volume import.

For more info on what that means read here, but essentially there’s no cap on how many can come to the country. In this instance, though, the Camaro doesn’t leave its Lansing, Michigan factory with a steering wheel on the right. HSV performs that operation here.

That’s the biggest difference between the Camaro and its major rival, the Ford Mustang. It’s also the reason why the Camaro starts from $85,990 plus on-road costs, standard with an eight-speed automatic.

Compare that to an auto Mustang, which starts from $66,259 before on-roads, and the pricing gulf looks extreme. Part of that comes from the conversion work HSV carries out on the Chevrolet at its Clayton factory, but part also accounts for a fairly generous equipment list.

Along with the Camaro’s naturally aspirated 6.2-litre LT1 V8 packing 339kW and 617Nm, the Camaro ‘2SS’ Australia sees also comes preloaded with a powered sunroof, leather trim, heated and cooled front seats with electric adjustment, dual-zone climate control, and an 8.0-inch TFT driver display.

Think of it as an SS-V while the 1SS (we won’t get locally) is more of an SS equivalent.

The 7.0-inch touchscreen MyLink infotainment incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and pumps through a nine-speaker Bose audio system, but goes without integrated sat-nav. Safety includes lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, a rear-view camera, parking sensors and seven airbags including a driver’s knee bag.

Climb into the cabin and the connection to other GM products is obvious. You can find familiar switchgear and design elements inside Holden cars, however the Camaro does something differently and works well as a result.

The low-set centre dash vents double as the temp adjustment for the dual-zone climate control – just spin the outer ring as required. That’s pretty nifty. The touchscreen is also set low, eliminating that glued-on iPad look of so many infotainment systems.

The driver's seating position is classic low-slung coupe. Not low enough to make getting in and out a chore, but still such that you physically peer at the road ahead from between the two instrument panel humps. Very racy.

There’s a rear seat in name only. It’s compact, the roof is low, leg room finishes somewhere before your knees begin, and getting in and out is a chore for anyone who doesn’t fall into the window of opportunity between 7–10 years of age.

Big rear pillars and comically oversized mirrors do their best to hamper outward visibility, making the rear-view camera and blind-spot monitoring essential. Autonomous emergency braking also doesn’t make the spec list just yet. That’s probably not what you’d be buying a slice of Americana like this for, though.

It would be easy to call the free-breathing 6.2-litre V8 the star of the show, but that actually sells the Camaro a little short on its all-round ability.

The Generation V ‘small block’ direct-injection V8 (newer than the Gen IV from the VF Commodore) is your classically brawny American V8, complete with oodles of lazy torque and muscular from idle all the way to its top end.

It’s also multi-dimensional in a way cars like the Chrysler 300 SRT aren’t. It’s surprisingly easy to trundle through city streets on part throttle. There’s no straining at the leash or lumpy low-speed running – the Camaro is entirely liveable.

To keep a lid on fuel consumption, cylinder deactivation allows the engine to run on four cylinders at low load (think steady-speed cruising). After a fairly highway-intensive launch drive, we tapped 10.8L/100km, which is impressive compared to a claimed 11.5L/100km on the combined cycle.

The standard eight-speed auto helps there too. It’s well sorted and smooth shifting as it cycles through gears, but can be amped up via the Camaro’s drive mode rocker switch through Tour, Sport and Track modes, which select more aggressive shift patterns, dial back steering assistance and give more bark to the valved exhaust. A Snow/Ice setting dulls things down for low-grip conditions too.

There’s a fuel cut on full-throttle upshifts that gives the Camaro an emotive whip-crack effect, and as you cycle up through the modes, stability control allows a touch of rear-end playfulness without letting things get out of hand.

Manual fans, there’s no row-your-own option. At least not yet. It’s an issue HSV is looking to resolve, but not for the first shipment of cars. The convertible available in the States is also off the cards for Australia, with a less clear future right now.

Back to the auto coupe, though, and Sport seems to be the happy medium for street use. The steering gets enough weight without requiring undue labour, the exhaust is pleasantly grumbly, and gear changes occur in a way that makes the big V8 coupe feel surprisingly agile.

Feed into a series of bends and there’s actual feedback from all corners of the car. The steering doesn’t convey Porsche-like levels of clarity, and has a strangely over-assisted moment just off centre, but then becomes settled and progressive as lock winds on.

Get excited with the throttle and the rear end will squirm in protest, but relays enough info to the driver before letting go in a fairly measured manner. As a point of reference, the Mustang tends to transfer into snap oversteer with little in the way of early warning.

Former HSV owners will feel right at home. Even though the local operation has made no handling changes from the way the Camaro leaves the factory, there’s a clear family link to HSV’s own Aussie-engineered models. That’s handy as HSV sees most of its buyers coming from within the brand.

Even ride quality treads the delicate line between daily comfort and performance-oriented rigidity. The Camaro won’t blot out every imperfection underfoot, but does deal with most politely, only becoming hard-edged over some of the roughest tarmac. It’s firm for the most part, but forgiving enough that you won’t get out feeling rattled to pieces.

The conversion work itself is an intricate process that involves a lot of new parts modelled off engineering information and CAD data provided directly from GM. A range of suppliers have been tasked with providing new components to OEM standards.

New bits and bobs include the dash support, heater box and HVAC plumbing, steering rack, complete body wiring harness and new instrument panel amongst other key components. The seats get reworked to give drivers all the right adjustment and door cards get new switch blocks to suit. Even the HID headlights get pulled down and modified to account for Australia’s left-hand traffic.

It’s pretty hard to tell anything’s been done. HSV even widens a section of the driver’s footwell to allow space for a footrest, whereas LHD cars would have a narrower space.

All parts are tagged and kept with the car they were built with to ensure full track-and-trace compatibility, should anything be recalled, and panels are refitted to comply with Chevrolet’s gap-tolerance metrics. Multi-stage validation of vehicle systems and an on-road shakedown before delivery are designed to detect any niggles that might emerge, and a three-year warranty offers buyers a level of protection not usually seen for converted cars.

It is, however, still a conversion that takes place off a factory line. The cars we drove – all pre-production and fitted with some parts that weren’t representative of the finished items customers will get – looked and felt like showroom items, with a few tiny exceptions.

The embossed detent for the Bluetooth microphone doesn’t make its way from left A-pillar to right, so two holes get drilled in instead. The sunroof switch still resides on the other side of the car. The indicators maintain their LHD orientation too. All easy details to live with in the grand scheme of things, though.

The interior quality feels a step up on what you’d find in a Mustang, and the painstakingly scrutineered cars offered to the media displayed a more precise panel fit than often found on Ford’s coupe. There was a dash rattle deep under the driver’s side of the car I piloted, but as a pre-production build I wouldn’t expect that to be the norm.

As baseline specifications are a little plumper than those of a standard Mustang GT, the question of value runs a little deeper than a 1:1 comparison. More so when you consider around 130 hours of labour are required to carry out the Camaro’s conversion – a cost the Mustang doesn’t have to bear.

Of course, it would be nice to see GM simply roll out a factory-built RHD car, but as that’s not a feasible proposition, a thoroughly developed, fully licensed and even locally crash-tested (for ADR compliance, but not an ANCAP rating) solution instead is a far better option than low-volume cars of unknown or questionable quality.

It's worth mentioning too, the first 550 cars into the country will be 2018 model-year versions. A newer 2019MY is on the way (exact specs TBC) with revised styling and likely a few equipment tweaks as well.

As a sign of the times, the 2018 Camaro doesn’t overpromise and underdeliver. It doesn’t rely on eye-catching looks at the expense of ability. The car itself is a good one, and the work HSV does in no way impacts on GM’s own efforts.

It falls into a tough market space, though. You can have a V8 Mustang for less or pay more for a Euro coupe with lower performance potential but greater levels of equipment. That’s a tough call, though, as the chance of Camaro buyer cross-shopping with one of those options is probably nil.

At the price and position of the Camaro, everything’s a niche offering, making it easy to forget the logical and practical, while concentrating instead on the emotional and guttural. It’s here where the Camaro 2SS does its best work.

Exciting V8 burble, accessible dynamic ability, and eye-catching good looks that could only be American in origin, make the Camaro a desirable piece of forbidden fruit that now hangs on a branch accessible to local muscle car fans.