Cars are like food. Their main aim is to satisfy and fill your appetite for a variety of motoring cravings. And as of late I fell like my diet has consisted of too much boosted Japanese machinery sprinkled with the odd tasting of more tantalizing Euro exotica. So the other week I thought I’d get myself the motoring equivalent of steak and mashed potatoes, although this particular car came with dollop of hot sauce! I wanted to see for myself how driving and living with a modern day American muscle car would fare in one of the world’s most cramped cities.
So there I was Monday morning, slowly driving out of the General Motors HQ underground parking onto the streets of the capital. My ride for the week was a metallic red Camaro SS riding on optional 21-inch rims, probably one of the most eye-catching cars I have driven in Japan. Within two minutes I already had businessmen at pedestrian crossings pointing and staring at the big wide front grille, and other motorists rubbernecking as they passed me on the opposite lane. The Camaro has been officially available in Japan since December 2009 and the first allocation of 150 cars was sold in a matter of weeks. Both the 3.6L V6 LT RS and the 6.2L V8 SS RS available are fitted with the automatic transmission which means the car I was driving had the less powerful (405 HP) L99 motor rather than the 426 HP LS3 as fitted to the Corvette. Still, 405 horses of raw V8 NA power was something I was looking forward to unleashing on the tight streets of Tokyo. Plus with traffic lights in Tokyo at every 50 or so meter intervals meant plenty of opportunity for some American style drag racing!
I always commend car companies that are bold enough to come up with aggressive designs, and the Camaro has to be the best example. The concept car like exterior is a very well executed balance between retro and modern styling, capturing the essence of the old Camaro through and through. The car sits wide, wider than anything else out on the road in Japan, and for a two door coupe is extremely long, longer than the Legacy Wagon I drive on a daily basis. I have never had to concentrate on keeping a car centered on the street as much as the Camaro, the left hand drive making it even more of a challenge.
405 HP in a car that weighs in at just under 1,800 kg might not sound like anything special but it’s the way the Camaro develops this power that gives it its own distinct character. You are always aware of the massive 6.2 liters the V8 displaces as no matter what gear you are in you are rewarded with instant torque when you get on the throttle. The 6-speed auto actually impressed me, working very well when left alone in “D”, but really coming alive when moved into “M” and shifted manually via the switches on the steering wheel, rev-matching each downshift with a graceful blip of the throttle. Power delivery is very linear and kind of trails off towards the red line, but there is enough there to have tons of fun with. One thing I noticed and quite surprised me, was just how muffled the V8 is at idle, almost refined dare I say. The 4.6L V8 in a Mustang for example is much louder and has far more character, something I would have liked to have heard from the Chevy. Nothing an aftermarket exhaust won’t cure obviously.
During most of the week I had the Camaro the weather in Tokyo decided to turn for the worst, meaning tons of fun as I found myself kicking the tail out at every opportunity. Mind you the persistent rain didn’t exactly make for optimal shooting conditions, so I headed indoors…
…gaining access to a massive empty warehouse.
The Camaro has been the first car that I’ve actually had to raise the seat up a little, making a welcome change from all the cramped Japanese cars I drive all the time which just don’t cater for people over 6 ft. The resulting seating position is comfortable but far from what I’d consider sporty, the side bolsters not offering much in the way of support. I liked the nostalgic feel of the interior…
…with the four auxiliary gauges for oil pressure, oil and water temperature and voltage neatly located in front of the gear selector just like the original sixties cars.
However what looks more than acceptable in the pictures was for me the biggest let down of the Camaro. Being used to Japanese and European cars the quality of the plastics and leather really leaves something to be desired, event the main dashboard having the same hard, easy to scratch finish as the transmission tunnel and door trim.
All the controls for the A/C were neatly packaged into the two main dials on the center console and I liked the blue on red illumination, although towards the end of my time with the Camaro it started looking more “gadgety.”
But for those looking to drive something different the Camaro oozes presence from every angle, which is precisely why all allocated 2009 cars sold so quickly in Japan.
The massive optional 21″ wheels, 8.5J front 9.5J rear, are a perfect match for the oversized dimensions of the exterior, but could always do with a more aggressive offset and a much needed lowering of the suspension. The Pirelli P-Zero tires, 245/40/ZR21 front and 275/35/ZR21 rear offer good levels of grip but those rears have a hard time coping with the 410 lb/ft of torque, especially in the wet and with the traction and stability controls turned off. That however is not something to complain about! The Brembo brakes are more than adequate to haul this big Chevy down from speed, but they certainly could do with more bite to give a more reassuring feel.
The L99 in all of its glory. Not much to see like most modern cars, except massive plastic covers and the stock air box. Plenty of space in there for a bolt-on supercharger!
The Camaro may work well in the US but in Japan it is not an easy car to live with. Its girth makes it a pain to park pretty much everywhere and you can forget about tackling the tighter Tokyo side streets. Fuel consumption in the city is not its forte, returning 4.5~5 km/L in the painfully slow (25 km/h – 15.5 mph average) stop-and-go Tokyo traffic. Out on the highway the big motor does better, managing to return as much as 9 km/L when driven responsibly, not something that is easy to do when you have all that power at your disposal.
Then there is the handling, which is actually surprisingly composed and predictable. Pushing over the limit the car washes out into safe, nose-heavy understeer. With all electronic controls turned off the rear end swings around very easily under power allowing you to play with all that torque. The weight and size of the car as well as the rather long wheel base (2,855 mm) definitely take away agility and precision but over all it is not a bad drive. I’m sure the 6-speed manual LS3 powered version is a more rewarding drive.
I have to say I quite enjoyed this helping of American muscle, which has made me appreciate a side of motoring that I have little or no exposure to living in Japan. And I perfectly understand why some enthusiasts in this country want to stand out by driving cars like the Camaro. With a price tag of $60,500 for the SS RS version I drove it is a hefty premium to pay over what the car goes for back in the US, but I guess you can’t really put a price on individuality.
-Dino Dalle Carbonare