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Middle Child

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2014 Chevrolet Camaro SS

In certain parts of the country, the way you show your family and friends that you’ve hit the big time is to buy yourself a double-wide mobile home and a Chevy Camaro. In these politically correct times, it’s not polite to mention this stereotype, of course. But it’s so prevalent that it’s hard not to do so. For instance, I couldn’t even avoid it in the first sentence of this review.

2014 Chevrolet Camaro SSThe thing is, the modern Camaro is a far different car than the previous King of the Trailer Park incarnation that Chevrolet killed in 2002. It has independent suspension, front and rear, and there’s a limited slip differential in the back. It’s actually pretty technologically advanced for a pony car, and potential customers have noticed. Chevrolet has sold more Camaros than Ford has Mustangs ever since Chevy resurrected the model in 2010.

You can get the Camaro in three basic specs. The baby of the bunch is the 323 HP V-6 model. It’s the cheap one that most people buy. The big Camaro is the ZL1-spec version with the magnetorheological suspension—whatever that is—with the 580 HP V-8 motor from the Corvette, and a hefty $55,000 price tag. Between them is the SS version, which comes in what Chevrolet calls the SS1 and SS2 spec. The SS1 Camaro still has a 426 HP V-8, but costs $22,000 less than the ZL1. That’s a pretty reasonable price tag for that much horsepower.

Sadly, like all middle children, it’s relatively ignored, as the budget conscious majority choose the base V-6 version, while the gearheads lust after the limited-production ZL1 monster. But the 1SS or 2SS Camaro might just be the sweet spot in the model’s line-up.

How it looks

While much of the 2014 Camaro SS remains unchanged from last year, the styling changes Chevy has made make it look much better. The grill, headlights, and taillights have been changed to give it a sleeker look. The addition of a vented hood gives the SS version a more muscular appearance. It really does look fantastic. There are elements of the classic Camaro styling there, but well-disguised and modernized. Keen-eyed residents of the trailer park will note the discreet “SS” badges that tell them they aren’t looking at the base Camaro.

But the inside of the Camaro is…problematic, for reasons both aesthetic and practical. Yes, the seats are leather, and they’re nice. But, along with the leather-wrapped steering wheel, they’re the only things that are. Well, OK, the mode-shiftable HUD that appears in the driver’s windshield is cool, too. Everything else is nasty, though.

2014 Chevrolet Camaro InteriorFor $20,000, you can get a Ford or Chrysler product that will have a much nicer, much more modern interior. The SS Camaro, like every other Chevrolet product, has an interior filled with cheap-looking, hard plastic. This is not, by the way, only true of the lower-spec models, but the top-shelf ZL1 Camaro as well. Everywhere you look, you see the tell-tale stains of the accountants’ cost-cutting residue. As far as I can tell, Chevrolets have the worst interiors of any car sold in America.

The Camaro SS isn’t very practical, either. The Camaro has what Chevrolet laughingly calls “back seats”. You can tell Chevy knows the back seats are worthless, because they’ve provided literally no way to easily get into them. And if you do manage to squeeze yourself into the back, there’s no leg or head room. The only thing that would fit into the “back seats” are children, and, even then, you’d have to saw off their legs.

That, of course, would leave you with the problem of where to put their legs. Well, don’t try sticking them in what Chevrolet laughingly calls the “trunk”. There’s no room in there for them, as it’s small cramped, and useless for carrying any cargo. The Camaro is sixteen feet long, 6 feet wide, and is just shy of 4,000 lbs., yet it’s got a trunk that can barely accommodate an airline carry-on bag. The new little Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class sedan, by comparison, is a foot shorter, six inches narrower, weighs 700 lbs. less, seats five comfortably, and still has a trunk that can easily store the bodies of two hookers.

The Camaro also has tiny little windows. They make it look great from the outside. From the inside, it’s like driving an armored personnel carrier, but with worse visibility. Forget about looking over your shoulder to change lanes. The rear window is a tiny porthole in front of a C-pillar that’s about three feet long. You can see nothing that isn’t within a 90-degree angle of the nose. This makes changing lanes a problem for anyone without powerful psychic skills.

Put simply, there’s almost nothing about the Camaro’s interior or practicality that makes it worth buying. That assumes, of course, that you’re buying a Camaro for the practicality and nice interior. Which you probably aren’t. The Camaro’s virtues lie elsewhere.

How it drives

When you start the Camaro SS, it just growls at you. Press the accelerator and it growls louder. The Camaro is, in fact, very growly. It sounds…angry, like a large bear, right after you’ve grabbed a salmon out of its mouth. I suspect that Chevy has gone to great lengths to ensure that the snarl of the 6.2L V-8 is your constant companion. It’s noisy, boisterous, and unruly. The Camaro has a decent stereo, though why you’d ever turn it on—or could hear it clearly if you did—is an open question with that V-8 roaring away.

Everything about Camaro’s drivetrain is brutal, including the transmission. In the six-speed manual, there’s no gentle clutch and easy snick-snick shifting. Harnessing the 426 HP and 420 torques requires a beefier setup. So the shifter—while having a nice, short throw, feels more like an agricultural implement. The shifter pops through the shift gates with an audible clunk, and requires a fair amount of effort. Throws are positive, and the gears are easy to find, but the shifter and clutch are noticeably heavy. It’s a serious transmission, for a serious engine, that puts out serious power.

Acceleration is simply brutal. Stomp on the accelerator, and traction control is the only thing that prevents you from creating a huge smoke cloud of tire rubber and cash. The Camaro SS lunges forward with angry intent at every throttle input. With a 0-60 time of around 4.5 seconds, and a flat 13-second quarter-mile time, you can feel Einsteinian relativistic effects kick in when you stomp the accelerator. So, I think I may have found the solution to the limited-visibility/lane change problem. You simply press the accelerator until you know the lane is clear.

As good as this is, the suspension makes it even better, because the Camaro isn’t just capable in a straight line, it’s pretty competent on curvy roads as well. The ride is firm but not harsh, and when you hit the corners, anti-roll bars keep the body mainly on the straight and level. It’s far better in the corners than the Dodge Challenger SRT8, as it maintains composure and limits body roll better. Yet, somehow, Chevy has managed to carry this off without making the suspension so stiff that it ruins the ride in less spirited conditions. It’s still stiff, but not uncomfortably so. This is proof that, if the chassis is well sorted—and the Camaro’s is—you don’t have to destroy the ride to make it corner well.

Not that the Camaro SS has perfect cornering. Under pressure, understeer can still rear its ugly head, but Chevy has improved this on successive model years, throwing Corvette ZL1 components at it to the point that you just won’t see it except on a track. Though, if you do take it on the track…well…it’s a heavy car, and it still understeers a bit. A guy driving a Mustang with the Boss 302 engine will probably eat your lunch for you.

Steering is pretty good, despite being an electric system. Chevy has dialed in a variable power ratio into the steering setup, giving you much better feedback at speed. The extra steering effort turns fast driving into a two-handed experience that’s complicated a bit by the need to drag the agricultural shifter through the gears. It’s an involving driving experience.

Braking from the big ABS Brembos is everything you’d expect it to be. GM’s switch to Brembo for the brakes in their performance cars has been a big plus.

What’s good about it

The Camaro SS is ridiculously fun to drive. There’s nothing subtle or restrained about it. The suspension and chassis are very good, and it’s far more capable in the corners than you’d expect it to be. It looks fantastic on the outside. The electric power steering system is about as well dialed-in as any you are likely to find. The driver’s HUD is one of my favorite things about GM cars, and I don’t understand why no one else has something like it.

What’s bad about it

The interior is horrible and ugly, and should be better in a car that costs more than $30,000. Visibility is poor. The back seats and trunk are a joke. This makes it an extremely impractical car to drive on a daily basis. The transmission is clunky and not smooth at all. It understeers at the limit, and it weighs too much to be truly effective as a track-day competitor against a similarly-specced Mustang.

Conclusion

Everything about driving the Camaro SS is as good as the interior of the Camaro SS is bad. But, the interior detracts from what is otherwise a very fun car. It’s like being given a million dollars and being told you can only live in a log cabin in the woods. It makes me sad, because the Camaro—all Chevrolets, in fact—could be much nicer cars without being more expensive.

Weight is the Achilles’ heel of the Camaro SS. It’s just too big and too heavy. It’s a muscle car, yes, but it’s also supposed to be a sports coupe. For the 2015 model year, Ford is cutting 8 inches and 400 lbs. off of the Mustang. This means that the next-generation Mustang will be about 500 or 600 lbs. lighter than the Camaro. Even though the stock Mustang GT will still have marginally less horsepower than the Camaro SS, it will be faster, and will almost certainly handle better. So, on the track, the Mustang will still eat the Camaro’s lunch.

Still, there’s no denying the Camaro SS is a seriously fun car. I certainly wouldn’t be embarrassed at all to have it parked in front of my double-wide.

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