Rental Car Review: 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1SS – Having Your Cake And Eating It, Too

(first posted 2/15/2018)         The Chevrolet Camaro has long enjoyed a reputation for great value and high performance but, well, nobody’s ever accused it of being refined. After all, the Camaro has always been about great spec numbers and a rumbling V8. If you wanted a polished ride and fancy features, you could pay extra for one of those foreign cars thankyouverymuch. Well, the Camaro now rides on a platform shared with Cadillac and, while it still offers a ridiculous amount of V8 power at an affordable price, it’s now comfortable enough to chauffeur your mother-in-law around in. In the front seat, that is.

About that back seat. It was just my friend Jason and I driving this Camaro without any passengers to ferry around so we didn’t have to use it. Fortunately. Looking back from the comfortable and supportive front seats, the rear looked like an absolute torture chamber. We decided to test it by motoring the power front seats a little further forward – so both of us, at 5’11’’, would still be comfortable – and then climbing into the back seat.

Surprise, surprise! Legroom was actually acceptable and I had some degree of motion available. Oh, if only I could say the same about headroom. There’s literally no way I could sit up straight and I felt, if I sat there for too long, I’d end up with a dowager’s hump.

As for the trunk, it’s deep but has a small opening and an awkward shape. The Camaro is a car designed for two people with an overnight bag each, nothing more.

Such a pity. I’ve always been a sedan man – they’re practical enough without carrying the stigma of vehicles that are too practical – but driving the Camaro was seriously tempting me. Add a couple of doors, Chevy, and let’s talk.

Another Alpha platform car, the CTS, identical to one I rented.

You could get the Camaro’s platform-mate, the Cadillac ATS, for the same money but at that price there’s only a 2.0 turbo and less performance hardware than the Camaro. And although more habitable than most critics acknowledge, the ATS is hardly a DeVille in the back seat.

Let’s talk about that performance hardware. Once you step up to the $36k Camaro 1SS, Chevy figures you’re a serious performance car buyer and not a poseur. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual with an automatic rev-match downshift function, but our tester had the optional eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. There are adjustable driving modes – choose between Snow/Ice, Tour, Sport, and Track – controlled by a switch on the center console. Also standard are 20-inch wheels, four-piston Brembo brakes, FE3 sport-tuned suspension, a mechanical limited-slip differential and adjustable gauges. There’s also plenty of comfort and convenience features like a 7-inch MyLink touchscreen, Bluetooth, 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, leather-wrapped steering wheel, reversing camera, and keyless ignition and entry

Some of you may be balking at the price. When the Camaro returned in 2010, the 1SS retailed for around $30k, or the price of a top-spec W-Body Impala. Now, the 1SS retails for $38k, coincidentally around the price of a top-spec Epsilon Impala. But both the Impala and Camaro have improved greatly – the Impala more so, mind you – and the thought of paying $36k for either is no longer a ridiculous notion. And heck, it’s a Chevy—you can probably get money on the hood. It’s worth noting, though, the Mustang GT is priced $3k lower. You get launch control and the option of a 10-speed auto, but you go without the Track driving mode and Brembo brakes. You also lose 35 ft-lb of torque. The 2018 Mustang is an impressive car, however, and the lower pricing sweetens the deal – perhaps that’s why Mustang sales have risen considerably since its redesign in 2015, while the Camaro has faltered. In some months, even the Challenger has outsold the Camaro.

If you want to make your Camaro even more of a weapon, the new-for-2018 1LE Track Performance package adds six-piston Brembo front brakes, firmer FE4 suspension tune, Magnetic Ride Control and an electronic limited-slip differential, among other features. Quite a bit of kit, even for $6500! The 2SS package adds luxury features like dual-zone climate control and heated and ventilated front seats, the latter of which aren’t even available on the ATS. The days of stripper Camaros with Rubbermaid interiors are gone.

There’s still hard plastic inside but Chevy learned something with the ’10 Camaro: people don’t care as much about hard plastics if you just make sure the interior doesn’t look like it came from a freakin’ Cavalier. The new Camaro has a stylish cabin with a clean and simple layout and some nice touches like stitching and a little luminescent strip atop the infotainment screen.

And unlike Camaros of the ‘90s and before, this interior is actually well screwed together. You’re going to want to option the sunroof, though, if you want the interior to feel more hospitable. The high beltline is every bit as bad as you would imagine. On the plus side, the 1SS’s standard cloth seats are attractive, comfortable and supportive. You’ll appreciate the support when you take the car for a drive. Ahem, a responsible, law-abiding drive.

The aforementioned high beltline does hamper visibility, more so than with other modern cars. For some reason, Chevrolet designers decided to shrink the glasshouse even further when the car was moved to the Alpha platform. It looks almost comically small and distracts from what is otherwise a handsome, if decidedly subtle, evolution of the basic Zeta Camaro shape.

This car will make you love infrastructure. Specifically, highway on-ramps and tunnels. The 455 hp, 455 ft-lbs 6.2 V8 feels stupid fast and indeed it is: 0-60 is achieved in just 3.9 seconds. As for tunnels, the exhaust sounds marvellous when you use the paddles to knock the car back into 2nd and then mash the gas pedal.

A pity for Chevy, then, that the 2018 Mustang 5.0 now almost matches its 0-60 time despite its torque deficit. Last year’s Mustang was almost a second slower to 60 mph, thus making the extra $3k for the Camaro seem somewhat reasonable.

The Camaro’s handling ability is excellent. The car hugs the road tightly in corners and ample grip is afforded by the big 20-inchers. Of course, Detroit’s neat, hub-and-spoke street grid – although a town planner’s delight – doesn’t allow for much in the way of corner-carving. This is a car that begs to be taken out onto a twisty, mountainous road. Do it for me.

One thing Detroit is good for, however, is providing exquisite scenery. Here’s the Camaro in front of Michigan Central Station, built in 1912 and closed in 1988. After all these years, the grand old building is finally being refurbished – these windows were fitted in 2014 – although it’s not yet known what it will be used for.

A quick video tour of Chene Street on the east side of Detroit

You’ll find something fascinating to look at down almost any Detroit street. Many visitors to Detroit seek out “ruin porn” – to the chagrin of some locals – and I’ll admit Jason and I did go looking for some particularly derelict parts of town. But Detroit is also full of charming, well-maintained neighborhoods and stunning architecture. While we were gawking at buildings, we noticed our Camaro was also getting some looks. I’m not sure whether that was because of its muscular flanks or because it had a rental car bar code and we were driving down the back streets of Poletown.

To judge ride quality, we employed the Detroit Test. It sounds complicated but it’s simple: we just found some really nasty, poorly-surfaced roads in Detroit – of which there are many – and, well, drove across them. Even in Track mode impacts are well-absorbed, and you’ll only want to select Tour if you’re doing a lot of highway driving. The Camaro is surprisingly comfortable and well-behaved and you could probably just tootle to the mall and to your office each day with no problems, enjoying the simple and straightforward MyLink interface and comfortable seats. Until, that is, you press the gas pedal on a highway on-ramp and get pressed back in your seat. Then, you’ll want to play hooky and head for the hills.

It just doesn’t make sense to buy a Camaro with the V6 or the turbo four. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still getting a great car. But it’s like going to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner and not getting cheesecake for dessert—you probably had a good meal, but you’ve kind of missed the point.

The Camaro is a genuine performance machine and the brawny 6.2 V8 imbues it with a raw energy that’s utterly intoxicating. The fact it can be driven so sedately and be so comfortable gives it an endearing Jekyll and Hyde quality. The only problem is that pesky Ford with the cheaper sticker price.