I almost walked right past this Camaro. You probably would, too. They are ubiquitous, especially in the large, urban, never-ever-snows environs I live in. The Camaro’s 5th generation return has been on the streets for over 11 years now and have somehow kind of become automotive background noise, even to people like myself who like them. What made me turn around and spend a few minutes and pixels appreciating this particular car?
Walking by it, I realized that this is a great example of a car that was kind of important to me at one point. It’s been a while. Many 5th gen Camaros on the road are around 10 years old now, so automotive mortality is starting to noticeably set in. Joseph Dennis last year documented how some examples are turning up genuinely decrepit. That shouldn’t be a shocker, considering that the cars are favored by the young and reckless. Still, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that they were the freshest, hottest thing out there.
This is a photo I took at the 2009 Houston auto show in January that year, shortly before Camaro mass production started in March as 2010 models. Pictures had been circulating for quite a while, of course, but seeing the Camaro in the metal confirmed that it was a truly handsome car. My daily driver at the time was a 1999 Firebird Formula, which had an LS1 V8 making 305hp. The standard 3.6L High Feature V6 in the new Camaro was rated at 304hp. One horsepower less.
What really got me thinking, though, was a detail I had not known about these new pony cars prior to attending the show: the standard wheels were uncovered steel with trim rings and center caps.
The open steel wheel with trim ring and center cap was popular for a long time on many, many cool cars from the 60’s to the 80’s, including the iconic 1969 Camaro that the new one’s design was most obviously based on. The style fell by the wayside in the 80’s and hadn’t been seen for a good 20 years by the time the 2010 Camaro came out. Certainly nothing sporty, stylish, or upscale had come without aluminum wheels in quite a long time. Steel wheels on cars were, and still are, exclusively seen on entry level appliances and always with full wheel covers. Cop cars have had open steel wheels, of course, but generally not with trim rings and they’re never available on civilian models. This type of exposed wheel was stylistically obsolete and yet Chevy was bringing it back on their retro/futuristic show-car-turned-real. How cool!
It was this detail more than anything that got me thinking maybe this car belonged in my garage. The $22,995 base price helped, too. Pretty reasonable price for a car that came standard with the important stuff like the 300+hp engine, dual exhausts, 6 speed manual transmission, air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, CD stereo, etc. Basically all the stuff that used to be optional but is now universal and more than sufficient for an old-school kind of guy like me. I don’t need Bluetooth heated seat coolers and what not!
I let these thoughts percolate for a year and a half while I strategized financially. When I was finally ready to make a move, I went to a large dealer to check out the cars and go for a test drive. The V6 drove great and I liked it a lot.
Then I made the mistake of taking an SS out for a test drive. All the good driving traits of the V6 were amplified in the SS. Like a bowl of vanilla ice cream is tasty, but how much better is it with chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries? I’ve always been a V8 guy at heart. The sound and feel of a good V8 is as enjoyable to me as the extra power and the 6.2L LS3 certainly fell in that category of a good V8. 426hp/420lbft of naturally aspirated, pushrod Chevy small-block gave the car effortless, immense power with a gorgeous smooth burble that was audible without being obnoxious. It was intoxicating and when I sobered up, I had to re-evaluate my practical ideas about getting a V6. But, dang it, I really liked the look of that LS. I went home and regrouped.
At the same time that Chevrolet was introducing their new Camaro, Ford came out with the mid-cycle refresh on the 2005-generation S197 Mustang, which in my opinion made the already attractive design even better. I also shot this at the 2009 show. When I was developing my crush on the Camaro, I didn’t seriously consider the Mustang because it still (since the early 90’s) significantly lagged GM in power.
A lot can change in a year. Ford finally addressed their power deficiency in a big way for the 2011 model year, with both their V6 and V8 engines. The 3.7L V6 was a brand new design that matched GM in features and power. The V8 was the Coyote, a brand new 5.0L that used the old Modular engine as a jumping off point but updated and upgraded virtually everything. Power was 412hp and 390ft-lbs, comparing very well with Chevy’s V8 considering it’s 1.2L smaller (and Mustangs were about 300lb lighter).
I’ve had a bunch of GM cars and only one previous Ford, still I increasingly found the Mustang rather alluring. It looked good, got great magazine reviews and now had comparable V6 power to the Camaro.
I also wasn’t crazy about the Camaro’s interior. It’s a matter of personal taste, but I found it a bit gimmicky-looking and dark-feeling. If grey cloth and carpet were chosen instead of black, it helped brighten it a bit. In contrast, I find the 2010-14 Mustang Premium interior very appealing, especially the dash.
Much has been made of the Camaro’s gunslit windows and poor visibility. That was certainly noticeable when I drove it, though I didn’t feel unsafe. I imagine most owners manage to drive it routinely without hitting disproportionate numbers of baby carriages or Smart cars.
There was also the little matter of the Camaro’s ridiculous trunk opening. The Mustang had a nice size trunk opening and its 13.4 cu.ft. compared well to the Camaro’s 11.3. I use my trunk quite a bit, so this was not a trivial matter.
I test drove the Mustang, and repeated the same mistake I made with the Camaro by trying the GT. V6 Mustang, nice. V8 Mustang, incredible! As much as I liked the idea on paper of either a base Camaro (with steel wheels!) or a base Mustang (with Performance Package), I just couldn’t see myself happy with either knowing how fantastic the V8 versions were.
To my wife’s eternal credit, I explained all the above to her and why I wanted to blow up the original budget, to which she said I should get what I want. We were planning to have the car for a while and it would be worth it to get the car I would be happy with long term. I knew there was a reason I married her! (insert big kiss here, XOXO)
Continuing the marriage theme, I considered the Camaro the super model, but the Mustang was more like the pretty girl next door with the great personality that you want to spend your life with. I ordered my Kona Blue GT Premium with Saddle interior and 6 speed manual on August 2, it was born on September 6 and I took it home September 22 (when this welcome home pic was taken). It does have Bluetooth after all, but no heated seat coolers.
I still consider the 5th gen Camaro a supermodel. Like most models, it even has a kind of “hourglass” shape, the way the body is narrow at the rear edge of the door then expands as it goes forward and rearward, looked at both from the side and from above. They called this “coke bottle” styling in the 60’s. The 2015 S550 Mustang cribbed that trick while the 6th gen 2016 Camaro diluted it. The overall proportions of the car are just about perfect to my eyes. The beltline is a little high, but it doesn’t seem so extreme as it used to since the 2016’s is even higher and beltlines have crept up on lots of other vehicles since.
I would even call it clean, in the sense that the styling flows naturally for its theme and there is not a lot of extraneous detail or superfluous lines. The very subtle fake air vents or “gills” just ahead of the rear wheel opening are a direct nod to 1969, as is the grille. The taillights must be a nod to 1970. There is very little visual distinction among versions. The only body differences between V6 and SS is a front air slit above the grille, different lower grille texture and front and rear SS badges. SS’s had the relatively restrained rear spoiler standard while it was optional on V6’s. Other than that, it’s all wheel differences.
Which brings us back to those wheels I found so fetching. They are 18 inches, which is small for a Camaro. 20 inchers were standard on the SS and optional for V6’s, with 21’s available as a dealer-installed upgrade. By the way, my Mustang GT came with 18’s while 19’s were optional. As neat as it was that they had these steel wheels, Chevy didn’t really go all in on the concept. The brochures featured no pictures of cars with the wheels and I haven’t found any ads with them. They were the only wheel for the LS trim level, which was the rock-bottom entry-level trim. If you wanted any upgrades, you had to go to the 1LT or 2LT trims, on which the steel wheels weren’t available. So, among the Camaro-conscious public, the steel wheels had cheapskate associations.
That’s a shame. I wish that the wheels had been available across the whole line. The black paint, of course, is a significant deviation from those on the old classic cars. Black is probably more in keeping with a modern ascetic, still it would have been neat to maybe have silver or body color ones available at least on all V6’s. I do like the black, though, as it has a cop car vibe and I’ve always dug cop cars. But that’s just me and I am hardly normal. Maybe that was another strike against them with the public?
Base models are always the ones most likely to be commuted hard, with increased attrition through wear or accidents. They are also the ones most likely to be bought by young folks on a budget who would outfit them with aftermarket wheels when they have the money. I haven’t found a source that tells what percent of Camaros were LS’s, but I imagine it was fairly small. The wheels were dropped with the 2014 facelift. For all those reasons, it’s getting rarer to see a Camaro with my steelies.
So, that’s why I stopped to appreciate this future classic. I really think the 2010-13 Camaro will age well and be a favorite among old car lovers in the future. The facelift for 2014-15 wasn’t major but I don’t think it did the car any favors. The 6th generation 2016+ was smaller (a good thing), had some other functional improvements, and is kind of attractive in its not-so-clean, aggressive way, but it lacks the cohesiveness of the original 2010. It has also lacked the sales numbers, so the Camaro sadly is on the endangered species list (again).
I have been totally content with my purchasing decision, but I still can’t help looking wistfully at this car. It’s the wheel thing, and it’s tough not to stare at a supermodel.
Photographed in Houston, TX October 2, 2020.