It was one of those rare times when I actually looked forward to those long usually-boring press driving events. General Motors Middle East imported ten new 2010 Chevrolet Camaro models to Dubai for the UAE and GCC press launch, and we were among the second bunch of people to drive them, after the “big” magazine people had their fill the day before, but as I saw later, the cars still generated lots of interest on the roads.
After I had a hard-to-digest breakfast at the Grand Hyatt (bowl of cornflakes for Dhs 30, glass of orange juice for Dhs 27!), there was a press conference, and a rundown was given by none other than GM’s lead Camaro engineer from Australia. The Camaro was largely developed in Australia, considering it is based on a shortened Lumina SS platform. There was a lot of emphasis on the “462 hp” figure for the manual SS, although our smarter-than-average readers would know that those are misleading gross numbers. The real power figures can be found here.
Among the ten cars in this test, five were apparently American-spec while the other five were GCC-spec, and all are among the first 100 Camaros ever built. A few were V6, a few were V8 manuals, and the majority was of the V8 automatic variety. There are no mechanical differences between American and GCC versions except in the instrumentation (kph instead of mph, Celsius instead of Fahrenheit), according to GM, so this opens up the possibility of cheap imports from the United States.
I and my new buddy from an Arabic lifestyle magazine jumped into a black Camaro SS V8, complete with a two-tone red-black interior, rear lip spoiler, 20-inch wheels and an automatic with paddle-shifters attached behind the wheel instead of the on the steering column, which is actually a setup I prefer better. The car looked stunning from the outside, but it looked even more stunning on the inside, at least until I started scrutinising further.
The faults I found were rather disappointing, considering the “quality” hype surrounding this car. For starters, all the cabin panels inside are hard plastics, like that found in a Chevy Aveo. Cars equipped with the optional glow-in-the-dark cabin panels looked even cheaper than the standard trim in the morning. Only the seats and the armrests were coated in leather. Also, there were no provisions for any optional navigation screen in the future. The car is started using a key, in an age when even Ford Focii offer starter buttons. And that bonnet “vent” on the SS is fake.
The leather seats were great, the driving position was highly adjustable, and there was plenty of room for front passengers. But the rear seats were very cramped, and good for kids only. All-round visibility is somewhat limited. And the high-mounted non-adjustable seat-belt kept cutting at my neck all throughout the trip.
After all these initial impressions, we set off on the trip to Fujairah with our SS automatic. Once we started driving this car, we almost forgave everything. The 400 hp Camaro is fast, with a smart-shifting transmission and flat cornering characteristics on the long sweeping roads. But for some reason, it didn’t quite have as big of an initial kick as I’d expected from a car this powerful. Torque builds up linearly, rather than dumping it all at once in the beginning like a turbocharged BMW does.
The real surprise was the comfort level in the car. It rides better than a Jaguar XK-R, and it is just as quiet, even at speeds as high as 120 kph. It never felt bumpy or overly firm, which is a real feat for a “budget” sports car.
Aiming to please a larger American market, GM seems to have made the steering lazier than that of its CSV CR8 sibling. Indeed, my new buddy pointed out this vagueness to me, along with noticing mild whining-belt noises from the engine. After the free lunch at Fujairah, as we headed back to Dubai in another V8 automatic, we went through twistier roads, and the car felt planted while negotiating long corners at a constant 150 kph, but the firm-yet-dead steering was causing me to be on higher alert. The paddle-shifters were not the quickest we’ve seen either. A BMW 335i Coupe feels sharper at the limit.
In between, we switched over to a manual 426 hp V8 model, and it increased the fun quotient infinitely. The short-ish shifter and clutch throw were both easy to get used to within a minute, and both were only moderately firm. But it was my new buddy’s turn to drive, and I handed the car to him after a few minutes. He pushed the car beyond 220 kph on the straights, and it never felt even the slightest bit dangerous. He even attempted tiny powerslides at T-junctions with the traction control on, and the computers seemed to allow it briefly.
The most interesting part of the drive would have to be when other cars were keeping pace with us on the highway, taking photos with their camera phones and such. We even received a thumbs-up from some guy in a Lumina SS. Indeed, early buyers of the Camaro in the UAE are going to be celebrities for a year or so.
We’d say the pricing is reasonably competitive. The base GCC-spec 3.6-litre V6 with 304 hp, which comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, those central interior gauges and a 6-speed automatic gearbox only, starts at Dhs 120,000. The SS-badged 6.2-litre V8 range, either in 400 hp automatic or 426 hp manual form, tops out at Dhs 180,000 with leather, Brembo brakes and 20-inch wheels. These prices easily place the Camaro at the heart of the entry-level sports car market.