Rental fleets are filled to the brim with boring cars.
The rental companies will even provide you with your own flavor of boring, perfectly matched to suit your needs. Compact boring, full-size boring, even cars with seven seats of boring are all available for your driving displeasure.
Sometimes, though, you find yourself wanting to rent something different – something interesting. As you scan the list of available vehicle types, you desperately search for something that will lather you with excitement.
And then you see it – the sporty car option. Surely, the sporty car option won’t be boring, you think to yourself.
But you would be wrong.
Unfortunately, even the sports cars offered by rental companies are the versions of those cars that nobody really wants. Usually characterized by underpowered base engines and no-frills trim levels, sports car rentals are often painfully disappointing.
Needless to say, when I had to rent a car for a recent weekend trip I was at odds with my own decision to choose the sporty option. Ultimately, the fact that it was only $10/day more expensive than the compact option was the deciding factor, though my expectations were still low.
When I arrived to pick up my rental, the attendant pulled up with the car – a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LT coupe, in Pull Me Over Red.
I had driven the previous generation Camaro before, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to drive the newest generation since it debuted in 2016. While I was glad to get a new experience out of it, I couldn’t help but feel a little upset about the fact that my first impression would be coming from a neutered rental car.
Staying true to rental car expectations, this particular car was the base model, with the only added options being the mid-level 3.6L V6 engine (an upgrade over the base turbocharged four-cylinder), and the RS package. RS technically stands for “Rally Sport” but it might as well stand for “Rental Spec”, since it merely provides 20-inch wheels, HID and LED lighting, and some RS badges – upgrades that effectively provide nothing, but make the car look better and thus sell better in rental fleets.
When it came time for me to get in the car and drive off, my first impression of the car was ostensibly negative. I didn’t think it was possible, but Chevy somehow found a way to make the visibility even worse in this car than in the previous generation. Over the shoulder visibility is non-existent, the beltline is at about shoulder height when sitting in the car, and visibility through the windshield is like spying on your neighbors between the slats of window blinds.
In addition to the abysmal visibility, I found myself driving through the Baltimore area during afternoon rush hour. Trying to dive across 6 lanes of dense traffic on unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar car with horrible sightlines was an unpleasant experience, to say the least.
As such, my first experience with the car didn’t give me much insight into how it drove. The suspension was stiff but not jarring, the steering was heavy, and the engine was adequate to keep me crawling along.
But the next day I found myself on tight, twisty Maryland back roads and I was ready to give the car a thorough flogging.
The heavy steering and tight suspension that had been burdensome in traffic the day before suddenly became its greatest assets. Don’t get me wrong, the Camaro is a big car – weighing in at roughly 3500 lbs, there’s more than enough weight to move around. Even still, the car seemed to get smaller the faster it was driven.
Chevy really struck gold with the electric steering rack for this generation Camaro. I found that it followed bumps, dips, and camber changes in the road surface like a car without power steering. Combine that with the heavy steering weight and tight ratio and you have a recipe for steering nirvana. Unfortunately though, in usual electric-assisted power steering fashion, I did find that it doesn’t communicate very much about what the tires are doing. I guess you just can’t have it all these days.
I also found the front end had unbelievable grip on initial turn-in. While Goodyear Eagles aren’t my favorite performance tire, I thought they complemented the chassis well and did a more than fair job considering the car was a rental. The lighter weight of the V6 engine versus the V8 improves the weight balance of the car, and provided a noticeable neutralization of the car’s tendency to oversteer or understeer.
Speaking of the engine, the V6 in the Camaro could be enough to cause an existential crisis in the “shoulda got the V8” crowd. Don’t get me wrong, the power increment is still there, jumping from 335 hp in the V6 to a whopping 455 hp in the LT1 V8. But, that jump also comes with a $10,000 price bump as well. That much extra cash for an extra 120 hp just isn’t worth it for most people, and especially not when the V6 is so good.
The V6 is enough to pull the car to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and run the quarter mile in 13.8 seconds, as tested by Motor Trend. That level of performance in a base-level pony car would have been unfathomable just 15 years ago.
In fact, the only gripe I had about the drivetrain actually had nothing to do with the engine – it was the transmission. The car was equipped with the 8-speed automatic that has received rave reviews from most that have driven it, so I came in expecting it to be pretty good. It was actually pretty awful. Any attempt at manually shifting with the paddle shifters was too frustratingly delayed to be of any use. So, I found when driving spiritedly it was best just to leave it in automatic mode. But, driving spiritedly in automatic mode was equally frustrating, because despite having 8 gears to choose from the transmission always seemed to be in the wrong one. Nonetheless, the good news is you can still make the right choice and get the proper manual transmission, which I’m sure fixes those woes.
Now at this point I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. Yes, pony cars are all about insane power, big numbers, and hard acceleration, and I know there will always be a group that needs to have the most they can get. What those people might not yet understand, however, is that this latest generation of pony cars have transcended the old muscle car model and can now run with genuine sports cars from around the world.
Yes, that’s right, people are now buying Camaros and Mustangs because of their Nürburgring times, not just their quarter mile times. And what that crowd is looking for beyond anything else – something that only the V6 Camaro can provide – is balance. Not only does the V6 Camaro provide weight balance, but it also provides a balanced driving experience as well. That means that the pace set by the car’s power plant and the pace set by the car’s handling ability are in perfect sync.
It’s certainly true that one could buy the V8 model and not only have more power but also set faster lap times as well. But, doing so would upset the harmony that is established so finely in the V6 model. This is why it’s a little sad that the Camaro continues to bear its pony car pedigree.
If you were to tell a sports car enthusiast that a new front-engine RWD sports car with 335 hp was coming to the market, they would all be teeming with excitement. But, if you go on to mention that it’s a pony car, suddenly its credibility would be called into question. At some point we need to leave behind the stigma associated with non-V8 pony cars and appreciate them for what they are.
Ultimately though, the presence of the Camaro in Chevy’s model lineup does beg some questions. The Camaro as a whole is no longer a genuine pony car, but more of a world class sports car. The V8 Camaro is significantly more expensive than the V6 Camaro, but still less expensive then the Corvette. Even still, higher performance V8 Camaro trims such as the SS 1LE, ZL1, and Zl1 1LE can go toe-to-toe with higher priced comparable variants of the Corvette.
With that level of overlap, it’s hard to understand what GM’s plan is with their performance model lineup. Will the Camaro and the Corvette continue to overlap into the future, eternally stealing each other’s sales? Or will the rumored mid-engine C8 Corvetteshove the Corvette lineup well out of reach of even the best Camaros? While that has yet to be determined, what I do know is this: it’s okay to be proud of driving the V6 Camaro. It’s really that good.