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No. of Recommendations: 6
I had sworn I would never get married again. My prior marriage was an 11 year disaster which only accomplishment was producing two beautiful children. In 2012 after almost 10 unmarried years, I designed and built my dream home, got a dog, and settled in to enjoying the single life complete with everything a single man required - a home theater room, a fully stocked bar with separate beer and wine fridges, three wide screen TVs with subscription to the sports package, and a two car garage that was frequently cleaner and better organized than my bedroom. Then she had to come in 2013 and blow it all up. Now here I am, deliriously happy, the house I built sold, married to this amazing woman, on a plane to Maui for my honeymoon.

It may seem like an insane decision, but when faced with my choice of convertibles instead of picking the Mustang, I selected a fifth generation Camaro. Having already driven the previous generation Mustang (no 2015 models have made the rental lot) and a 2014 Challenger (which ended in disaster), the Camaro had been the one pony car that I had avoided to this point. I had passed on a hardtop LT2 in 2012, and now had an opportunity to complete the trifecta. So I took the keys of a one year old example with 14,850 hard earned tourist miles on the odometer.

Painted in red rock metallic, the only option ticked off on the sheet was the GM 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Key features included a 7 inch touchscreen infotainment system with GM MyLink (more on that later), Bluetooth, SiriusXM (disabled), OnStar (disabled), steering wheel controls, remote keyless entry with remote start, power folding cloth roof, ultrasonic rear parking assist with backup camera, full power driver and passenger front seats, dual outlet exhaust, and 18” painted aluminum wheels shod with 245/55R18 BF Goodrich no season tires. The GM 3.6 liter V6 under the hood pumped out a respectable 323 horsepower at a lofty 6,800 RPM, and 278 pound feet of torque at 4,800 RPM. In 2014 this car would have an MSRP of $33,235.

A visit to Maui will have you draw the conclusion that the Chevrolet Camaro convertible is the official rental vehicle of the island. The Ford Mustang convertible was also ubiquitous, along with the Mazda6, the Chevrolet Sonic, and the 4-door Jeep Wrangler. Additionally if you visit Maui, you will quickly conclude that we likely found the only poverty spec, non-RS package Camaro available for rent on the island. There were so many Camaros in Maui, on more than one occasion, we were seeing double.

Exterior: The 5th generation Camaro was born from compromise from the start. The ratio of interior volume versus exterior girth is by far the worst of the three American pony cars. General Motors shrunk the Zeta platform down to about 7/8th scale to make as much accommodation as possible, but the Camaro has a high cowl, belt line, and a low roof. It is unique and striking in appearance, and a solid homage to the 1969 Camaro. The long hood isn’t quite dining room table sized like on the Challenger, but is enormous by any standard. The side lines are appealing, and flow into a high trunk, that is surprisingly voluminous. Stunningly the Camaro suffers from DLO fail, with the side view mirrors extending out from black plastic triangles.

The factory paint is very thin, and prone to chips and scratches. Both doors were covered with rash that was far beyond the occasional offense of another Camaro, with its long doors, smashing into the sides of the Camaro parked next to it. The hood had paint damage where flower pedals had sat too long and roasted into the clear coat. We live in an era where 55 series tires will more likely be found on a SUV than a pony car, but the base wheels are attractive and filled the wheel wells.

Interior: If you visit a GM showroom today you can see a very clear line in the design of their vehicles. Cars that were designed just before and during the bankruptcy, and those, like the new Impala, designed in what may one day, maybe, well, let’s face it highly unlikely, a new GM. The Camaro screams pre-bankruptcy General Motors.

First, the good. The front seats are comfortable, supportive, provide adequate grip when driving far past six-tenths, and have excellent travel. Front leg, hip and shoulder room is uncompromised. Despite being 6 feet tall, enjoying too much Taco Bell, and all torso, I was able to find a comfortable seating position with more than adequate headroom. The dual pod instrument cluster with center analog screen is clear, easy to read night and day, and the HVAC controls are very simple. The steering wheel is shod in leather that actually feels like leather, and not oversized or ridiculously thick. The center stack is very Spartan, but is attractive in its simplicity. After I cleared 13 months of debris from the HVAC intake under the cowl, the air conditioner worked very well. See, there is some good.

The bad – where do you start. The Camaro interior bits have largely come from molten Coleman coolers dyed black. Slabs of hard plastic cover almost every interior surface, and it looks and feels cheap. Certainly far cheaper than the $33K MSRP it commanded when new. This is not a gratuitous complaint about hard plastic. You can climb into a $180K Audi R8 convertible and find hard plastic to complain about – the Camaro takes it to an egregious level.

The console shifter emerges out of a sea of hard, cheap looking “rado silver” plastic, also made out of molten Coleman coolers. The power window switches felt cheaper than in my 2005 Saturn Relay beater minivan, which I didn’t know was possible. The power mirror switch was apparently sourced from a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier, or possibly a 2005 Saturn Relay. The paddle shifters are cheap, thin plastic, that feel like they could snap off at any moment. Oh yes, pre-bankruptcy bean counters have been through the interior of the Camaro.

The Camaro convertible is a 2+2, and although the backseats are not a torture chamber, adults will not find it a pleasant place to sit for any period of time. The trunk was surprisingly large, swallowing up our snorkel/scuba duffle, three smaller suitcases, a backpack and my camera case. The remaining monstrous suitcase we fit in the backseat with room to spare, and did not require moving the front seats to an unnatural position.

In the trunk there is an area where the weather stripping has been cut completely through by an errant cable, and the wiring harness is starting to get damaged.

The seatbelt guides for the front passengers are in a word, useless. A piece of faux leather attached with a removable snap, the seatbelts would free themselves from the guides after just one or two uses, requiring both myself and my new bride to reach around in an unnatural position to try and find our seatbelts. The driver side door interior panel has been scratched to Hell from multiple drivers reaching around to grab the seatbelt, dragging the buckle between the seat and the closed door.

The GM SmartStalk suffers like so many other GM vehicles with control overload. Beyond high beams and turn signals, all buttons for the trip computer function are located on the stalk, and are fully hidden by the steering wheel, making it an initial challenge to do things like access your trip odometers, reset your fuel economy, or control the information in the Performance menu. Some functions were oddly controlled by the infotainment system, which makes far more sense, while others were managed by the infuriating stalk. On the subject of hidden by the steering wheel, the dimmer control for the interior lighting is also hidden, and I spent the first night blinded by the illumination.

Despite the massive size of the center console, the armrest storage area is small and provided no wiring guides for the power port and USB plug located there. It was challenging to fit an iPhone 6+, and I eventually gave up, using the additional power socket located next to the traction control button.

With the top up, the Camaro feels like driving a cave. The a-pillars are massive, possible sourced from Roman ruins, making turns very interesting. The huge c-pillars with the top up make it completely pointless to look over your shoulder for a lane change. I could not imagine owning a fifth generation Camaro without a backup camera. The back window offers about as much visibility as an overloaded panel van.

The power roof is simple to operate, but has a number of infuriating quirks. First, it will not operate if the vehicle is in motion, which in 2014 was already past the point of unacceptable. In order to lower or raise the top, a flimsy package shelf has to be pulled out from the back of the trunk, and slipped into two slots on either side of the trunk. The power top will not operate if the trunk is open. The power top will not operate unless the key is set to run. The single latch mechanism to lock the roof down (unlike the two located on the corners of the Mustang) required significant hand strength that not everyone would have. The roof is not quite Rube-Goldberg, but I’m pretty sure Satan had a hand in the design.

Infotainment: Let’s keep this simple. MyFord Touch in the Ford Mustang I put in last place because of its many quirks and tendency to crash at the worst possible times. Uconnect in the Challenger takes a solid first place for its stability, power and ease of use. MyLink in the Camaro falls somewhere between. When turned off the screen is a horrible design, showing a huge and ugly MyLink and Chevrolet logo that is blindingly bright at night.

Some menus were confusing, and on more than one occasion I found myself looking at the screen far more than the road. The system had a fair amount of lag to inputs, including the redundant buttons on the side that provided no tactile feedback when pressed.

Bluetooth was easy to connect and the Camaro almost instantly started playing jazz off of my iPhone. Despite this, many times the Pandora information on screen would freeze, leaving us stuck with the same artist and title information. For no apparent reason MyLink would go from playing Waze directions through Bluetooth over the streaming music source (preferred) to pausing streaming music and playing it through the speaker of the iPhone (big ball of suck). Working the manual HVAC controls would have the settings pop up temporarily on the infotainment system, for no real value. The other glaring problem with MyLink is that the core menu screens look woefully outdated.

Sound quality was passable, with the system sounding slightly underpowered. There was good channel separation and performance was good even with the top down.

Powertrain, Chassis, and Driving: Is there any redemption at all, or is the fact that the Camaro has outsold both the Challenger and the Mustang up to 2014 an aberration of easy financing, hold my beer and watch this decision making, and large sums of cash on the hood? What about this drive to Hana, with its 620 curves and 46 one lane wide bridges over a scant 64 miles?

In day-to-day driving when you turn the key and start the 3.6 liter V6 the sound is anything but impressive. The exhaust note is raspy and high strung, providing little excitement. Left to its own decision making, the GM 6-speed automatic is biased to fuel economy not performance, lazily shifting. The engine protested on numerous occasions at low RPM, knocking like a malaise era 4-cylinder. Under normal driving conditions, the Camaro with the V6 is the worst of the trio of pony cars. Slam the skinny pedal all the way to the floor and you unleash a different animal however, with the engine screaming a frenetic note as it races to redline.

Despite unofficial acceleration testing that matched a 2015 CTS on a drag race to 90 MPH, the Camaro doesn’t feel exactly fast, with the butt dyno reporting the lower torque number that the LT version provides, missing two cylinders under the hood. Although the Pentastar V6 in the Challenger offers less power, it is fantastic engine. So far, things were not looking good for the Camaro.

The Hana Highway was built in 1910 to transport workers and sugar cane along the northern and eastern part of Maui. Threading its way through tropical rainforest, the road starts in Kahului, and snakes 52 miles to the southeast corner of the island. One can drive another 12 miles where you reach the Kipahulu Visitor Center in Haleakala National Park. Beyond that heading west is the forbidden zone of Hawaii 31, the Pilani Highway, where rental cars are not allowed to traverse and the rain forest turns into a semi-arid desert, before rising up into temperate forest along the southern slope of 10,023 feet high Haleakala.

Driving to Hana is like Pro Solo autocross meets Death Race 2000. Despite the relatively short length, a non-stop drive takes about 3 hours and it is highly technical. Although the posted speed limit is just 15 to 25 MPH in many places, the locals insist on traveling far past that, either tailgating you to hustle faster, or completely ignoring the yield signs at close to 100 single lane narrows and bridges.

Numerous blind turns with fern covered rock walls to your right, and a guard rail followed by certain death in the Pacific to your left. To make things even more interesting, a few cyclists with excess bravado are tossed in, whose idea of sharing the road is to pedal along at 8 MPH while eagerly waving you on to pass. It is one of the few places I’ve driven in the United States where I found the posted speed limit in some places to border on insanity.

The road varies from smooth new pavement, to cratered and cracked wasteland, to crumbling single lane bridges built a century ago with posted weight limits that a fully loaded F-350 would exceed. Go past the Kipahulu Visitor Center, the tarmac becomes equivalent to an automotive proving ground, a punishing cobble or ruts and potholes before turning into a one lane dirt road that clings to the ocean bluffs barely more than a lane wide for over 10 miles.

There are two constants on the Hana Highway, the first being its narrowness. First, after you get east of Kahului, the road only gets more than 20 feet wide at turn outs, halfway to Hana, and road side parking areas. The second is the dampness. This is a tropical rainforest and there is standing water in places and rain slicked turns. Make no mistake; there is no margin of error here. Miss a turn in autocross and you’re cleaning cone scuffs off for an afternoon. Miss a turn on the Hana Highway and you’ll join the choir invisible, the point of your last mistake noted by another cross on the roadside. There were a lot of crosses on the roadside.

It was on the Hana Highway that the Camaro transformed into what was a pitiful excuse of a pony car into something amazingly different. Despite its heft, the Camaro dances far better than the Challenger and dare I say it, yes even the previous generation Mustang. The steering which felt slightly over boosted and isolated in normal driving, now commanded the Camaro to eat up all 620 curves with solid feedback and control.

The Pilani Highway would be a torture test for any suspension. In poverty spec the previous generation Mustang live axle would be a liability of dancing rear end, the base tire and wheel combination would have squealed in endless protest, and the brakes would have faded (admittedly all of these short comings would be addressed with the Track Pack). The Challenger has even worse forward visibility than the Camaro, wallowing heft and was severely under braked – driving it to Hana would have been in a word – terrifying.

The poverty spec Camaro simply devoured the road. The independent suspension was firm. Although you feel every bump and pock, the contact patches always remained planted, even when the road quality degraded to that of cobblestone, enabling you to brake, steer, or accelerate at will. As you come to the beginning of highway 31 after the dirt road forbidden zone, the pavement goes from Detroit grade to brand. Moving west down the Pilani, the Camaro simply begged to be driven faster.

Where the Ford Mustang at eight-tenths was terrifying to drive through the Canyons of southern California, the Camaro simply demanded more.
Accelerate hard, brake, left turn over the rise, down a steep hill, feel positive Gs at the bottom, accelerate up the other side, brake hard for the blind break, enjoy a little negative G, take a lazy right sweeper accelerating through, down a straight, brake hard again, sharp right, slow to 10 MPH because you can’t see, come to a section of one lane road and rocket through to the other side, slow down again, now a hard left. Never using all the road, always keeping a small margin of safety at each blind turn. Mile after mile of sheer joy on the Pilani that only improved after the sun went down and the oncoming traffic faded away. At speed, the Camaro felt like it shrank two sizes, becoming Marshawn Lynch spinning through the Green Bay defensive line.

Those pathetic plastic paddle shifters only added to the joy. Once I took over the gear choice decision making, I could keep the Camaro above 2.5K RPM, where power was on demand at every flick of the pedal.

The happiness wasn’t equivalent to a Molly fueled trip at the dance club, but more like a hit of LSD, which provided a wild euphoric experience, tossed in with a few moments of terrifying bad trip. On one turn at about a quarter way to Hana an old Nissan Sentra came into view taking their half of the road out of the middle. The Camaro’s was slapping branches on the passenger side, my sweet bride screamed, and the Sentra roared passed at insane speed and somehow the driver side wing mirror didn’t get removed. More than once lifted Toyota or Ford Ranger pickup trucks of questionable maintenance would blow through yield signs despite traffic already being in the one lane area, insisting that the haoles squeeze over. One blind turn revealed a massive fresh rock fall that left about 9 feet of passable road. Somewhere in Kula we had a close encounter of the worst kind with some locals, who were racing through the darkness on two-stroke dirt bikes, no lights, no reflectors, no helmets, Hell no shoes. Only the fact that we had the top down revealed their approach and we didn’t lose them as they zipped back and forth like out of a Mad Max movie until one of their bikes had stalled out.

So what is the conclusion? Is the outgoing Camaro a hot mess of cheap plastic, questionable build quality, and polarizing looks? Yes. Is the Camaro a blast to drive outside the lines of day-to-day driving that provides solid performance under harsh road conditions even in poverty spec? Absolutely. Would I run out and buy one? Not on your life.

If I had to rank the three pony cars, and yes the Challenger only comes with a solid top, I have to put the Mustang on top. In poverty spec the Mustang convertible was eager to attack asphalt, but was easily unsettled, it was under tired, and under braked, but it has a much nicer interior, far better visibility, a better operating power roof, and better build quality. I would put the Camaro in second place, barely, and only if one has enthusiastic driving in mind. Although the Challenger has a better interior, and I feel the best looks of the three cars, it has the worst driving dynamics when asked to do more than be a daily drive. If one is looking for a car simply to cruise around in and take to the drag strip, then the Challenger becomes second place, with the Camaro sinking to a distant third.

During our 584 miles we got 18.9 MPG according to the trip computer. This would be in line with the EPA MPG rating of 19/30/22, with the Camaro doing mostly city style driving and having several periods of extended idling.
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