SAN DIEGO — Southern California is the land of the muscle car. They’re everywhere and owned by everyone. Young and old, no matter the race or creed, a muscle car can appeal to the inner hooligan in all of us. That’s part of the appeal and the formula is quintessentially American.
Take a large car, add rear-wheel drive, a menacing V8, and prodigious amounts of noise and comfort and set off into the distance for a lazy cruise. But perhaps one of those isn’t necessary: the V8 was never the essential part of that equation.
While there are certainly exciting cars to be had if one has many hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend (and it’s wonderful to dream), our sites must be set lower. That’s why I loved the new Chevy Corvette so much. It’s the attainable supercar, starting at a reasonable $60,000.
But for many, that’s too high and we need something even more affordable but still filled with pizazz, attitude, and oomph. That’s where the pony car comes in. It’s a subset of the muscle car group, largely launched by the Ford Mustang in 1964.
The pony car combines many of the muscle car attributes but makes them affordable and attainable, sacrificing overall performance for accessibility — but without sacrificing fun. And that’s my test car this week: the 2021 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible.
Up front, I’ll admit that the Camaro is now a bit dated, launched in 2015 for the 2016 model year. but I don’t think most people will care because it still looks good. It’s Camaro-y.
And mine didn’t have a big, thirsty V8 either. While Chevy is happy to sell you a big V8 with a 650-horsepower supercharged engine, my test car had the 2-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged unit, albeit mated to a six-speed manual transmission with an actual clutch.
Manuals are a rapidly dying breed and it’s nice to see the option here. If you’re an enthusiast and want to, borrowing the ridiculous parlance of the Car and Driver crowd, “row your own”, it’s a treat. I haven’t had another manual transmission car in almost a year, and it’s disappointing but understandable given how good modern automatic transmissions are. For what it’s worth, an 8- or 10-speed automatic is available for whichever Camaro you buy depending on the engine.
But don’t get too down on the Camaro not having a V8. The turbo-four has plenty of giddy-up, making 275 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque and getting from 0-60 MPH in around 5.5 seconds, though the exhaust note is a little wanting.
Where the Camaro really shines is attitude, and that’s what the pony car is all about. My Camaro Convertible test car was outfitted with the 3LT package which adds all manner of nice features including blind spot monitoring, a Bose stereo, an 8-inch color touch screen supporting wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a heads-up display and more. Those are all nice, but the real fun begins further down the spec sheet.
It also had a $2,565 Redline Edition added which gives a set of gorgeous black 20-inch wheels (with red accents), blacked out Camaro badges, red seat belts, and red knee pads. Then it adds the $1,950 RS package which adds LED tail lamps, black Chevy bowtie badges, and a rear decklid spoiler.
All in, the Camaro looks the part and this particular version is available for an all-in price of $43,800. I suspect you can get some cash off that if you negotiate well.
But given that the average new car is tipping 40 grand means the Camaro checks the pony car boxes of accessibility, affordability, and performance, even with the “little” engine.
The “look” is the most important thing with a Camaro or a Mustang or a Challenger, though the snobbier among us might look down their nose at the turbo four-banger. But remember that the original Mustang came equipped with a base 4-cylinder engine and one that was considerably less powerful (and less heavy, it should be noted).
There is an unnecessary obsession with cylinders and horsepower that the electric car revolution is making obsolete anyway. I’m not sure where this Camaro fits in the new EV paradigm that we’re rapidly moving into, but I’m glad it exists. Its pony car brethren the Mustang has already taken the leap into the electric car world with the new Mustang Mach-E, to great acclaim. Will there be an electric Camaro?
I’m betting yes, and sooner rather than later. Let’s hope it keeps all the swagger and attitude because that’s what makes this Camaro an all-American classic.