Ahhhh, the French.
They really know how to contract first names, don’t they? Anne-Sophie, Marie-Élise, Céline-Elizabeth: elegant, sexy first names that make you want to order a bottle of Pétrus and spend the evening sipping it, smoking filterless Gauloises and chatting philosophy with their namesakes.
Americans? Not so much. That was the only thought of any consequence running through our slightly pickled little brain as we stared at JoAnnMaryLou’s name tag at the car rental office. We’d just landed at Washington International Airport and had the prospect of a few sedate days in Virginia ahead of us. And that’s when it happened.
“I can offer you a special discounted rate today, Sir. Would you like to upgrade?” said JoAnnMaryLou
“Sorry?” we muttered, groggy from the flight and, truth be told, still deep in thought about sexy French women
“For just $50 a day extra, I can upgrade your vehicle today.”
“To what?” we replied
“Well, Sir, we have a class D crossover that…”
“Let me stop you at ‘crossover’ but thanks.”
“How about a Camaro SS?” said JoAnnMaryLou, desperate to make her commission target that month and now clearly playing her trump card.
“Thaaat” she said as she pointed to a red two-door saloon parked just outside the office.
It was obscene: a long but deep, fat bulging bonnet, ludicrously low roofline with a windscreen that looked more like the slot of a letterbox than the vital window on the road ahead it should have been and alloy wheels that belonged on a toy not something an adult would actually drive in public. Huge on the outside yet tiny on the inside, this satanic set of wheels had clearly been styled after a very long session on the moonshine by a group of homophobic rednecks with some only thinly concealed insecurities. The styling cues, the proportions, the very soul of this car were all wrong. There was not an ounce of sophistication or subtlety about it.
“Sold!” we heard ourselves say out loud. “What the Hell, when in Rome…” we rationalized as we signed the Amex receipt.
And so it was that we spent the following three days thrashing this new – yet really very old school – muscle car around the highways and byways of Virginia.
What can we tell you about it? Well, it was very nearly all bad. The two hour drive to our first destination didn’t redeem this monster at all. The steering stubbornly refused to reveal anything about what was going on between the Pirelli PZeros and the road, the slushbox had an unnerving habit of always being in the gear above the one you actually needed and the ride felt decidedly less than stable at anything above about 80mph.
This, we thought, was going to be a painful few days of driving.
The following day, after a good night’s sleep and a restorative American brunch (pancakes, maple syrup and bacon – what else do you need, really?) we had another stab at the Camaro.
Getting back into the driver’s seat, we once gain noticed the cheap, nasty plastic masquerading as metal throughout the cabin, the ludicrous bank of secondary square dials nestled behind the gear lever on the centre console and the downright maddeningly confusing speedo and rev counter design. But we also noticed something else. Hidden behind the steering wheel were two black plastic paddles. One marked ‘-’, the other ‘+’. Like the rest of the cabin, they felt flimsy and designed by an accountant rather than a petrol-head but they at least offered the promise of dominance over the spoil-sport auto box. And then we noticed another innocuous little button that we hadn’t seen the night before: it was marked ‘HUD’.
“HUD?” we thought as we reached out to press it “not a Heads Up Display, surely? Ahhhh….”
Suddenly, suspended in mid-air, somewhere between the end of our bonnet and the car ahead of us was a simple blue digital display showing us our current speed, our engine revs and the gear we’d manually selected with our newfound best friends, the paddles.
From that magical moment on, the Camaro became a far more interesting travel companion.
The HUD serves as a hugely effective information dispenser. All you really need to know is there. Far more importantly however, it means you never have to look down at the despicable dashboard again, allowing you to concentrate on the road ahead without reminding yourself of what a tasteless vehicle you’re driving. And once you start concentrating on nothing but the immense power (that will be 400 horsepower) beneath your right foot and the raucous engine noise from the 6.2 litre V8 engine, things start to look up.
It wasn’t long before we were using the HUD as mock crosshairs. And with the gearbox now firmly under our control, we were able to point the big predator in the general direction of the nearest slow moving prey, squeeze the throttle open and, you know, actually have something interesting happen.
Don’t get us wrong, this is not a car we’d ever want to drive in Europe. To the best of our knowledge, that would be impossible anyway since the Camaro, it would seem, is incapable of going ‘round corners. But that doesn’t matter because they don’t have corners in America. Instead, what they have in spades is plain-talking people, driving down straight roads, in unnecessarily large and slow pick-up trucks: the perfect things to put in your HUD crosshairs and take out before gliding off toward the horizon and your next target.
In that rather surreal world of uncomplicated make-believe, the Camaro is a lot of fun indeed. And you can call us JoAnnMaryLou if it isn’t so.
Hunting native wildlife in a Camaro SS
What we discover during a short trip to the US is that Chevrolet’s Camaro SS is obscene. Obscenely ugly, obscenely cheaply made and obscenely hard to return to the car rental company once you start to become familiar with its strengths.
Our editor-in-chief, the self-proclaimed "greatest wit, raconteur and bon vivant of our age", borders on delusional. Over the years, the fool has squandered more money on fast cars, Swiss watches and electronic gadgetry of all kinds than he – or Mrs Fool – cares to remember. Come nightfall, he can invariably be found stumbling out of Dukes mumbling “just one more Martini; I could have handled just one mmmmm… [thud!]”
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