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Chevrolet Camaro v California
I haven't just read the script for the classic American road trip, I've savoured every word.
Here I am on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) on a warm summer's day, burbling muscle car at the ready and an itinerary that simply dictates I have to be back in San Francisco in two weeks' time to catch the return flight home.
My steed is the Chevrolet Camaro SS, a two-door coupe with a 6.2-litre V8 that's as muscular as California's former governor. And as menacing looking.
Delivered with only 800 miles on the clock, the Camaro is painted in vibrant and optional Inferno Orange, which shows off its muscle-car haunches and curves spectacularly. To my eyes, even through the dimming effect of shielding sunglasses, the Camaro is the coolest muscle car on sale. Transformers and Megan Fox probably have something to do with that.
Honey, I've brought the sink
Having spent a week in San Francisco to get married, it's now honeymoon time and a two-week tour of California and Nevada. Before wedded bliss can commence, though, we have to fit three bulging suitcases into the Camaro's relatively small boot and fight our way out of San Francisco's dense traffic.
The first part is a challenge: two of the suitcases slide in easily but the biggest has to sit on the Camaro's rear seats. Thank goodness we didn't get a convertible...
Tourist has his picture taken with the car
Navigating our way out of San Francisco's grid-locked streets is even more troublesome. First I have to call up On Star, a replacement for sat-nav that you call to receive turn-by-turn directions through the stereo. I grapple with an automated system that fails to understand my Northern Irish brogue before giving up and calling a real person who, after the usual 'have a nice day, sir' pleasantries, soon has us on our intended path.
On the way, we stop at San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge for the obligatory photo op. Not quite the photo we were intending either, when a tourist rushes over to have his picture taken with the car. It is a scenario that is to be played out many times over the next fortnight.
While we haven't set an agenda, we aim for an overnight stop in Monterey (or Monaray as the locals pronounce it), 120 miles away/two hours of relatively brisk driving. Something that's easier said than done in the heavily patrolled 55mph zones.
On Bing: pictures of classic Chevrolet Camaros
Muscle car paradox
The strange thing is, the Camaro isn't straining at the leash like a highly strung muscle car ought to be, so sticking to the ridiculous speed limits is fairly easy. A crest of torque - 410 lb/ft from this automatic - has us up to speed smoothly and quickly, then the gearbox slides back into sixth gear, the revs drop and the Camaro turns into a relaxing cruiser.
It would be easy to criticise the Camaro for this laid-back attitude, but when you've got 2,000 miles of driving ahead, it is a relief to arrive feeling fresh. The interior isn't the plushest out there (but then this car only costs $40k) but the seats are soft, wide and comfortable and the driving position set up for laid-back cruising.
World's best road trip
Stress and arguments are kept to a minimum thanks to the easy-to-follow On Star directions and we're soon spearing south along the majestic Highway 1, AKA the Pacific Coast Highway.
This snaking road clings to cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and has to be one of the world's best road trips. Every turn in the road reveals hundreds of miles of rugged coastline. There are plenty of look-out spots that will have you stopping regularly to gaze down at the hidden beaches and endless expanse of sea.
Arriving in Monterey, it took less than 30 minutes to find a hotel for the night, leaving plenty of time to explore this pretty seaside town with its touristy-but-antiquated Cannery Row and world-famous aquarium.
Up early the next morning, we set out on 17-Mile Drive, a toll road along a stunning section of the PCH that takes you through Pebble Beach golf course - home of the glitzy Concours d'Elegance car show. This is a must-see detour taking in beautiful natural vistas, the world's most photographed tree (the Lone Cyprus) and gated mansions that will inspire you to start playing EuroMillions.
The road eventually deposits you in the unbelievably quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea, home to Clint Eastwood and some very strange laws such as a ban on wearing high-heel shoes without a permit or erecting a neon sign.
That last one worried me, entering cutesy Carmel in a bright-orange muscle car. Would former mayor Clint hustle me out of town with his Magnum (more likely to be of the ice-cream variety now he's in his 80s)? As it happens, the Camaro did attract attention from one passer-by who shouted "nice colour" as we waited at a cross roads.
Mulholland Drive's hairpins
From here we took the PCH south, the climate heating up from the coolness of San Francisco, and made overnight stops in bustling San-Luis-Obispo and colonial Santa Barbara before arriving in Los Angeles.
Thankfully we're only here for one night because LA is a god-forsaken place. After driving up Mulholland Drive and through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, we have seen all we want of LA.
Mulholland Drive's hairpins provide the opportunity to test the Camaro's handling. What's most noticeable is its weight: the Chevy weighs as near-as-dammit the same as a BMW 5 Series estate and the one place you feel that is when you encounter a bend. Luckily they don't have many of those...
Comfort or speed?
It doesn't help that the steering is geared for hundreds of miles of finger-tip Highway driving - at which the Camaro excels - but the downside is a vagueness that doesn't translate what the car is doing, even though it turns in cleanly and is entertainingly adjustable.
I decide to keep sideways shenanigans to a minimum on this dark, vertiginous road for fear of ending up in the garden of one of its many famous residents.
In its element at 70mph
This weight also blunts the performance. A 0-62mph time of 5.4 seconds from a 405hp 6.2-litre V8 is swift, but the Camaro feels more ponderous than this. The automatic gearbox robs the Camaro of 27hp and also a few tenths to 62mph but I'm happy to trade that for effortlessness and comfort.
Leaving LA, it was south to San Diego for a few days, a charming city that belies its size as the eighth largest in the United States. The miles of highway adjust my opinion again of the Camaro - this is where it is in its element and at 70mph it's also when the engine seems its most willing.
From San Diego we head across the desert to Las Vegas, stopping to fill up on the way. We're averaging just over 20mpg at a cruise and a refill from empty costs less than $60. You can see why the majority drive V8s!
Fill up when you can
It's a Friday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend and the road to Vegas is packed. Three lanes chokka with interstate traffic that, unlike the M25, is flowing. Drivers here undertake rather than flash slower-moving cars out of the left-hand lane. We're not sure what the law is, but decide to join in as it's the only way to make progress.
I push the Camaro harder
Locals describe this drive as excruciatingly boring - the landscape of snow-capped mountains rising out of the dusty desert floor is of such a vast scale that you drive for hours without the view changing. We found it hard to tire of it, though.
After day-trips to visit the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, we're off across Death Valley to the lowest, hottest place in the United States. Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level. Getting there requires travelling on several miles of well-made, wide, fast and quiet roads and I decide to push the Camaro a bit harder.
Get over the steering nuances and the Camaro is an entertaining car to drive quickly and its soft springs translate into an acceptable ride quality, but you have to work that V8 hard and that means burning even more gas. Not wise in the middle of nowhere.
Camaro: the bully
From Death Valley it's up to the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes, a beautiful alpine retreat, deserted now that the ski lifts have stopped turning but a welcoming overnight stop before we tackle the Tioga Pass, which leads to Yosemite National Park.
Closed between November and May, the snow has melted by the time we traverse this scary 59-mile stretch of winding road. The scenery is like a Constable painting, bend after bend revealing yet more pastel-hued natural wonders. We're stopping every few minutes to take pictures - which isn't such a problem because the Camaro's V8 sounds best at tickover, bumbling away menacingly and disturbing nature's solitude.
The roads around the national park forbid overtaking and slower drivers are required to pull over. Not sure if it's the Camaro's aggressive snout doing the bullying or the other motorists just being considerate, but we're rarely stuck behind someone for long.
From Yosemite it's a 190-mile, four-hour drive across California to San Francisco. The Camaro has been a faithful companion for 2,000 miles, we have managed to avoid police radar and I have a new appreciation for what defines a muscle car.
The Camaro isn't the fastest, sharpest-handling car out there, but it's a feel-good car: literally - because on US roads its softer side makes it an ideal long-distance cruiser. I am not sure you could say the same after climbing out of the bucket seats of some Euro hot rod, your ears buzzing, tyres smoking and brakes cooked.
Perhaps the Camaro's biggest compliment - or insult - came when I was parking up in San Francisco and a passer-by remarked, "Whoa, nice Challenger man."
I proudly replied "it's a Camaro."
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