The thrumming of tyres on tarmac ends abruptly, replaced by a much louder, gritty crunching sound. In the rear-view mirror the green of the Rocky Mountain foothills has been obscured by an opaque beige fog. It is a dust cloud, churned up by my rear wheels and now, carried by a sidewind, drifting far across the landscape.
A lonely pick-up truck passes in the opposite direction, some unfathomable chunk of farm machinery rocking on its load platform; another dust rooster-tail arising from its rear.
This is where old and new Alberta meet; where the vast urbanisations of oil capital Calgary and provincial capital Edmonton, with their multi-lane highways and other far-spreading ribbons of tarmac, peter out into the older, gravelled arteries of the farming, hunting pioneers. Such roads are vanishing at a rapid rate, metamorphosing into smooth, two-lane blacktop under the rollers of Alberta’s oil wealth and agri-industries. But this is a province four times larger than the UK. There are thousands more miles yet to pave and they will remain community lifelines for a long time still to come.
Rural Alberta, like most such regions across Canada, has also traditionally been Chevy country.The pick-up trucks, sedans and coupés of General Motors’ workhorse Chevrolet brand have been integral to working and social life. In recent years they have been giving ground, most notably to Japanese, Korean, European or more luxurious US-built SUVs.
But it is in a Chevrolet – to be precise, the latest iteration of Chevy’s iconic Camaro coupé – that, still travelling at 60mph, I have just made my unexpected transition from tarmac to gravel; caught off-guard by the surface change lying hidden beyond a hilltop brow.
Such moments can yield a great deal of information about the quirks and capabilities of any car. A smooth gravel highway provides a surprisingly consistent yet low-grip surface, allowing handling, ride and braking abilities to be read as if on tarmac – but all at lower, legal speeds. And out west, the cops do not take kindly to illegal speeds. This latest Camaro is a lot more agile, more capable and more precise than previous generations. And it needs to be. Because this is the first-ever Camaro GM intends to sell worldwide, in both left- and right-hand drive versions and with the sophisticated and demanding drivers of western Europe a major target. Cars are scheduled to start arriving in the UK during the first half of next year.
Unlike Camaros for the slower-paced domestic north American market, for which a 312 horsepower V6 has also been made available, Europe will get one engine specification only.
But it will do nicely. Its 426 horsepower V8, seen also in some of GM’s mighty two-seater Corvettes, will take the Camaro SS (the sole model designation for Europe) from standstill to 60mph in under five seconds, en route to a limited top speed of 155mph. Take off the electronic shackles for a German autobahn and I would guess at nearer 170mph.
On paper, then, this latest rendition of the classic north American “muscle car” stands to be a serious challenger at the gates of Stuttgart and Munich. Based on my Alberta experience with the lesser-powered Camaro, however, Mercedes-Benz and BMW should not start fretting too much yet.
The car sets new ride and handling standards – but mainly for Camaros and other north American home-grown sporty coupés, whose long histories of sloppy steering and soggy ride have tended to be, frankly, pretty awful. That Ford’s Mustang still does not have bump-taming independent rear suspension, nearly half a century after the first Mustang turned a wheel, does its maker little credit.
That is an error of omission that has applied, also, to the Chevrolet but is now addressed in full on this latest model. Developed by GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, the multi-link rear suspension is fully independent and transforms the car’s behaviour.
A visit to a Vauxhall showroom and test drive of its Australian-built VXR8 super-saloon would provide a foretaste, because under their very different body skins they share essentially the same engineering platforms and powertrains.
The Camaro’s dynamics are good enough for an owner to be able to contemplate long journeys on challenging European roads as a pleasure, not a chore. To its credit, it would not have too much trouble keeping up with even a well-driven BMW or Mercedes coupé.
But an international class leader in the ride and handling stakes it is not. In the same way that its semi-automatic, paddle-shift gearbox – workmanlike but slightly sluggardly – is not. In the same way, too, that use of the token rear seats and boot space is not the most inspired – or, truth be told, in a dozen minor other ways.
But there are also some sound reasons for non-Americans to buy this car.
One is its looks – it is one of the very best so-called “retro-mobiles” (think Mini, Fiat 500 in Europe) yet to emerge. Its visual DNA links to the first Camaro “muscle” cars of the 1960s, beloved by young Americans, are evident at once, but in a shape that somehow contrives also to be bang up-to-date.
The other reason is price. Just as Vauxhall’s VXR8 provides super-saloon performance at half its prestige European rivals’ price, so the Camaro is likely to be a super-coupé bargain.
“My” Camaro, with the less meaty V6 engine but otherwise “fully loaded” with styling and other options, has an on-the-road price of $33,840 in Canada. Even with sterling at near-unprecedented lows, that translates to just £21,000. Import duties, freight and other costs would lift that closer to £30,000 in a British Chevrolet dealer’s showroom.
But that’s still a bargain. I’ll take mine in that lurid, day-glo orange.
Dynamic, fully loaded, retro mobile at a bargain price
£35,000-£40,000 (estimate for the V8)
0-60mph 4.7 secs, top speed (limited) 155mph
CO2 statistics n/a
Ford Mustang (although not available through Ford UK showrooms)