SAN FRANCISCO – As a youngster, my dad made it a tradition that every Sunday after church he’d take us for an afternoon spin around the countryside in the ol’ family sedan. I never knew where we were going, or when we’d get back, which made it difficult to make plans to meet buddies – or the fair-haired girl.
In those days, this was called “shunpiking” – taking the roads less travelled to open our eyes to the sights most people missed as they sped along the main routes. I suspect that’s where my passion for cars and driving had its roots.
So when Chevrolet invited me to participate in its “Find New Roads Trip,” the event had a ring of familiarity and I eagerly accepted.
Find New Roads
The concept was to resist following the much-beaten path from X to Y, opting instead to “find new roads” using a fleet of 2016 Chevy Camaro coupes. The event was spread over four weeks and covered about 273,600 kilometres – equivalent to six times around the globe – and visited 48 states.
Two tours were set up, one travelling through the eastern half of the U.S.; the other covering the west side, with 150 American and Canadian journalists handling the driving duties. I was assigned a two-day leg that started in Portland, Oregon and wound up in San Francisco, California.
Our group had 12 Camaros – six V8s and six V6s. The morning of our departure day, we were given a general briefing and then a blind draw was held to determine our rides. I pulled out the keys to a black 1LT coupe with a 3.6-litre V6 and a 6-speed manual gearbox.
It was equipped with the RS package, which added 20-inch alloy rims, HID headlamps, LED taillights, an RS grille and a discreet spoiler on the decklid. It actually portrayed a menacing edge to its appearance as I strolled toward it through the parking lot.
Of course, as a gearhead, I would have preferred one of those hot SS V8s parked in the row, especially when one fired up beside my ride, its raucous exhaust note piercing the still morning air. Then I found the mode switch in my Camaro and discovered the V6 could stir up some nasty exhaust sounds of its own when the Sport mode was activated.
At first glance, the differences between this sixth-generation Camaro and its predecessor aren’t readily obvious. Linger and look, though, and you’ll discover it’s all new.
Drive it and the changes are more apparent. There’s a new platform that results in a lighter (133 kg has been trimmed from the V6 coupe), more nimble car that’s also quicker, thanks to a 12% greater power-to-weight ratio. This V6 will sprint to 96 km/h in 5.2 seconds and covers the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds. In the muscle-car era, those were respectable numbers for a big-block V8, yet this is a base 6-cylinder. How times have changed!
The base 1LT coupe lacks some of the flashy features and amenities found in the upscale trim levels but I still found it comfortable, especially the seats, where I was going to spend many long hours.
It should be noted I found a couple of nits to pick – the rear seats are great for putting stuff on, but not so much for carrying people. There was literally no legroom in back once I had my seat comfortably positioned.
I also discovered that while the cargo area has decent storage space, putting items in there can be a challenge. The problem is that the trunk opening is very high, making it necessary to lift items high over the edge. It’s more like lifting the lid on a storage bin and hoisting stuff in.
In fairness, though, I doubt rear seat legroom and trunk access are priorities for buyers in this sporty car segment – they’re looking for performance and that’s something the Camaro delivers in spades.
My ride didn’t have a navigation system, which I would be needing as I searched out sites and routes in unfamiliar territory. It did, however, have that wonderful feature General Motors is incorporating into its lineup – OnStar 4G LTE wireless connectivity.
Although I’m definitely not a tech geek, I was able to readily connect my iPhone through the car’s Apple AirPlay feature and using the eight-inch colour display in the centre of the instrument panel, clicked on the Google Maps app to plan my route, including turn-by-turn guidance. This mobile Wi-Fi hotspot was a Godsend. (As a bonus, it enabled me to use FaceTime to share a Pacific Coast sunset with my wife back home in Ontario.)
My game plan for the drive was to follow the coastline south, starting from Portland on Highway 101 and then later swinging over to the Pacific Coast Highway. A fellow journalist who was familiar with the area mentioned an aircraft museum south of Portland as being worth a visit, so I made it my first destination.
The Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, off Highway 18 near McMinnville, Ore., didn’t disappoint. The morning I visited it, the campus was shrouded in heavy fog. I was cruising along the road when suddenly a Boeing 747 jumbo jet emerged out of the dense fog. I still couldn’t see the museum, but the Evergreen script on the plane suggested I was in the right neighbourhood.
It was a big plane – and so is the Evergreen campus. In fact, it includes four major facilities – the aircraft museum, an equally large space museum, a large theatre building and a unique indoor Wings and Waves waterpark with a huge waterslide that starts in another 747 sitting atop the structure.
The non-profit museum, which opened in June, 2001, has about 200 aircraft, spacecraft and related exhibits, but the centerpiece of the museum is the massive Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever built.
Formerly known as the Hughes Flying Boat, its construction started in 1942 as a joint venture by Howard Hughes and Henry Kaiser.
It was intended to ferry troops and supplies across the Atlantic, avoiding the German submarines that were sinking Allied ships and disrupting the supply line to the World War II battlefronts. Kaiser pulled out of the project in 1944, but Hughes soldiered on and the giant aircraft, made out of wood (mainly birch, not spruce), was completed in 1947.
The plane flew only once, on Nov. 2, 1947 for about a minute over a distance of just over a mile at an altitude of 70 feet. Hughes was at the controls. Then the H-4 was put into storage for 33 years.
After Hughes died in 1976, the plane was moved to Long Beach, where it was put on display beside the Queen Mary, a retired ocean liner. In 1992, Evergreen Museum founder Capt. Michael King Smith acquired the H-4, had it disassembled and shipped by barge up the Pacific coast to Portland and eventually to McMinnville.
In February, 1993 volunteers began the restoration of the aircraft and in 2001 it became the cornerstone of the new museum. The Spruce Goose literally dwarfs the other aircraft and displays that spill out under its massive wings.
The Space Museum has its own massive stars, including an actual Titan II missile, including its launch control room, space capsules and a recovery helicopter, a stealthy Blackbird bomber and even a replica of the Moon Buggy.
Outside the buildings, numerous aircraft are parked on display.
I wish I’d had more time to spend at Evergreen – and who knows what attractions I missed because they were smothered in the fog. The facility is certainly worth a return visit for me – and a worthwhile stop for anyone visiting the Portland area (www.evergreenmuseum.org).
On to the Pacific
After leaving Evergreen, I continued southwest along the scenic Salmon River Highway (Hwy 18) as it winds its way along its namesake river through the Siuslaw National Forest. The fishing in the waterway was obviously good as there were numerous anglers enjoying their sport at hotspots along the route.
I got my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean as I turned the Camaro onto Hwy 101 at Lincoln City, Oregon. The route is also known as the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway and it lived up to its name. The coastal views were amazing, with numerous state and national parks dotting the coastline in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Following a quick stop at a burger joint in Dunes City, where I also used OnStar to book a room for later that day, it was on toward Crescent City, California.
The route was taking me through redwood country and that became most apparent at Coo’s Bay. This Oregon coastal town is a hub for the shipment of redwood lumber, and massive mountains of redwood logs fill the bay’s shoreline as they await processing. Equally impressive are the mountains of redwood chips and sawdust beside the lumber mills, and the redwood aroma that fills the air.
Unfortunately, light faded to darkness far too early as I reached the Redwood National Forest. It was, however, an excellent test of the Camaro’s bright HID headlights and quick, nimble handling. Up and down through major elevation changes while weaving through giant redwoods that jumped out from the darkness proved to be the perfect stimulus to keep me alert and up on the steering wheel and gearbox.
The Day One drive ended in Arcata, California, after 12 hours on the road. I’d covered 672 km, driving through some of the most scenic oceanside areas and forested mountains in the country. Through it all, the Camaro had been flawless, truly a pleasure to drive – even if it wasn’t a hot SS V8. While driving more for fun than economy, the V6 still managed to deliver an average fuel consumption rate of 8.6 litres/100 km.
Cruising the Redwood Highway
I could have opted to start Day Two by scooting east to Redding to hook up with Interstate 5 for the sprint to the finish in San Francisco, but in keeping with the “find new roads theme,” I shunned the main pike for the more leisurely coastal route.
As it continues south, Hwy 101 is also known as the Redwood Highway – for reasons that are readily apparent. Huge redwood forests blanket the mountains and hills as the road carves its way toward San Francisco. I stopped for a photo opportunity at a stretch of the road named the Sam Helwer Memorial Highway, honouring the engineer who designed the highway interchange. Further south, the route wound through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and then the Avenue of the Giants – redwoods of course – south of Fortuna, Calif.
Unfortunately, driver error and the nav guidance system failed to shift me over to the Pacific Coast Highway at Leggett as I’d planned, but the Redwood route through the Coast Ranges was still beautiful. The Camaro climbed effortlessly up the steep grades and behaved well on the downhill runs. Its precise steering and handling prowess made the switchback corners a true pleasure, while stirring the gearbox up and down was simply good fun. Of course, the gurgling notes out the twin tailpipes added to the overall “ambiance.”
As I closed in on my destination, the mountainous landscape gave way to rolling hills covered with vineyards. Wineries large and small dotted the roadside, all beckoning for a tasting visit. Had I not been driving and having a deadline to meet, it would have been a tempting offer.
Finally, I caught a glimpse of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. My route guidance originally planned to take me east through Richmond and Oakland to my drop-off point near the San Francisco airport, but a traffic advisory shifted me to the Golden Gate route – and I didn’t mind that at all. What a spectacular view it offers of the City by the Bay. The sun was bathing the hills of San Francisco as I crossed the bridge – the view was amazing.
Despite having to cut through the core of the city – inching along in heavy traffic with a manual gearbox – I did manage to arrive at the drop-off destination with plenty of time to spare. Overall, the trip covered 1,140 kilometres and the average fuel consumption was 8.7 litres/100 km.
Spending all those hours behind the wheel has given me a new appreciation for the 2016 Camaro V6. It’s comfortable, its ride and handling are quite satisfying, and the performance of the 6-cylinder engine is impressive, even for a sporty car enthusiast who thought at the outset he’d rather have been driving a V8.
Model: 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 1LT Coupe
Pricing: Starting at $35,150
Engine: 3.5L V6, DOHC, VVT, with direct injection and cylinder deactivation, 335 horsepower @ 6,800 rpm, 284 lb-ft torque @ 5,300 rpm
Transmission: Tremec TR3160 6-speed manual
Length: 4,784 mm
Width: 1,897 mm
Wheelbase: 2,811 mm
Fuel consumption (City/Highway/Combined) 14.3/9.4/12.1 L/100 km