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Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Fiat 500C each bring character and compromises

Consumer Reports News: June 27, 2012 09:08 AM

Consumer Reports recently posted the road test results for a trio of summer-friendly cars, each with their own distinctive personalities: Chevrolet Camaro convertible, Dodge Challenger, and Fiat 500C. The common theme among them is that style and character often come with compromises.

Since summer officially began last week, I had the privilege to rotate through each, sampling them in appropriate fair, sun-shining weather. And I must confess, my impressions mirror our test-track findings.

The Chevrolet Camaro reinterprets the first-generation classic with modern, Transformers-grade styling, a relatively refined chassis, and abundant, smooth power. Both the coupe and convertible are built upon an enviable platform, itself derived from the underpinnings of the dearly departed Pontiac G8 sedan. Yet, the design trumps practicality, imposing significant visibility limitations, and a surprising snug rear seat and diminutive trunk for such a large car.

The convertible addresses the visibility problem handsomely with the top down, allowing a clear view to the rear and the ability to look over the windshield header to see traffic lights. However, the folded cloth top renders the trunk into a vestigial storage bin. Top up, wind noise rivals an open window and it again has a bunker-like outward view. Fortunately, the car is blazingly quick to accelerate and brake. At the track, handling is tenacious and on the street, the ride is appropriately taut without being punishing. The car clearly performs, but it does so without panache. The engine and even exhaust note are rather mild, given the car's impressive abilities. It is a looker, but one with notable compromises.

2012-Dodge-Challenger-front-studio.jpgThe Dodge Challenger is pure retro, especially in the '70s-inspired paint-and-stripes combination on our latest R/T test car. If the Camaro feels large, then the Challenger is mammoth. Behind the wheel, the lane-gobbling width and massive hood remind of a time decades ago when gasoline was cheap and size defined an American car. The R/T has a 375-hp, 5.7-liter V8, backed in our car by a six-speed manual transmission. It delivers on its exact promise: a muscle-car classic remade with modern running gear.

The midlife suspension retuning helped hunker the car down and give it a more Camaro-like ride/handling package. Clearly between the two, the Challenger is the boulevard cruiser. Its size alone is enough to discourage corner-carving on public roads. The Camaro is a full second quicker to 0-60 mph, but I'd say it is less fun getting there. The Challenger has all the engine rumble, exhaust burble, and extroverted attitude to transform even the slowest drive into a good time. I have come to think of it as being the automotive-equivalent of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle -- equal parts rolling
Americana and escapism. Likewise, its not the fastest or most agile vehicle, but undeniably makes its presence known. And better yet, there is ample room for the whole family to enjoy the ride.

2012-Fiat-500-convertible-top-down-r.jpgThat is clearly not the case with the Fiat 500C. It is the anti-Challenger, despite sharing corporate letterhead. Lauded worldwide with more accolades than could fit in the pocket-sized cargo space, to me, the 500 feels out of its element in America.

I find it torturous to drive, with the shifter binnacle extending to where my right knee would prefer to reside, causing me to drive it side saddle. My leggier colleagues claim not to have this issue. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates right-foot injury rates as Acceptable (not high praise), but they, of course, do not comment on comfort. (Crash-test dummies don't complain.) While sitting crooked, I noticed that our circular digital display at the center of the optimistic 140-mph speedometer is installed a degree or two counter-clockwise, perhaps to compensate for the seating position.

Visibility is compromised on the 500, as well, with the B-pillar obscuring an over-the-shoulder glance before changing lanes, just as the wide C-pillar on the passenger side makes looking that direction a rather futile exercise. Even backing up the small car requires planning, faith, and a slow speed.

The interior is Spanx-cozy, making for intimate family travel. Jiggly ride, minimal storage, lack of power for long highway hills, and mediocre stereo that sounds like a pair of gym trunks lay atop the speakers make it rather undesirable for road trips. In fact, this weekend, we drove our 10-year-old SUV rather than the Fiat on multiple occasions. I found the power top fun, fast, and quite appealing. But, it sure would take more than that for me to consider this misplaced fashion statement, which by the way, doesn't score high enough to meet our threshold for recommendation.

The take away from this odd group of test cars is: Cars with personality often bring compromises. When shopping for a new car, buy one whose charms will still appeal for years to come. Where I looking for a fun car, I'd turn to the higher rated, more fuel efficient, just-right-sized Ford Mustang.

Jeff Bartlett

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