"Who dat!? Who dat!?" We're in a packed seafood joint -- one of about four such seafood joints on one block-reveling with some very happy, if somewhat inebriated, football fans. "Dat," of course, would be the latest team "dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints." Once again the Saints are vistorious. We're touring the Crescent City five years after Hurricane Katrina to take the pulse of recovery efforts from behind the wheel of a brand-new Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible. If the Saints' success and the crowds they draw are a sign of the city's resurgence, the Camaro convertible is a celebration for General Motors because it's exactly the sort of frivolous product a company on its last legs would never produce. Question is, are the Big Easy and the nation's biggest automaker really back in the swing of things?
First impressions would be a definitive "yes" on both counts. Even the coldest weather New Orleans has seen all year -- the General has in its curious corporate wisdom decided to launch the convertible in the dead of winter -- clearly hasn't dampened the evening scene. Football fans pour out of the renovated Superdome and join the usual throng of fun seekers in the French Quarter, strolling the streets and carrying alcoholic beverages with names like Hurricane. "This is the only city where you can have a storm and drink one at the same time," boasts one local. Recorded jazz and pop music from the bars compete with live performers on street corners. There's a guy singing into a bucket. Nude dancers? How about "Live Love Acts"?
You should be able to pass unnoticed through such a scene in a gunmetal gray Camaro. A gunmetal gray Camaro with no roof? That's another matter entirely. At a light on Canal Street, a young woman jumps out of her vehicle to point and shout, "I just love the Camaro! I hope y'all enjoy the rest of y'all's day!" At a voodoo shop, we get some sage advice: "I wouldn't be driving a convertible now. But maybe that's just me." The front desk clerks at our hotel ignore a Girls Gone Wild bus parked outside but vacate their stations to catch a glimpse of our topless beauty. A throng of young Camaro groupies materializes as if from thin air, taking pictures for Facebook and peppering us with impressively astute comments and questions. "Can you get the top in a color other than black?" Yes, tan. "Can you get a louder exhaust?" Not yet, but stay tuned. "I'd throw on some bigger wheels and drop it a few inches, but, really, it looks right already." Agreed on the last part. As with most cars developed during the Bob Lutz era at GM, designers got the first, second, and last word on the Camaro convertible, so it looks almost exactly like the 2007 concept. The top folds nearly flat, with no Volkswagen Beetle-like hump.
About the only thing that seems to elicit more feedback in New Orleans than our Chevy is the seemingly innocent question, "Where should we eat?" Everyone, it seems, has a list of ten restaurants we have to visit before we leave, and no one's list overlaps. The sheer multitude of popular restaurants tells a story of renewal that recent statistics seem to support. New Orleans's population is becoming wealthier and better educated. Tourism is strong, and the city's many colleges are expanding. No one downtown is willing to say he or she is thankful for the storm, but many have no problem predicting that it will lead to a better New Orleans. Oh, and the food rocks.
Meraux, Louisiana, about eight miles from downtown New Orleans, probably had plenty of good restaurants, too. But when we roll through the following morning, the only venue the locals can recommend for breakfast is McDonald's. The Golden Arches stand alone in front of a deserted shopping center, which, like everything else around here, was submerged under ten feet of water back in 2005. "My daughter used to work in that dollar store," drawls Claude Arnold, a native of nearby Chalmette. Like most of the pre-Katrina population here, he left before the storm hit and found nothing to returnto. "I had four inches of mud in my house. My furniture didn't look like furniture anymore."
Even with the sun shining, it's barely 40 degrees outside, and there's a stiff wind blowing off Lake Pontchartrain. Or is it coming from the Mississippi? Or the Gulf? Or one of the many canals? Or the marshlands? News flash: there's a lot of water around here. In any event, the Camaro's seat heaters are much appreciated, even if they don't provide as much bum-scorching comfort as those in convertibles like the Mazda Miata. There are a few other signs that the Camaro's cabin wasn't originally designed for top-down duty. The morning sun completely washes out the center radio display, and utility, already in short supply in the coupe, predictably becomes even more of a precious commodity. The trunk holds a respectable 10.2 cubic feet of luggage but shrinks to 7.9 with the top down. Whatever goes in there must fit through an acorn-size opening due to the trunk lid's origami cutline. On the plus side, the sunshine brings the dark interior out of the shadows, relieving the coupe's cavelike atmosphere.
With a healthy coating of McGrease in our bellies, we stop for some fruit. Philip Gomez, understandably stunned by the arrival at his roadside fruit stand of one of the first new Camaro convertibles in existence, barely lets us pay him for a grapefruit. A shrimper until very recently, Gomez reminds us that Katrina isn't the only disaster the area has recently weathered.
"We're not really making any money right now," he says, explaining that the BP oil spill ran his catch down to about 600 shrimp per day, from an early season average of 2000. Like most of the fishermen around here, he argues that the money made during the cleanup hardly fixes matters. "BP thinks they did us a favor [by hiring fishermen for the cleanup]. They ain't done us no favor."
As we head south toward the fishing village of Delacroix, the traffic clears enough to make way for the LS3 V-8's 426 hp. We wondered at first if the weight gained in chopping off the top-a shocking 258 pounds-would tame the V-8's bite. But through some engineering voodoo, the car feels as strong as ever even at a certifiably porky 4116 pounds, and the droptop will likely get the same 16/24 mpg city/highway rating as the coupe. The Camaro still doesn't jump off the line as ferociously as the lighter, live-rear-axle Ford Mustang, but the pushrod V-8 rips and snorts up to its 6600-rpm redline with an eagerness that puts most overhead-cam engines to shame. The Camaro's clutch and six-speed manual transmission are satisfyingly beefy, and the $380 Hurst short-throw shifter is very precise. (Convertibles equipped with an automatic transmission put out a slightly less impressive 400 hp and have a 6200-rpm redline.)
Delacroix was familiar with the dangers of flooding long before Hurricane Katrina. The camps here, mostly seasonal homes for sport and professional fishermen, were already raised on stilts. The storm surge, once it had blasted across the shriveled marshlands, knocked out the stilts and then the houses, too. Sometimes the water deposited them hundreds of feet away, along with the occasional upturned boat. More often, it simply wiped them off the face of the earth. "This all used to be houses and camps," Arnold says of the mostly desolate roadside. "It all disappeared without a trace, like it had never been there." Most haunting, though, are the trees. The few that still stand are visibly contorted and bent, as if still screaming in agony from the fury of the storm. Amazingly, little buds of green sprout from their branches.
The mostly empty two-lane road follows the gently meandering waterline -- about as close to a handling course as we'll find in this part of Louisiana. GM boasts that the convertible's platform, fortified with braces across the front strut tower and the transmission tunnel, has better torsional stiffness than that of a BMW 3-series droptop. It also still carries its flab fairly evenly, with a 52/48 weight distribution. That means the coupe and the convertible can share the same suspension setup, retuned slightly in both models to reduce understeer. Whether it's those tweaks or merely the power of suggestion, the Camaro does seem livelier. Thundering down one of the lazy bends at about 80 mph, the Camaro responds readily to throttle adjustments, even shrugging its hips gently at the lift of the gas pedal. The primary problem the Camaro has in the twisties remains one of perception. It simply feels too big and bulky to dance in corners like a true sports car. Rumor has it that the closely related Holden Commodore will soon receive increased aluminum parts content in an effort to lose weight. Let's hope the Camaro, which was engineered largely in Australia, will also benefit from that diet.
As we head out of Delacroix and start back toward the city, we finally submit to Old Man Winter and close the cloth roof. For about five minutes. It's not that there's anything wrong with the top-up experience. In fact, it's extremely quiet for a ragtop, and sight lines are no worse than the coupe's. No, the problem is that the attention and excitement that come with driving al fresco in a car so fast, sexy, and unapologetically masculine are dangerously addictive to the male ego. So, down goes the top at the next stop sign -- any faster than a crawl and it doesn't operate -- off goes the traction control, and on comes the classic rock. A dumped clutch, a nailedthrottle, and some opposite lock later, we're fishtailing back west toward the city to the competing sounds of V-8 roar and Jethro Tull. With all due respect to the jazz band that performed in the car for a photo, this is Camaro music.
We abruptly turn down the radio as we cross back into Orleans Parish and make our way into the Lower Ninth Ward. Children should be coming back from school about now, but the streets are nearly empty. The only sounds are those of distant construction -- work continues on higher levees here and all over town -- and chained-up dogs barking. The roads here are the worst we've seen in the city. The Camaro's independent rear suspension and stiff structure take the bumps and divots in stride, but this is nevertheless no place for a convertible. The raison d'être for top-down cruising is to take in the sights and sounds of the outside world. Here, the sights and sounds overwhelmingly are those of abandonment and misery. Most of the homes remain as the water left them, with caved-in walls, blue tarp roofs, and rubble-filled yards. Next to each door, faded spray-paint Xs -- the rushed written language of rescue workers -- tell the human tragedy. No one found in this house, two bodies in another. Every other block or so, one finds a rebuilt house -- the population stands at about twenty percent of pre-Katrina levels and is slowly growing -- but these homes, usually fenced off and patrolled by one of those dogs, hardly have the feel of a happy homecoming. A woman leaning out of her window as we idle on her lonely street describes life in the Lower Ninth as "OK." "What could be better?" we ask her. "A whole lot could be better," she replies resignedly.
Even here one can find signs of rebuilding among the devastation. There's a whole division of environmentally sound, modern homes built with help from actor Brad Pitt and charitable organizations. At present, none of these homes would realistically sell for market value. The hope is that, eventually, they'll stimulate natural redevelopment, but when we pass through, there seem to be more people shooting photos and videos of the bizarre-looking houses than there are actual residents. On the north side, by the infamous levee, University of Colorado students have built a viewing platform looking out on the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, the marsh that once afforded this area storm protection and perhaps will again if wetland-restoration efforts succeed. Sixty-three-year-old native John Taylor, lifelong resident of an address that technically no longer exists, stands vigil over the platform. He nearly chases us away, but once he's convinced we're not "hoodlums," he philosophizes on where his city went wrong. "We forgot what was most important -- each other."
Back in the French Quarter later that evening, a street performer named Stick's (he insists on the apostrophe) also speaks of the need for communal responsibility. He is selling CDs to help children in the Iberville housing project. Or maybe he's a con man who cheated us out of $20. The sun is setting and music is already thumping as the bars open their doors for the night's debauchery. With a maze of one-way streets and police barricades, the Quarter is a nightmarish place to drive. We take advantage of our snail's pace by making a racket. Automatic-equipped SS convertibles need a slightly modified exhaust to hide the sound of cylinder deactivation, but our stick-shifted car requires only a blip of the throttle to send sweet pushrod V-8 music resonating through the balconies, the occasional pop-pop of overrun turning heads once more. "You know what this city is based on?" Stick's asks rhetorically -- before he takes our $20 without handing us a CD. "This city is based on music."
Having seen the miles upon miles of still-fresh devastation, we wonder how true his statement is. You might also wonder how a zaftig, impractical convertible really helps GM. Indeed, the jazz players, the cuisine, and the charming shysters of the French Quarter won't save New Orleans any more than a throwback muscle car will save GM, but that's OK. If you want to get a realistic picture of General Motors and New Orleans, rent a Chevy Cruze from Avis and drive east toward Saint Bernard Parish. That won't tell you why each entity was worth saving, but we will: the jazz bands, the gumbo, the French Quarter characters, and the top-down, dumped-clutch, tire-squealing thrill of the Camaro convertible.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible
PRICE: $37,500/$42,380 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 16-valve OHV V-8
DISPLACEMENT: 6.2 liters (376 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 426 hp @ 5900 rpm
TORQUE: 420 lb-ft @ 4600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
STEERING: Hydraulically assisted, rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES: Vented discs, ABS
TIRES: Pirelli PZero
TIRE SIZE F, R: 245/45YR-20, 275/40YR-20
L x W x H: 190.4 x 75.5 x 54.7 in
WHEELBASE: 112.3 in
TRACK F/R: 63.7/63.7 in
WEIGHT: 4116 lb
FUEL MILEAGE: 16/24 MPG (EST.)
We'd need six months in New Orleans to visit every highly recommended restaurant. If you're in town, ask every local you meet about the places they patronize. Here are the few we can vouch for:
841 Iberville Street
If you can stand a little -- OK, a lot -- of noise with your dinner, this casual dining restaurant will do fine. The menu is packed with New Orleans staples, and unlike some other seafood restaurants, the portions-and the drinks-are generous enough to satisfy the most demanding appetites.
Café du Monde
800 Decatur Street
A New Orleans classic and a popular tourist stop for good reason. We highly recommend the perfectly fried, sugar-dusted beignets -- a good thing, since that's the only food item on the menu. The French Quarter location is open twenty-four hours a day, making it the perfect final indulgence after a long, lively night.
Bon Ton Café
401 Magazine Street
You can order your food as spicy as you like here, but owners Wayne and Debbie Pierce say the authentic Cajun (not to be confused with Creole) food they serve needs no hot sauce at all. They should know, since this is the oldest surviving Cajun restaurant in the city.