A first drive, of a kind
When Chevrolet opened up the gates to Detroit’s Belle Isle racetrack this weekend to Camaro fans and owners from far and wide, it opened up the floodgates, too. For the rest of this year, the automotive reaches of the Internet will spend gigabytes of data, arguing over and figuring out which new muscle car rules the roost.
Will it be the latest Mustang, or the brand-new Camaro? We don’t have a comprehensive clue just yet, but after a couple of hours’ worth of hot laps at the Belle Isle course, it’s pretty clear that the Camaro’s made a lot more effort than the Mustang to carve away at its substantial curb weight. It’s a pony car after a round of PX90—composed more of lean muscle, less barrel-chested than before.
Now for the disappointment: our early drive in prototype ’16 Camaros came only in V-6-equipped cars, though we did get to sample both the six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic. No boosted four-cylinders or whomping LT1 V-8s were anywhere to be seen, unless you count the ’15 model-year lead cars used by Chevy’s pro drivers to walk us around the tight, virtually run-off-free island circuit.
If you were distracted by all the talk of turbo fours and massive V-8s, we understand. The mid-range V-6 in the Camaro might not get the headlines, but give it some undivided attention and it shows how far Camaro engineers have gone to trim weight and to button the car down much better than before.
The six-cylinder’s a 3.6-liter unit, with direct injection and cylinder deactivation. Rated at 335 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, it’s easily a five-second car in the race to 60 mph.
It’s also an eardrum-burner. Watching a snaky line of Camaros peel off down the pret-a-pit lane drummed up for the weekend, the six-cylinder Camaro ripped out of sight accompanied by a soundtrack that’s best described as lurid. Vintage Ferrari? A little F1 flavor? Whatever you hear from it, it’s clear GM’s work on dual-exhaust systems and non-V-8 soundtracks has paid off.
A double pivot
Step into the Camaro and a few impressions ring in clearly before the pushbutton start. Slimmer pillars have cleared up the view out of the Camaro’s front glass, while a look backward suggests the lower seating position and high tail will want for any rearview camera you can find. Maybe a couple of them.
The new dash has some curves in common with the old one, but paying attention to materials and shapes gives the new Camaro cockpit a strikingly forward-thinking feel. Big digital gauges, a binnacle that looks framed by Tie Fighters, huge gimbaled air vents—it’s a gamble that’s paid off, in that the Camaro doesn’t grasp for heritage straws. It’s fresh, and it’s going to look fresh for years to come.
Fire up the V-6 via the pushbutton, slide the gearbox into go mode, and the Camaro burbles quietly until you wind it up into its meaty midrange. That’s where the enveloping snarl pours into the cockpit, and the noise amplification built into the Camaro wins you over, note by engine note. It’s a rich, mellow sound that doesn’t fray into a frantic tone even when you fling the tach needle skyward.
With the drive mode set to Sport, it’s painless and reward-rich to put the Camaro very close to the jersey barriers sitting bare inches off the door panel. The fifth-generation Camaro would power its way into the same slot, but would feel like pushing a refrigerator box with your fists. Much frontal area, so amaze. It wasn’t until the 1LE that the Camaro’s steering box felt more connected to the act of driving.
Here? That double-pivot front suspension aped from Cadillac will sway anyone. True, the Camaro’s narrower, leaner, and lighter in absolute terms: it’s how much lighter it feels that’s so impressive. It feels like a few hundred pounds have come off the nose alone, the geometry and steering responsiveness creating a real sense of true, of high fidelity. Winding in and out of a couple of Belle Isle kinks, the Camaro charms away its kludgy recent past by being a hundred percent present, no distractions.
Given the choice between automatic and manual, we’d only say to go with your gut. The six-speed shifter was as trouble-free as it could be without the rev-matching add-ons that come with the manual/V-8 pairing. The eight-speed automatic gives up nothing except lever motion, its gear changes assasin-quick and clean.
We spent a bare hour with the old and new Camaros, so there’s obviously a lot more to come. We haven’t even touched the smaller or bigger engines, haven’t heard a word on Camaro pricing—but it’s all set to dribble out throughout the summer. (We’ve also seen images of a Camaro RS, but its place in the lineup is uncertain.)
After a handful of quick uncalibrated laps, we have more Camaro questions than answers. We’ll reserve our final words for a future day, when we’ve driven all versions on public roads.
This little tease? It was brief, but it’s enough to say the chunky new Mustang’s going to look a little thick at the middle come this fall.