Muscle-car fans have had quite a feast in the past two years, with the 707-horsepower Challenger and Charger Hellcat and the 526-hp Shelby GT350 laying untold stripes on countless roads across America. (Dozens of them may be ours. Maybe not. Prove it in court.)
But they won't be able to pass up the final course in this heated-and-compressed-dinosaur-flesh smorgasboard: the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, out this year as a coupe and lying in wait a soft-top convertible early next year.
Without straying too far from the classic muscle-car formula of low, wide, and haunchy--or in truth, all that much from the styling of the fifth-generation pony car--the Camaro manages a big transformation under the Transformers skin. It's now one of the spin-offs of GM's Alpha architecture, which means some running gear is upcycled, adapted, or otherwise shared with the Cadillac ATS and CTS, especially the V-Series versions.
What that signals to us, is that it's time to stop calling the Camaro a muscle car. No matter how much of a blast the car in question might be, the term's always been a pejorative or a slight, implying the car's only or mostly good only in a straight line.
That's not the case with the new Camaro. From crest to curve, it's a sports-car revelation like the new Mustang and especially. the Shelby. A part of GM's global luxury family at its core, but with a gutsy range of powertrains all its own, the 2016 Camaro is tight, lithe, and assassin-quick in its ultimate form.
A first track taste
The confirmed Camaro range so far includes a base turbo four-cylinder, which hasn't been in any of our hands yet. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder promises 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, with estimated performance at under 6.0 seconds to 60 mph when coupled to either a Tremec six-speed manual or an eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic. Chevy says highway fuel economy will rise above 30 miles per gallon. We'll have more on the four-cylinders at a future date.
The mid-range power unit in the new Camaro is a six-cylinder, and our first exposure to it came earlier this summer at Detroit's Belle Isle race track. Even as a V-6, the Camaro's abundantly quick and yes, even nimble. In just a few laps it was immediately clear the new Camaro was a pony car after a round of P90X—composed more of lean muscle, less barrel-chested 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 outfitted with dual-mode exhausts peel off down the pret-a-pit lane drummed up for the weekend, the six-cylinder Camaro's soundtrack could best be described as lurid. Vintage Ferrari? A little F1 flavor? Whatever you hear from it, it’s clear GM’s work on the Camaro's dual-exhaust systems and non-V-8 soundtracks has paid off.
Given the choice between automatic and manual, we’re at a loss--but the gearboxes aren't. 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 rapid-fire quick and clean.
Revisiting the V-6 last week in rural Michigan confirmed almost every good impression cast by the early track drive. Step into the Camaro and a few things are clear before the pushbutton start cues up that blatty V-6. 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 practically mandated the now-standard rearview camera. A surround-view set would be welcome, too.
The new dash has a similar volume to 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.
In between scabby pothole patches and mailbox-apexed corners, we play around with the Drive Mode Selector, which Chevy will graft on to any powertrain combination. Like similar systems, it allows drivers to fine-tune the characteristics of the car's steering, stability control, shift timing, and throttle progressions. Sport, Tour, and Snow/Ice modes are joined on the Camaro SS with a Track setting--and Chevy lets drivers customize those system settings individually, to create their own drive mode.
With the drive mode set to Sport, it’s painless and reward-rich to put the Camaro down a narrow, tight trajectory. The fifth-generation Camaro would require a lot of wheelwrighting to power its way on the same path; at times it could feel like pushing a refrigerator box with your fists. It wasn’t until the 1LE that the Camaro’s steering box felt remotely connected to the act of driving. What was a constant process is now an art of finely needling the Camaro into place.
That's in part due to better steering and in part, due to that Cadillac-genome suspension. It's a double-pivot, control-arm and strut design as in the Caddys, with the same attention to weight reduction that makes the ATS-V's suspension members look like delicate flying buttresses instead of solid blanks. In action, the setup will swear anyone off the "musclecar" thing: it feels like a few hundred pounds have come off the nose alone, the geometry and steering responsiveness are so much more true. Winding in and out of the kinkiest kinks Michigan can offer, the Camaro charms away its past. The old flaws are forgotten, the '16 Camaro is 100 percent present in every corner, with no distractions.