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.

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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.

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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.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

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.

SS all the way

Our early drive in the V-6 was admittedly brief until last week. We went to Hell and back (yes, Hell), not for the usual reasons, but for a chance to drive the V-6 again and the Camaro SS, automatic and manual, steel suspension and magnetic dampers, at some length, back to back.

Our conclusions? Unsurprising at the flyover level. The V-6 is fine. Step into the SS, nail the throttle, and you'll know what it's like to take a 10-yard rifleshot pass to the numbers.

The SS does not play. It is a pure muscle car--if you're looking just through that lens. Stuffed with a 6.2-liter LT1 V-8 shared with the Corvette, it posts output of 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque. It's fitted with its own exhaust manifolds and other assorted updates, about 20 percent of new hardware versus the Corvette's LT1.

On the V-8, the six-speed manual's an upgraded Tremec with rev-matching, which blips the throttle for smoother engagement when it senses a shift initiating. The blipping can be turned off for track driving by flicking a steering-wheel-mounted paddle. There's also an eight-speed automatic for everyone too busy texting to drive with both hands.

We've seen early 0-60 mph runs of less than four seconds--transformative power for a Camaro that hasn't even been visited by the forced-induction fairy yet. It's pushing so much eight-cylinder basso profundo through the exhaust, it's hard to care what's going on with other parts of the car for the first mile or so.

The transmission choices still are a toss-up. The six-speed manual has rev-matching and amazing shift quality, but still has the fuel-economy penalty of skipping from 1 to 4 to boost efficiency. It's closely related to its #GiveAShift cousins at Caddy, with the same final-drive ratio, just staged differently, with tighter gear ratios over the rest of the span. A seven-speed was discussed, but won't be adopted: both it, and a plug-in hybrid system that exist in the GM powertrain universe, simply won't fit in the new Camaro's tightly packaged body.

The automatic? Pretty compelling for what it is, with hammer-down shifts that make us wonder why the world's bothering with nine-speed automatics with lumpy shift quality. This one's brutally efficient but not brutal in everyday driving.

Handling is where the Camaro peels off the muscle-car label for good, and slaps it on the back of some other unsuspecting hardware. It's narrower and leaner in absolute terms: it’s how much lighter it feels that’s so impressive.The body itself shares some big pieces in common with the Cadillac ATS and CTS, structural pieces like the engine rails, trunk floor, and frame rails. The CTS-V donates its electric power steering gear, though it's fitted with longer tie rods because of the wider span between the wheels. At the rear, the five-link design can be fitted with GM's excellent Magnetic Ride Control adaptive dampers--this year, on the Camaro SS options list for the first time.

Four-piston Brembo brakes are standard, tucked behind 18-inch wheels and Goodyear Eagle Sport tires. Twenty-inch wheels with Eagle F1 run-flat tires are an option on the Camaro LT, while SSs get standard 20-inch versions of the same tire.

Even in Tour mode, the Camaro's steering is hefty, but quick to cut a line. Dial it up to Sport, and it's so locked down, it follows the surface of the road with SAT-test-day intensity. That's where the magnetic dampers make perfect sense: Camaros that ride on the standard 18-inch wheels and tires don't bobble or dance too much, but by the time you're into the big 20-inchers, the Camaro can jackhammer over crappy roads and skitter over imperfect road surfaces like the ones Michigan seems to have patented a generation ago. 
It's not what we'd call punishing, and an SS with the conventional suspension is still able to keep its composure when you're flying above posted limits through barely populated farmland. It's more about the positive, the magnitude of calmness the magnets induce in the Camaro's mood. The mag-shocks slice that bump-steering behavior off at the knees, blunting the impacts, letting the Camaro cruise over blacktop moguls like it's cruising toward at least a bronze medal.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Art appreciation

It's been six months since I saw the Camaro in the metal for the first time, and I still c
an't decide if I like the look or if I think the balance between its haunches and rear pillars is off. The thin-grille, big-intake front end isn't quite as neat as the last-generation car, but all the menace is intact when the Camaro's seen from the side. Make it black, but spice it up with one of the interior trim kits that polish off the cockpit with splashes of red, blue, yellow, or neutrals.

In that completely restyled and recontoured cockpit, the Camaro addresses most of the biggest shortcoming of the past. The last-generation effort looked thrifty and under-detailed. Understandably, Chevy engineers are proud of the new cabin, which lowers the console to give the coupe a more open feel. The nits to pick are few. There still are some hard plastics but they're matte-finished. The k
nit nylon seats on base cars offer good support, but have feeling of discount sportswear; the SS seats are stouter and slippery in leather.

The sculptural body doesn't offer any more interior volume, but that reshaped console and a lower dash structure look more spacious. Ditching features like a hand-operated parking brake and a CD player frees up space in the center stack--space that's given over to a cool pair of round vents that incorporate climate controls in their outer rings. Atop the dash on most versions is an 8.0-inch touchscreen, with a second same-size screen an option--it slots between the Camaro's big, informative dials. The center screen cants away for better visibility, giving the interior something of a war-console look. In all, the cabin has lots of intersecting pieces of trim, but comes off cohesively.

In shifting to the smaller Alpha footprint, the Camaro drops a couple hundred pounds and some inches of critical dimensions. Overall length is now 188.3 inches, down 2.3 inches; it's slimmer by 0.8 inches, at 74.7 inches wide. The roof sits 1.1 inches lower at 53.1 inches high. And at 110.7 inches, the Camaro's wheelbase is 1.6 inches shorter, with front and rear track reduced by about a half an inch.

The result is comfortably snug in front, with more headroom, but even less of a chance you'll want to be caught dead in the tiny back seat. The front seats do their part for track driving. They can be moved lower into the cabin than the chairs in the previous version--so there's hope for tall drivers trying to wear a helmet, something that was nearly impossible before.

In the back seat, engineers reformed the headliner to net an extra inch of space, even though the Camaro rides about an inch lower than before. Leg room and trunk space? Not a priority, according to engineers. Bravo. Keep this in mind: the first thing I thought when peering into the back seat was "messenger bag."

Back-seat space might be at even more of a premium in Camaro Convertible models, which get a power-operated, remote-operated top with full multi-layer construction—offering both acoustic and thermal barriers for four-season use, potentially. Convertibles have essentially the same body structure, as the Camaro was designed from the start, this time around, for a drop-top version.

What else matters? Probably just, where should you mount your radar detector

? Prices for the 2016 Camaro start at the 1LT level, powered by a turbo four, for $26,695 including destination charges. The 1LT V-6 begins at $28,490, while the 1SS is priced from $37,295. Standard equipment includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; climate control; a rearview camera; Bluetooth; and an AM/FM/XM audio system with two USB ports and an auxiliary jack, as well as Apple CarPlay (with Android Auto to follow soon). 

On the options list, there's wireless phone charging, and ambient lighting with a "car show" mode that cycles through a spectrum of colors when the car's parked. Among the other major options, a dual-mode exhaust runs $895; the automatic and the V-6 are $1,495 each; the RS package is $1,950; and on the SS, the Magnetic Ride Control is $1,695. A head-up display, navigation, ventilated front seats, a sunroof, and remote start also are available.

There's still much more to come--confirmed convertibles, hinted-at Z/28s and ZL1s. God forbid Chevy should break the Internet and drop an IROC-Z on an unsuspecting and unprepared nation of Camaro fans.

It's enough that they've dropped this 2016 Camaro on us. Chevy's come to bury the muscle car, and to praise it, all in one fell swoop.


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