The first conversation we had with Jeff Lutz came after he blew the tires away on his first run. “Did you floor it off the line?” he asked as he came back into staging. “Oh, god, no,” we answered. “Put the throttle down gently. Like you’re handing a baby to someone.” Then he took our advice and beat us. The jerk.
We didn’t know how good the 2016 Chevy Camaro was when we invited professional drag racer Lutz to help us dragstrip test it at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona. In fact, we were worried that Lutz wouldn’t have a good time. After all, he builds drag cars for a living and spends most of the year at racetracks, either supporting customers or behind the wheel of his own 2,500hp race car. We figured he’d be bored with a 455hp SS. That was underestimating both Lutz’s love of racing and the capabilities of the sixth-gen Camaro.
The Camaro started impressing us long before we got it on track. We picked up two 2016 SS cars in Dallas and had a day to get them to Phoenix in time to race Lutz, and from there we had to drop them off in Los Angeles. You can learn a lot about a car in 1,500 miles.
Walking up to the 2016 model is like playing one of those “spot the difference” memory games. If there isn’t a fifth-gen parked nearby, you might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed. The new car keeps the wide-hipped, muscle-car profile, with the same love-it-or-hate-it high cowl and low roofline. The grille shapes and patterns have changed, but they are in familiar places. The new hood moves the highlights of the center bulge to side-placed vents, and in the back, the taillights have a jaunty little angle to them. The Camaro has always been a good-looking machine, so we understand the reluctance to do more than the barest nip/tuck. The problem with the subtle redesign is that potential customers might miss how radical the 2016 Camaro’s changes really are.
The sixth-gen is an entirely different machine. The 2016 has all-new underpinnings, and that freed up the engineers to make the car lighter and better-handling. Much of the floor stampings are similar to the Cadillac ATS coupe, which shares the Camaro’s Alpha platform, but the Camaro isn’t a Cadillac with a sporty body. It’s stiffer and lighter than the ATS, with an increased track width, a longer wheelbase, and unique suspension geometry.
The weight is what everyone has been talking about. The Camaro SS shed more than 200 pounds compared to the 2015 car—although our heavily optioned test car put most of that back on, and our frequent Texas BBQ stops probably added another hundy to the total. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s not the car’s weight loss so much as the remaining weight placement that makes the 2016 SS so much better than its predecessors. Chevrolet went techy in the material choices, matching each part of the chassis and body to exactly the right kind of steel to add strength and rigidity with less mass. Cut a piece out of the windshield pillars and it won’t be the same metal making up the doorjambs. Bolt lengths were measured and trimmed so there isn’t a single fastener adding more ounces than necessary. The result is noticeable from the first time you take a corner. We put more road miles on our two test cars than most customers will in their first year of ownership, and we found the car was responsive on quick, curvy roads, but still comfortable and solid on long highway stretches—and Texas is all about long highway stretches.
Chevy offers a turbo-four, a six-cylinder, and the one we care about, the direct-injected LT1 6.2L V8. The LT1 in the Camaro shares most of its design with the Corvette Stingray, the most noticeable differences being the oil pan, tri-Y headers, and supposedly, five less horses. The Corvette engine is rated at 460, the Camaro at 455, but based on our dyno test of the manual car—where it made an impressive 405.2 hp and 405.4 lb-ft at the wheels on its best run—we think the ponycar might be packing just as much as its sportscar brother. It’s easy to get jaded about horsepower numbers, but when we stopped to check out Stewarts Petrified Woods in Holbrook, Arizona, the clerk asked us the power, and then said, “Wow, what’s top speed? 300 mph?” He was serious.
We had two cars for our drive: a stripped-down 1SS with the Tremec TR6060 six-speed (MSRP $37,295) and a lux 2SS with sunroof, magnetic ride control shocks, speed-enhancing black stripes, and the eight-speed 8L90 Hydra-Matic (MSRP $47,750). Both cars offered the dual-mode (NPP code) exhaust, something that made blipping the throttle at each other on the road-trip portion of the drive that much more entertaining. In cars equipped with the NPP exhaust, a huge transverse muffler is divided in two internally for each bank of the engine leading out to four exhaust tips. A butterfly valve can either let the exhaust flow through unobstructed or detour through the muffler. Tour mode lets the LT1 come to life at full volume on startup—so you can impress folks in the grocery-store parking lot or roadside fossil stand—then the valve closes for quiet cruising. In Sport and Track mode, it’s open all the time. Snow/Ice mode leaves it closed all the time. We did not use Snow/Ice mode, not even when we were driving through snow and ice. A little HOT ROD advice here: never press a button that gives you less horsepower.
Speaking of buttons, the Camaro has really stepped up the interior options. The dash design features a step-down that breaks up the long, dust-collecting expanse of modern safety requirements. The generous 8-inch center screen, standard in all 2016 Camaros, is tilted downward slightly to reduce glare. Those who are averse to smudged touchscreens can rely on the buttons on the steering wheel and below the screen. Also good for the tactile driver are the textured silver bezels surrounding the air vents that rotate to control temperature and fan speed. You don’t realize how nice it is to be able to change settings without having to take your eyes off the road until you’re frantically turning the heat up during a freak snowstorm on an Arizona mountain road because your fellow editor nabbed the 2SS with its heated seats and steering wheel.
Even without luxurious bum-warming, the Camaro’s seats are the most comfortable of any new car we’ve been in. There’s a huge range of travel that accommodated both the shortest and tallest drivers on the HOT ROD staff. In the LT-package car, we had cloth seats and a lot of plastic, although nicer plastic than in previous generations. The upscale interior in the 2SS is the best a Camaro cockpit has looked since the houndstooth seats of the late-1960s, with soft, leather-wrapped panels and customizable mood lighting that we made fun of, but then played with for an hour and half. Not only are the seats comfortable but the entire driving position is excellent. The flat-bottomed steering wheel gives you plenty of legroom, and the shifter in the manual car is a satisfying snick-snick to the chosen gear. We especially noticed the well-balanced pedals; there was none of that heavy throttle and overly touchy stopper mismatch. In the three-pedal car, the clutch balances perfectly with the brake and gas. It’s a small thing, but makes the driving experience that much better.
That’s not to say everything about the new design is perfect. We wanted a smaller Camaro, and GM gave us one. You can’t lose weight and inches without sacrificing some cabin space. The rear seats are about as useful as the hollow benches in a F.A.S.T.-class car. Chevy should have saved some money and just gone with jump seats like in a 1990s pickup truck. At least then one passenger in the back could have had legroom. Even in the front passenger seat, space is at a minimum, as the Camaro transmission tunnel placement favors the driver. Behind the wheel, there’s plenty of space, so if you consider it a single-seater, then it’s huge.
The ongoing complaint about visibility is still valid thanks to that low roofline, but complaining about it takes longer than simply checking your mirrors. We had one car with blind-spot warnings and one without, and both made it 3,000 miles with no collision damage. Rearward visibility is compromised by the tall decklid and spoiler when backing up, making the rear-facing camera a necessity. They’ll be mandatory on all light vehicles sold in North America by 2018, anyway, so just get ahead of the curve.
Small quibbles aside, we came into our track test feeling pretty fond of the new Camaro, and we had every confidence that it would make its promised press release e.t.’s of 12.50 for the six-speed manual and 12.30 for the automatic. In fact, with our hot-shoe driver and mineshaft desert air, we thought we just might be able to beat Chevy’s drag numbers. Our track preparation for both cars was the same: half a tank of gas and cleaning all the empty coffee cups and Red Bull cans from our 16-hour commute out of the consoles and cupholders. Tires were the stock Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 245/40ZR20 (front) and 275/35ZR20 (rear) rubber run at street pressures on 20-inch aluminum wheels.
Wild Horse Pass is an excellent track. We had careful prep on the starting line, but it was still what we’d consider a “street-car” preparation—sticky for the launch and clean down the rest of the quarter-mile. The perfect weather and fantastic surface deserve a nod, but most of the credit for the incredible times we saw belongs to the Camaro. The car is an absolute darling on a dragstrip. Once you get the hang of the baby-passing launch, both the manual and the auto track straight and true, pulling the whole way. We traded off best runs with Lutz in the 2SS, hovering in the 12.30 mark from the get-go until he pulled ahead with a 12.28 at 114.38 mph. Then we got a 12.23. Then he got a 12.21. Then the track officials pointed out that between the two cars we’d made more than 80 passes, and timeslips were floating around the start line like dollar bills after a bank heist. Translation: our track rental was up. How does a day go so fast 12 seconds at a time? The end result was a best e.t. for the automatic of 12.21 at 114.93. The manual put down a 12.40 at 115.30. On a few runs, we saw top speeds of almost 116, and one particularly good launch netted a 60-foot time of 1.87—most of the fast-pass 60-foots were in the 1.9 range. Our conclusion? The car is way quicker than its advertised e.t.’s and could be even quicker than any of our e.t.’s, given a sticky track and a patient throttle application.
We made our best pass in a customized version of Track mode, with the suspension in the softer Touring setting—something that could only be changed in the magnetic ride control (MRC)–equipped car. Lutz went full Track and made the quickest pass of the day with the stiffer settings. New car modes can be trickier than they seem, much of the changes dependent on what the engineers consider a “track.” For example, in a Dodge Hellcat, “Track” mode uses more anti-slip than “Sport” mode to get you out of road-course corners with less tire spin. In the Camaro’s sophisticated brother, the Z06, there are five different variations of more or less digital babysitting, with the top setting being minimal interference—right before you turn it all off. We call that mode, “You’re on your own, kid.”
We checked in with Camaro’s lead development engineer, Aaron Link, to see if there were any behind-the-scenes details of mode changes that we were missing, but it turns out the Camaro is pretty straightforward. The mode changes do not affect the traction control, so any performance mode can be made into “You’re on your own, kid,” simply by holding down the traction-control (TC) button on the console. There is a secret “relaxed” mode that gives you some but not all of the traction control. You can get that from a double tap on the TC button. It might be good for cautious road-course use, but for drag racing, you want it all off.
You’d expect Track mode to be the most aggressive, and it is, with the stiffest suspension, tighter steering response—slightly too touchy for the street, in our opinion—and harder, quicker shifts. The exhaust note is louder and it offers launch control. The one surprise is that the throttle response in Track mode is, not slowed down exactly, but made more subtle. “It’s a slower ramp in the Track mode,” Link says. “A more elastic throttle, to offer better control on a road course.” This less aggressive throttle response might have had the added benefit of assisting with the launch at the dragstrip. The hardest part about getting any foot-braked, street-tire car down a dragstrip is the delicate application of the gas pedal.
Much as it pained us, the automatic car is quickest if you let it make the shifts for you. The paddles are slow to respond, and there’s just no way to beat the machine if you flip through the gears by hand. The six-speed car is easy to launch and a pleasure to shift. Its slower times have more to do with gearing than shifting. Although its 3.73 rear gears are lower than the auto’s 2.77, the transmission ratios end up giving the automatic a definite starting-line advantage with a final ratio of 4.56. Yeah, that’s a sweet number for a car that can cruise 90 mph on the highway at 1,800 rpm. Despite that, the manual car is much more fun on the street, and that’s the option we’d check off on a dealer order form if we were in the market for a new Camaro.
So, new car shoppers, should you buy the sixth-gen Camaro? A resounding yes. There’s nothing about the fifth-gen that isn’t a thousand times better in the new car. Hell, we just ran the same e.t. numbers in the SS that people were barely making in the fifth-gen ZL1. Was Lutz bored? “It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a track just having fun, not wrenching on anything.” he said. “It’s amazing you can just go out and buy something that runs like this—just fast hot laps, no problems.” Can you imagine what the performance package cars are going to offer us? Watch out Hellcat, and Mustang who?