We Test Drove the 2016 Camaro And It Is Glorious

Chevrolet's Pony car, now in Fun Size.
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Chevrolet's Pony car, now in Fun Size.
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The setup was simple: sprint across the deep South, from Orlando to New Orleans in the 2016 Camaro get acquainted with the new design. It was basically Smokey and the Bandit, without the police chase or contraband beer. But substitute a bright yellow Camaro RS for Burt Reynolds’ black Pontiac Trans-Am, and it is pretty much the same thing.

The car is a rip-roaring, 335-horsepower rocket with a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission and an active muffler system that lets the motor sing at full throttle. Coincidentally, that is the same horsepower as the legendary ’68 Plymouth Road Runner 383 and the ’69 Mustang Mach 1 428 Cobra Jet.

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Those cars would evaporate their inadequately skinny rear tires into a blue haze with so much as a glance at the gas pedal, but the ’16 Camaro rolls on fat modern tires mounted to 20-inch wheels and it clamps down on the action with Brembo performance brakes, so the package not only accelerates, but it stops and turns too.

Camaro program manager Jim Kalahar promised I’d like the exhaust note, and he was right.Aat speed, the Camaro makes the kind of noises that encourage ticket-worthy behavior. But that’s no surprise from a noted juvenile delinquent like a Camaro, is it?

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It is notable when the Camaro in question is powered by a V6 engine instead of the traditional V8. The V6 engines in Pony cars like the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger have been getting progressively more powerful, genuinely delivering the kind of performance once proved by their V8 forebears.

But they have been hopelessly inadequate in aural performance, which is a critical aspect of appreciating the act of enjoying an enthusiast car like the Camaro.  European six-cylinders from Alfa Romeo, BMW and Porsche have long shown that it is possible for these engines to produce sounds as invigorating as those from a V8, though they are of a different timbre.

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Finally, Chevrolet captured some of that delight with the Camaro’s active exhaust system which, like the one on the Corvette Z06 rocket sled, uses valves to bypass the muffler when you’re driving hard and want to hear the engine’s response. That combines with plumbing that directs intake sound from the engine to the cabin to provide an unexpectedly satisfying soundtrack for the V6 Camaro.

My test car featured a six-speed manual transmission for maximum enthusiast engagement, and it proved to be as surprising as the engine’s exhaust note. The slick shifter flicks between gears with just a twitch of the wrist rather than the whole-arm action typical among American manual shifters.

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And the shifter suffers none of the play or excessive travel that the beefier transmission used for V8 Camaro exhibits. Clutch pedal action is light, with excellent feel for the friction point, making the Camaro easy to drive in the unexpected traffic jam encountered in Panama City Beach as that resort geared up for the weekend’s Ironman Florida event. Talk about having a long way to go and a short time to get there! At least The Bandit had a car.

Although the sheet metal appears only slightly changed, the '16 Camaro moves to GM’s Alpha platform, which it shares with cars like the Cadillac ATS. The body shell is 133 pounds lighter, and the car is about two inches shorter, an inch narrower and an inch lower than the 2015 model. Overall, the V6 model tested is 294 lbs. less than last year’s car.

Camaro was already the smallest of the three Pony cars, and this latest reduction brings it back into line with the category’s roots. Now every dimension is nearly identical to that of the first-generation 1967-’69 Camaro, while today’s Mustang and Challenger continue to dwarf their progenitors.

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The outgoing generation Camaro was justly criticized for a cabin that was a black hole of cheap-looking hard plastic. Cost constraints haven’t gone away, but the Chevy guys did a better job this time choosing where to spend a little money and where they could use that black plastic.

My favorite innovation: you adjust the temperature for the climate control by twisting the bezel surrounding the center air vents in the dash. It is a simple, self-evident way to clear some controls from the dashboard.

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Less successful: the elimination of a tuning knob from the audio system. Rather than the conventional rotary volume knob on the right and tuning knob on the left, the Camaro has a single volume knob in the center, leaving you to press buttons or use the video screen to change music channels or sources.

This is complicated by the integration of Apple CarPlay, which operates separately from the car’s other on-screen functions, so you have to back out to the main menu to switch to or from CarPlay and a built-in function. The software managing CarPlay is still buggy, so sometimes the on-screen display of the Apple Maps app from my phone would freeze, or fail to dim to night mode when the headlights were on. I also experienced the volume control deciding to control only the volume of the navigation audio prompts and not the music I was playing.

All the problems I encountered were solved by either unplugging and reconnecting the phone or by restarting the app in question, but these are exactly the kinds of distractions carmakers keep promising they will minimize but instead worsen with the addition of still more poorly integrated new technology.

From the passenger’s side, I missed the grab handle above the window. The Cadillac ATS has one there, so obviously it is in the corporate parts bin. Chevy needs to add it to the Camaro for 2017.

And the back seat? Well, it is a Camaro back seat. Which means that it is possible to put two adults back there for a quick run to a restaurant for a double date, but don’t expect them to be comfortable along the way or for them to enter or exit gracefully.

The test Camaro’s price tag totaled $38,815, because it had the RS package, Brembo brakes, 20-inch wheels and other goodies piling on to the $30,795 base price.

EPA gas mileage numbers haven’t been released yet, but I saw 24 mpg in two days of fairly high-speed highway driving. While that is certainly an improvement over the classic Pony cars, GM’s modern small block V8 engine is astonishingly efficient, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it could match this mileage.

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I made it to New Orleans with just a single pit stop for gas, where I was under the watchful eye of the local sheriff. Unlike Buford T. Justice, he chose not to pursue us across state lines. Maybe he knew he was outgunned by the Camaro’s V6.

For the latest car news, follow @MaximRides and Dan Carney on Twitter.

Photos by General Motors Co.