Of the words used to describe the Chevrolet Camaro since its 1967 model debut, “nimble” has never been one of them. (And the words that Ford Mustang fans use are all unprintable).
Yet here I am, bending the 2016 Camaro through a tight right-hander on Detroit’s Belle Isle, the 982-acre island park in the Detroit River that will host the stars of IndyCar at this year's Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. And while the all-new Camaro is no Indy racer, it’s doing itself proud on the high-speed circuit, defying its image as a car strictly for straight lines and straighter dudes from here to New Jersey.
This is Camaro’s V6 version, a top-to-bottom new 3.6-liter with a healthy 335 horsepower. The SS version, girded with the Corvette Stingray’s 455-horse, 6.2-liter LT1 V8, is AWOL, perhaps due to the narrow track’s concrete barriers that loom like tipped-over Stonehenge tablets and fairly invite a smack from an overeager journo.
Or, more likely, that GM knows the second we sample the SS, the Mustang vs. Camaro arguments and shootouts can begin, and no one’s overheated brainpan will have room for anything else. In the pony car world, this battle trumps all others. Even the 2.0-liter, 275-horse four-cylinder version, as history’s first turbocharged Camaro, brings novelty akin to the ‘Stang’s own fuel-sipping four, with promised highway economy above 30 mpg.
Traditionalists are sure to grouse about anything that doesn’t scream “muscle” like Ted Nugent in a loincloth.
But if the Camaro V6 may be the overlooked, middle-child-Marcia of the lineup, its well-matched power lets us focus on the Camaro’s comprehensive gains. Like the dynamically superlative Cadillac ATS sport sedan and coupe that shares its chassis, this Camaro sheds weight and boosts rigidity to blossom into a sharper, more engaging performance car. The lightweight metal is used for the hood, dashboard beam and the entire front suspension. The aluminum diet helps this Camaro shed between 200 and 300 pounds versus the old generation, depending on the model.
Chevy revealed no performance numbers, aside from the four-cylinder Camaro running from 0-60 mph in “well under six seconds.” The V6 feels like it will drop that into roughly the low 5-second range, with the burly SS running in the fours, and likely surpassing the 4.5 seconds of the Mustang GT.
Like the new Mustang, this sixth-gen Camaro has dialed back its cruder macho notes—think the scent of high-school shop class—for a more streamlined, less cartoonish approach. Traditionalists are sure to grouse about the softer-baked rear end, the slender incision of the upper grille and its squinting headlamps, or anything that doesn’t scream “muscle” like Ted Nugent in a loincloth.
The redesigned cabin is also less cave-like, banishing the dreary knock-knock plastic of the previous generation, and lowering that big library shelf of a dashboard by 40 mm to improve the Camaro’s notoriously poor outward visibility. Chevy’s Drive Mode Selector will let drivers dial performance to their tastes, including settings for the stellar magnetic suspension familiar to Corvette owners. Adjustable ambient lighting brings a sweeping light show to the dashboard; light a doobie, cue up “Dark Side of the Moon,” and you’re ready to rock.
Every model offers a smooth-acting six-speed manual transmission or GM’s all-new eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic, another Corvette hand-me-down.
The previous day, GM pulled out the PR stops for the Camaro’s public unveiling on Belle Isle. That included an invited contingent of lucky Camaro fanatics who’ve hustled their own pony cars to the island, famously landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York’s Central Park.
A outdoor corral of historic Camaros spotlights the early glory years of the car’s history, including some museum-ready ‘60s Z/28s. As ever, the less said about the later years the better, as the Camaro became a shadow of its muscular self, then a plastic-clad parody, until GM mercy killed it in 2002. The Camaro lay dormant until 2010, when it was revived to take on the retro-styled Mustang, and it’s been beating the Ford in sales ever since.
In the historic corral, I’m admiring the first Camaro ever built, one of 49 hand-built prototypes from the summer of ’66. Up walks Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice-president for global product, who jumps behind the wheel of the restored, Grenada Gold beauty. Reuss tells me a ‘67 Camaro was his first-ever car as a 16-year-old, one that he and his father—that would be Lloyd Reuss, the late former president of GM—paid $1,300 to bring home.
I suggest that Reuss must have engaged in some teenage hijinks on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, the famed cruising and street-racing strip where America’s earliest muscle cars were born.
Reuss swears he only babied his Camaro, a 327 cubic inch V8 version with a two-speed Powerglide transmission.
“It was just a chick getter,” Reuss says with a grin.
The new model’s chick-baiting abilities have yet to be tested. But on paper, the 2016 Camaro SS model seems set to outgun the fine new Mustang GT, at least in the drag-racing department. With roughly equal curb weight, the Chevy will bring 20 more horses, 55 more pound-feet of torque (at 455), 1.2-liters of extra V8 displacement, and a speed-efficient eight automatic gears versus the Ford’s six.
But races aren’t settled on paper. We’ll keep helmets at the ready when GM serves up the Camaro SS to settle the issue – if not the never-ending barroom debate between the apostles of Ford and Chevy.
Follow Lawrence Ulrich on Twitter at @LawrenceUlrich