The best and worst thing about the fifth-generation Camaro is that it genuinely is a concept car. "That's been our driving theme for both the coupe and convertible: execute it to look exactly like the concept car," Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser told us back in 2010. Three years of strong, growing sales have validated this approach. The only problem is that the Camaro also drives a lot like a concept car. Beyond the bad sight lines and bottleneck trunk opening, we've consistently complained about the softball-sized shifter, the hard-to-read gauges, and the enormous deep-dish steering wheel -- all details that looked cool on the floor of Detroit's Cobo Hall but don't translate to the street. When we took a 2010 Camaro SS to the track, its high curb weight, tall gearing, and tendency to understeer at the limit furthered our impression that the car, though certainly fast and capable, was meant more for cruising and looking good than satisfying the most demanding drivers.
Fortunately, the Camaro's engineering team is itself comprised of many demanding drivers, and they weren't quite satisfied, either. The most sensational result of their efforts debuted earlier this year in the form of the ZL1, which we tested and called "the most rewarding Camaro ever." The even better news, especially for those who can't pony up $55,000 for a pony car, is that many of its dynamic improvements have trickled down to a new option package for the SS called the 1LE.
"While we were doing the ZL1 we stopped along the way with the SS," Oppenheiser says.
The 1LE package is named after a showroom-stock racing version of the Camaro available from 1989 to 1992. Available as a $3500 option on the 2013 Camaro SS, it includes larger antiroll bars, retuned dampers, a unique six-speed manual transmission with more closely spaced ratios in gears one through four, a numerically higher rear axle ratio, and lighter wheels borrowed from the ZL1. These changes are in addition to the mid-cycle enhancements that have graced all V-8 Camaros, including electric power steering (developed for the ZL1 to improve feel at higher speeds), a smaller steering wheel (a late 2012 change that filtered into all Camaros) and, on coupes, revised rear-suspension geometry that mitigates understeer (part of the FE4 suspension package). Active exhausts, which bypass baffles in the mufflers at idle and under hard throttle, are finally available as an option on all SS Camaros.
These improvements don't sound very impressive individually, especially when you remember that the ZL1 needs magnetorheological dampers, unique aerodynamics, and a supercharged V-8 to achieve its ends. (It's the lack of any engine modifications, we're told, that deemed the 1LE unworthy of the Camaro's more famous track designation -- Z/28.) But it's actually the minute, attentive nature of these changes that impress us most as we push the 1LE through the familiar turns of Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. The suede, flat-bottomed wheel fits comfortably in our grip, as does the smaller shift knob. The gauges are easier to read thanks to a new font, and the tachometer now has a clearer redline marking. A new frameless mirror not only looks cool -- it's patterned after the one on Oppenheiser's '68 convertible -- but it also provides a bit more forward visibility in a car where every extra millimeter of unobstructed glass counts.
The 1LE forgoes the staggered tire setup found on other V-8 Camaros -- it uses the ZL1's front Goodyear Supercar G2 tires on all four wheels. That, combined with a much stiffer rear suspension, defeats the SS's understeer problem. Turn in is much sharper than we remember, and the back end now rotates obediently if you trail the brakes entering a turn, even if you leave stability control on in competition mode, as we did.
The changes haven't come at the expense of what we originally liked about the Camaro. The 426-hp LS3 V-8 is so flexible that, even with the shorter gearing, we're able to navigate the entire track in third gear. The Brembo brakes, also unchanged, endure the task of decelerating this 3860 pound car. (Chevy prepared our test car by pouring in racing-specific brake fluid with a higher boiling point and recommends owners do the same before heading out to the track.) And though the rear tires slide much more readily, they never feel like they are going to suddenly snap loose.
Most of all, the Camaro still looks very cool, even if we're not entirely partial to the 1LE's matte-black hood. Six years after the Camaro concept wowed auto show crowds, styling remains the car's salient selling point, one for which you'll need to sacrifice outward visibility and any hope of packing that large roller suitcase. But the tweaks the Camaro team has made across the line and to the 1LE in particular subtly change the character of the car. Much like a stiff new pair of jeans conforms to your body over time, the once all-show Camaro now feels as if it's been finessed to fit the needs of people who like to drive fast.
P.S.: We realize there's a word we've failed to include in this review: Boss. Rest assured, we have not forgotten that there also happens to be a track-tuned Ford Mustang. Stay tuned to read how it compares with the new 1LE.
On sale: Now
Engine: 6.2L V-8, 426 hp, 420 lb-ft
EPA fuel economy: 16/24 mpg