2016 Camaro: The Shape-Shifter Chevy
The Asphalt Jungle
I've been in the business of testing and reviewing automobiles for so long (man, that very first self-starter changed everything), usually I know pretty much what to expect when I show up to evaluate the "all-new" version of an existing model. It'll look the same, but different. It'll have a little more power, a tad more room, sip a bit less gas. The cabin will sport a few new electronic gizmos and maybe an additional air bag or two. But the fundamental personality will be the same. The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata is a lithe, low-powered roadster that excels at nipping through twisty two-lanes—just like the original from a quarter-century ago. The seventh-gen Volkswagen GTI is a feisty hot hatch whose core DNA—versatile packaging mixed with refined sportiness—hasn't changed since the first one stormed Europe in 1976. And so it goes. If you've spent any time behind the wheel of an existing car, when it's time to pilot the new one, you know what you're going to get.
Then I drove the 2016 Chevy Camaro. And I didn't recognize it at all.
Before I proceed, allow me to admit that I've never been a Camaro guy. Yes, over the years Chevy has built some appealing versions—among them, the first-gen car introduced for the 1967 model year (always loved the look) and last year's track-optimized Z/28 (heroic performance from the LS7 V-8). But every time I've driven a Camaro, it's felt unnecessarily heavy and big-boned. The cockpits have tended to have more in common with dungeons than greenhouses; they're gloomy and low (and you get yelled at if you don't put on your restraints). The straight-line speed has usually been there, but turning the wheel typically hasn't produced much in the way of handling euphoria. Refinement? Not so much. Instead, the Camaro has always been like your loud, lumbering Uncle Jim: great to watch the football game with, but at Thanksgiving dinner you're always afraid he might start spouting dirty limericks.
Thus my shock the first time I test-fired a 2016 Camaro SS across a stretch of wriggling asphalt. Huh? Instead of darkness and bulk there were light and visibility and a neatly trimmed hood out front. The six-speed manual shifter rowed as expertly as a member of the Harvard crew churning up the Charles, while astutely placed pedals allowed effortless heel-and-toe maneuvers. The V-8 was spooling out power with the smoothness of a con artist. The chassis was alive in my hands, cutting and swerving like a cheetah on the attack.
Clearly, I had accidentally driven off in somebody's BMW
It's hard to overstate just what a leap this 2016 Chevrolet Camaro represents. The new edition isn't simply the latest upgrade in a long line of Camaros. It's a shape-shifter. It feels different at its very core, as if its genes had mutated to produce an entirely new specimen, one barely recognizable as belonging to the family lineage.
Of course, the new Alpha platform, shared with the Cadillac ATS and CTS, accounts for much of the metamorphosis. The previous Zeta architecture, developed largely by Holden of Australia, was simply too big and weighty to play on the A-list. So as early as 2006-2007 the General gamely set out to create more compact, better-balanced, and far lighter underpinnings. The result, largely engineered in North America (with some input from GM Europe), would feature struts up front, an independent five-link setup at the rear, and lots of high-strength steel and aluminum. There were teething problems (General Motors initially struggled with creeping bulk on its new ATS), but since then the Camaro team has managed to create a body-in-white 136 pounds lighter than the original Alpha. Chassis stiffness has increased 28 percent over the outgoing Camaro coupe. The new platform has a liveliness and leanness Zeta never did. With the optimized Alpha as its foundation, at long last the Camaro is actually spry.
Team Camaro looked far beyond the platform, though, in the quest to eliminate unnecessary poundage. Engineers shaved millimeters of extra threads off bolts. The SS's wheels are a half-inch wider but 6 ounces lighter than the gen five's. An aluminum instrument panel frame saves 9.2 pounds over the previous steel version. Aluminum front links and rear steel links drilled for lightness cut 26 pounds off suspension weight. All told, the new SS weighs 223 pounds less than its 2015 counterpart. It's all the result of some 9 million hours of computer modeling spent perfecting the weight/strength balance of various structures. Indeed, the new Camaro is about as "clean sheet" as an upgrade of an existing model gets. Roughly 70 percent of the structural parts are unique to the car. And on the SS, only two pieces carry over from 2015: the Chevy bow tie and SS badges.
The new Camaro is a tad smaller than its predecessor. It's 2.3 inches shorter in length, 1.1 inches shorter in height, and just under an inch narrower. There's a payoff here, too. Lower body weight equals less mass needed in the suspension equals less unsprung mass equals better steering and handling feel. It's an improvement I could feel immediately. Perhaps even more noteworthy, though, was what I could see. Camaro devotees have long admonished Chevy not to mess with the car's stubby side windows and rakish roofline. Others of us, though, have long derided the resulting "gun slit" view from the driver's seat. The 2016 edition solves the problem—likely to the satisfaction of previous critics and fans alike. Cowl height (where the windshield meets the hood) has dropped significantly, so much so that the cockpit now feels genuinely airy with excellent visibility to the front quarters. A roof-mounted, frameless rearview mirror also improves forward sightlines. Yet the side windows are still only about 10 inches high, and the 2016 edition remains—even at a quick glance—unmistakably a Camaro.
With Chevy having sweated the details so successfully, the Camaro SS' bravura components—the 455-hp LT1 V-8, the magnetic-ride shocks, the Brembo brakes, the available dual-mode exhaust—simply sing. This is a thrilling, quick, deliciously responsive sports coupe, a road athlete in peak form.
No car in my recent memory has improved as much in a single generation as has this 2016 Chevrolet Camaro. It's a testament to the engineering team and their game-changing machine that, after my first test drive, I actually got out and triple-checked that it wore Camaro badges. I'm not even kidding.