The outgoing Chevrolet Camaro is a great, terrible car. On one hand, it has enjoyed immense success since rebooting in 2010. It has outsold its archrival, Ford’s Mustang, every year through 2014, totaling more than a half-million cars. It even stars in movies, namely the “Transformers” series. Yet it’s also big, heavy, and difficult to see out of, and has a propensity for understeering through corners.
How does Chevrolet go about replacing such a successful, flawed car?
“We could have done nothing,” offers Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser, who led development of the fifth-generation car and shepherded the sixth-gen debuting this winter.
At first glance, “nothing” seems to be exactly what Chevrolet did. Camaro exterior design director Tom Peters says his team considered new styling directions, including a “very nice” design based on the second-generation Camaro—Cadillac exterior design boss Bob Boniface offered that design proposal, we hear, as he had once had an alternative for the last car. But Chevy ultimately decided to return to the first-generation car, which it characterizes as the true embodiment of the Camaro. Oppenheiser even questions why his predecessors at GM ever abandoned that look.
“They maybe didn’t understand how iconic that first-generation car was when they went to the second generation,” Oppenheiser says.
Comic nerds might call this a “retcon,” considering how Chevy sold far more Camaros in the 1970s than in the ’60s. However, a big styling changeover now might have left the general audience behind. Peters, who owns a 1969 Camaro ZL1, recalls his teenage disappointment when the Camaro changed from the first-generation’s masculine design to the far daintier look of the 1970 1/2 model.
Classic proportions make the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro recognizable from 50 feet away. The hood is so low that engineers needed to install the shock-tower studs with their threads facing down. SS models employ the Corvette’s 6.2-liter LT1 V-8; here it will put down 455 hp, matching the base ’Vette. But most sixth-gen Camaros will feature either a 335-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 or, for the first time since 1985, a four-cylinder, in the form of a 2.0-liter turbo good for 275 hp. Each engine comes with either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. We listened to a four-cylinder car at idle, and although it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a rumbling V-8 or a sonorous V-6, neither does it sound like a two-door Chevy Malibu.
A closer look at the familiar shape uncovers telling differences. Deep indentations in the doors and roof reflect the Corvette’s
influence. Every other panel appears to have been chiseled until no extraneous material remained. The overall effect, difficult to appreciate completely in pictures, is a much slimmer-looking but no less muscular car. If the fifth-gen Camaro was a burly Superman-type, the sixth generation is more like the sinewy Spartans from the movie “300.”
The leanness is not just a sleight of a designer’s pen. Rather, it hints at the biggest change. Whereas the fifth-generation car was built from the full-size Holden Commodore’s husky foundation, this Camaro shares lightweight architecture also underpinning Cadillac’s ATS and CTS. (It will roll out of the same Lansing, Michigan, factory as the Cadillacs.) The new 2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS, as a result, loses more than 200 pounds compared with its predecessor. The V-6 Camaro sheds about 100 pounds. Chevrolet has not released a weight estimate for the four-cylinder, but curb weights of the ATS and CTS suggest it might drop another 100 pounds from the V-6. That translates to a range of 3,600 to 3,700 pounds, which is slightly better than the new Mustang. The new car is also smaller overall compared with the outgoing model: about 2 inches shorter, nearly an inch narrower, and an inch lower in terms of roof height.
Certain design details also reveal a subtle shift in philosophy. The previous Camaro was essentially a show car on wheels, hustled from the 2006 Detroit auto show to dealer lots with minimal changes. Bob Lutz, then head of product development, vetoed even small deviations, such as swapping out the concept’s deep-dish steering wheel for something sportier with a smaller diameter. This Camaro looks a lot more like it passed through an engineering department. The blunt front end now has Ferrari F12-style cutouts to let air pass through, the windshield pillars are slimmer, and the mirrors are usefully larger.
This being a Camaro, style still overrules practicality in a few places. For instance, voluptuous rear flanks once again tighten the trunk opening. (Members of the car’s development team say they load the cargo hold through the fold-down rear seat.)
The smaller size and focus on function yield dividends inside the much-improved cabin. You sit lower than before, yet you enjoy a much better field of vision thanks to those thinner pillars and a low dashboard. The controls, including a steering wheel yanked from the Corvette, are more purposeful and better finished. The Camaro’s traditional four-pack of auxiliary gauges relocates from the nook in front of the shifter to an LCD screen in the instrument cluster where—gasp—you can actually see them. Round air vents house elegant temperature controls. The only “functional” loss from the previous car is the substitution of an electronic parking brake for the traditional handbrake. It all says “sports car” but doesn’t slavishly recapitulate the 1960s, as did its predecessor. If anything, the minimalist layout brings to mind Audi’s new TT.
Unfortunately, any Audi comparisons end the moment you touch the interior surfaces. Brushed aluminum trim looks nice, and higher-end models get soft leatherette door-panel inserts and padding where your knees hit the center console, but almost everything else remains hard plastic. Interior designers also freely admit the Camaro does without a whole lot of insulation. Hey, did you think your Cadillac-based Camaro would also have a Cadillac interior?
The interior is also smaller. Chevy says this was inevitable given the loss in exterior length and width, yet the Mustang, about the same size on the outside, ekes out a roomier-feeling cabin. Blame the Alpha platform’s packaging: Both the ATS and the CTS have smallish trunks and limited rear legroom due to a high center tunnel, and a rear firewall intrudes too far forward. The Camaro inherits these issues and aggravates them with its swoopy styling.
Make no mistake, though, the car has very good genes, as we discovered when we drove the fifth- and sixth-gen cars back to back. This was a very limited test—a V-6 car and only two laps around GM’s proving grounds. But it was enough to notice a huge difference. The old car, still very capable, is difficult to drive comfortably at speed due to its size and obscured sightlines. The new Camaro? You just climb in and wail on. You see where you are going, you sense where the tires are, and you direct immediate responses through the sharp electric power steering. The 2016 model also feels much better balanced. “We had terminal understeer [in the fifth-generation],” Oppenheiser admits, “and we engineered around it during the life cycle of the car.” V-8 models, riding on staggered Goodyear tires, he adds, still slide nose-first, but do so in a controllable manner.
This all should make for a quicker car. Even the four-cylinder will hit 60 mph in “well under 6 seconds,” and Oppenheiser also says the new Camaro SS will run quicker lap times than a fifth-generation car with the 1LE package. But what matters more to us is how fast we want
to drive the new car. The V-6 delivers a surprising snarl courtesy of a new exhaust similar to the Corvette’s. As we adjust the throttle through a sweeper and rotate gently toward the apex, appreciation sinks in that this car, previously pieced together from Chevy Novas and Holden Commodores, now derives from BMW-fighting Cadillacs.
For now, Camaro buyers will be able to choose several trim packages. Both four- and six-cylinder cars will be available with luxury features such as the nicer interior trim, as well as performance features such as bigger wheels and Brembo brakes. Summer tires can only be ordered on V-8 cars, where they are standard. Magnetorheological dampers are optional on the SS.
Our first brief drive indicates this well-pedigreed 2016 Chevrolet Camaro boasts strong potential. The forthcoming high-powered ZL1 should blow away today’s model, and a track-focused package like the 1LE seems a given. Oppenheiser nods along in what seems to be more than polite agreement when we note that the lightweight, affordable four-cylinder car seems a great starting point for a handling package. He also agrees that the special-model hierarchy we saw with the last generation, particularly as pertains to a hyper-exclusive Z/28, isn’t set in stone.
But the real news here is that even the most basic Camaro promises much better performance than ever before, even if it looks pretty much the same. Credit Oppenheiser and his team for doing much more than they had to. While some—perhaps most—Camaro faithful may not care, the sixth-generation edition adds legitimate substance to go with its style.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro Specifications
- Price: $26,500 (I-4), $27,500 (V-6), $36,500 (V-8)*
- Engines: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/275 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,500 rpm; 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/335 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 284 lb-ft @ 5,300 rpm; 6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/455 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 455 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
- Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic
- L x W x H: 188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in
- Wheelbase: 110.7 in
- Weight: 3,600-3,700* lb
Let the Bench Racing Begin:
A look at the key differences in the new Camaro, its predecessor, and its main rival, the Ford Mustang GT.
1. Chevy is not following Ford in pricing the four-cylinder higher than the six-cylinder. “A more logical progression,” claims Oppenheiser. Equipment and trim will be similar on both engines.
2. “Well under 6 seconds 0 to 60 mph,” Oppenheiser promises. “A lot of people will be surprised by how fast it is, especially our buddies across town.”
3. GM’s all-new V-6 now has cylinder deactivation, like the V-8, for better fuel economy.
4. The days when the Camaro could not have as much horsepower as the Corvette are over.
5. Weight was the Scarlet Letter for the old car, Oppenheiser acknowledges. Meanwhile, the new Mustang, in transitioning to an independent rear suspension, gained nearly as much weight as the Camaro has lost, pulling the cars even.