DEATH VALLEY, California — Really, the idea of a four-cylinder engine under the hood of a brand-new Camaro makes us want to laugh, and not in a good way. Such an engine makes the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2.0L Turbo seem like a bad throwback to the 1960s, when the Camaro could be had with a 140-hp inline six-cylinder engine as if it were some kind of fuel-sipping economy car.
Of course, Al Oppenheiser, the Camaro chief engineer, then reminded us that perhaps we didn’t know quite as much about the ’60s as we thought we did. He suggested that we compare the 2016 Camaro 2L Turbo to the 1970 Chevelle SS, one of the signature models of the musclecar era. The Chevelle featured a 454 cubic-inch (7.4-liter) V-8 rated at 390 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque, and it could get to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. The Camaro 2L Turbo has a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Oh, the Camaro 2L Turbo also gets to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
It’s kind of a trend
Lots of new cars are getting a turbocharged four-cylinder engine these days, as this sort of powerplant delivers great fuel economy during steady-state cruising on the freeway, plus there’s an acceptable amount of powertrain response elsewhere if the driver doesn’t ask too much. But since the Camaro is the kind of car that depends on great powertrain response in a lot of different situations, we’re kind of skeptical that it’s a good fit with a four-cylinder.
Nevertheless, the actual bits within the turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec engine are pretty good. Inside the cast-aluminum block you’ll find a forged-steel crankshaft, forged-steel I-beam connecting rods, and lightweight cast-aluminum pistons. The 16-valve, aluminum cylinder head features continuously variable valve timing. A balance shaft quells vibration, direct fuel injection optimizes for power and fuel efficiency, and a twin-scroll turbocharger delivers boost across a broad band of engine rpm for optimum drivability.
Here in the 2016 Camaro 2L Turbo, this engine delivers 275 hp and 295 lb-ft, and you can have it with either the six-speed Tremec manual transmission or an eight-speed Hydra-Matic automatic. This engine also makes good numbers on the test track, as the manual transmission version of the Camaro gets to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and reaches the quarter-mile mark in 14.0 seconds @ 100 mph. The automatic finds 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and does the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 99 mph. Meanwhile, this model of the 2016 Camaro comes standard with 245/50R-18 Goodyear Eagle Sport all-season tires, which translates to 0.85 g of cornering grip on the skid pad.
The engineers are smarter than us
We started our test drive with a few laps on the west loop at Spring Mountain Motor Resort in Pahrump, Nevada, a town midway between Las Vegas and Death Valley. Imagine our surprise when the turbo four-cylinder revved to its 5,600-rpm power peak with real authority. And we were positively shocked at the first corner, where the Camaro swooped toward the apex with the kind of light-footed accuracy from the front tires you usually only get when you push your pudgy cousin out of the car before you get to your favorite section of road.
As it turns out, the key to the Ecotec turbo’s performance is the lightweight yet structurally rigid platform of the 2016 Camaro itself. This new, modular platform feels like a featherweight compared to the chassis beneath the previous-generation 2015 Camaro. The Camaro 2L Turbo with an automatic transmission weighs 3,339 pounds, and the platform itself (engine excluded) is about 200 pounds lighter than last year. The Camaro carries a very taut calibration anyway, and the enhancement of lightweight construction so noticeable with the 2L Turbo gives you the feeling that you can make magic on a twisting section of road. We had some time in a 2L Turbo with both manual and automatic transmission, and we like both very much, although the throttle response can be a little abrupt, which is an engineering measure often chosen to enhance a small engine’s feeling of performance.
Death Valley or bust
Some of the magic evaporated as we drove down the four-lane boulevard into Pahrump, however. The Camaro 2L Turbo accelerates quickly away from a stoplight, but you still hear some of the unpleasant resonance from the powertrain you may have noticed in so many other bigger cars with four-cylinder engines. The exhaust note doesn’t do the Camaro any favors, although a system of interior noise cancellation helps.
Once on the open road to Death Valley, our 2016 Camaro 2L Turbo with eight-speed automatic finally came into its own. Its light-footedness on the road delivered a very nice ride you wouldn’t otherwise expect from a sporty car like this.
And did we mention we were driving on a rural two-lane road to Death Valley, where gawkers of all persuasions were assembled to inspect the famous springtime bloom of wild flowers? Naturally there was passing to be done, and the Camaro 2L Turbo helped us sweep around every motorhome in a smooth rush of acceleration. We were able to make our moves just by getting the transmission to kick down a gear or more with more pressure on the throttle pedal, rather than flicking the shift paddles on the steering wheel, so no gritting of teeth was required.
Living in a four-cylinder world
It’s pretty easy to think of the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2L Turbo as a fuel-sipping special for around-town driving, which it is if you measure the car by its 22/31 mpg city/highway EPA rating. This model will certainly help Chevrolet meet its fleet mpg requirements for the EPA. Chevrolet itself hopes you’ll see the performance dimension of this package, but while this aspect of driving enjoyment does indeed exist here, we think you’ll never be driving this car as if it were a Scion FR-S.
Instead we think of the Camaro 2L Turbo 1LT as the $26,695 answer to Camaro ownership. If all that stands between you and Camaro ownership is the thickness of your wallet, then we think it’s smarter to be driving this car than standing by the road. The Camaro is one of the great names in American driving, and you should definitely own one at least once in your life. Play the radio loud enough and you’ll probably never know the 2L Turbo has a four-cylinder engine.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2L Turbo 1LT Specifications
|Price:||$26,695/$29,010 (base/as tested)|
|Engine:||2.0L turbo 16-valve I-4/275 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,500 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||22/31 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in|
|0-60 MPH:||5.4 sec|
|Top Speed:||149 mph (est)|