SHELTON, Washington — Chevrolet in the early autumn of 1966 introduced the Camaro for the 1967 model year, and even an 11-year-old like me at the time could see it was the response, better late than never, to the Ford Mustang.
The first Camaro had a meaningless name and house cat looks. By 1969 it became a more palatable and formidable car. Had anyone back then told me that 50 years hence I would be avid to drive a four-cylinder version called the Camaro Turbo 1LE, and to drive it on a racetrack at that, I would have disbelieved them. Big V-8s were paramount in those days.
Today’s sixth-generation Camaro, introduced in 2016, included the choice of a turbocharged 2.0-liter four making 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. It has accounted for about 35 percent of sales. You could also get the 1LE performance package that was first developed in the late-1980s to provide greater track capability—but only with the 3.6-liter V-6. (Chevy also already offers the 1LE for the SS V-8 model and the bad-boy ZL1.) The 2019 Camaro Turbo 1LE brings all the good bits together with the smaller engine to entice about 2,000 buyers per year who might otherwise want a Honda Civic Type R, Subaru WRX STI, or Hyundai Veloster N.
As if to smother us with alphanumerics, the Turbo 1LE incorporates the FE3 suspension. That means larger-diameter stabilizer bars, upgraded dampers, and stiffer bushings. Four-piston Brembo front brakes (single-piston rear) and heavy-duty engine oil, transmission, and differential cooling are part of the deal, too. Forged 20-inch wheels carry Goodyear Eagle F1 run-flat tires, there’s a unique front splitter and rear spoiler, and the black hood and mirror caps add a striking signature. Recaro seats, a head-up display, and a nifty Performance Data Recorder are options worth having.
Forewarned is forearmed, and on a recent sunny afternoon I was in the pits at Ridge Motorsports Park, buckling into a Simpson helmet and HANS device and taking my place behind the suede-wrapped, flat-bottom wheel. Instructor J.D. spoke over the car-to-car radio. J.D., whose home track is the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, was here to guide journalists around Ridge’s precipitous 16-turn, 2.47-mile layout.
I started the engine, plugged an SD card into the PDR, plonked the six-speed manual gearbox into first, and launched behind J.D. After a feisty warm-up lap we hammered down the front straight, hitting 115 mph before scrubbing off 35 mph for Turn One, a left-hander. Entering Turn Two, which is tighter, J.D. said, “Hard on the brakes, down to third gear.” The car set up like a begging terrier.
Linking the next three turns together with subtle steering inputs, I kept the revs above 3,000 rpm, at which peak torque is delivered. The direct-injection DOHC four with variable-valve timing impressed with its smoothness. It issues a robust hum through the mid-range, but nearing peak horsepower at 5,600 rpm it wailed like Eddie Vedder. We entered one of the track’s trickiest parts, a 180-degree right followed by a plunge into the two-part Turn Eight.
“Let the car compress. Now hard on the brakes,” J.D. said. Here we had further evidence of the composed chassis. There was no squirming. Turn-in was sharp for Nine. When I induced a wiggle by opening the throttle too early, the Camaro Turbo’s weight of 3,354 pounds came to mind. “If you do go beyond the limit, it’s easy to catch,” performance engineer Michael Tung had said. “It’s a joy to drive.” Breathing the throttle straightened out the car, and we headed for more linked bends, another hairpin, a hard right, and the Ridge’s version of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s corkscrew.
The track session highlighted the car’s beautiful balance and nonchalant attitude. The shifter and clutch require only light inputs, steering is quick and precise, and braking response is like being handed a bag full of $100 bills. Body roll is nonexistent thanks to those beefy FE3 suspension components.
With 90 percent of the engine’s torque available at less than 2,000 rpm, a strong run-up is guaranteed. Ridge’s ups and downs made me realize that a bonobo can make a fast lap in a 455-hp Camaro SS, but the Camaro Turbo rewards artistry. Maintaining momentum got me around there quick enough to be rather entertained. The rear axle ratio of 3.27:1 helps, and third gear suited most occasions.
For $30,995, the Camaro Turbo represents a nice value. Besides everything already mentioned, the buyer obtains a driving mode selector that includes a track setting with readouts. The optional head-up display’s shift-light was useful. And with the PDR, the Camaro Turbo has the coolest media device since Chrysler’s Highway Hi-Fi. At the end of the run, the SD card had a hero video (the camera was by the rear-view mirror) with superimposed data on speed, RPMs, lateral g forces, and track location—everything but a General Motors stock reading. “What sort of camera was that?” a friend asked. “I want one! Very cool!”
For 2019, all Camaro models benefit from a light freshening, with new fascias front and rear and distinct grilles. “The face is the most dramatic part of this new look,” designer John Mack said, walking around the Camaro Turbo. New dual-element LED headlamps squint like a cyborg under a reshaped hood. And the LED taillamps represent the latest evolution of Chevy’s dual-element design.
Chevy’s warranty extends to the track, too, as long as the car is unmodified. When it was time to leave, I summoned OnStar for turn-by-turn directions to the hotel in Renton. The OnStar person thought I said “Retina.” The Camaro Turbo will go from 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 blinks, but it won’t budge in the direction of Retina.
On-road performance can irritate. The high hood over the instrument cluster impedes the driver’s view. The tires’ howling exceeds even a bonobo’s decibel limit. The suspension is stiff. Buying this car for everyday use is a big commitment, and the in-laws may question one’s character. But the Camaro Turbo’s wicked blacked-out looks kill, the car is good off the stoplight, and visits to the track are more fun than an 11-year-old boy ever dreamed.
2018 Chevrolet Camaro Turbo 1LE Specifications
|ON SALE||Late summer 2018|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/275 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||F-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||20/30 mpg|
|L x W x H||188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||148 mph|