First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: Chevrolet throws down gauntlet with lighter Camaro

It looks virtually unchanged,but new Camaro is as new as new gets

2016 Chevrolet Camaro on track

Detroit, MI — An epic half-century rivalry is entering a new phase with the debut of an all-new Chevrolet Camaro hard on the heels of last year’s radical redesign of its nemesis, the Ford Mustang.

The sixth-generation Camaro first showed its face at a public gathering of the Camaro faithful in Detroit May 16, though GM began leaking technical “teaser” details weeks before.

All that’s left is to report from behind the wheel. Camaro Six won’t go on sale until the fall of this year, and we expect extensive ride-and-drive opportunities before then, but we have already sampled engineering development cars on the Belle Isle race track that will host the Detroit Indycar race later this month.

Still somewhat Canadian

First, though, let’s summarise the full design and engineering story as we now know it – beginning with the Canadian angle. Yes, there still is one. Camaro production may have relocated from Oshawa, Ont., to a plant in Michigan, but the available V8 engine is still built in St Catharines, Ont. As well, the aerodynamic development that is a big part of the Camaro story was performed by GM’s regional engineering centre in Oshawa.

As reported previously, the aerodynamic work focussed more on reducing lift than on achieving a slipperier shape. That said, aero drag does benefit because the new body is smaller: width and height are each reduced by about 25 mm (and length by 50 mm). As well, an OCD approach to mass reduction has trimmed overall mass by about 90 kg -- 61 of those in the body itself -- yet the lighter body is also 28 per cent stiffer in torsion. One of the beauties of cutting body mass is the cascading effect – suspension, brakes, wheels and tires can also be lighter as they have less body mass to support.

Not surprisingly, all this more-for-less goodness flows from Camaro’s adoption of the Alpha architecture first seen on the notably featherweight Cadillac ATS (one of the best-handling cars you can buy today). Surprisingly, though, Chevrolet says as much as 70 per cent of the architectural hardware is unique to Camaro, most notably a new front-end structure that accommodates the Camaro’s unique hood-to-cab proportions and allows a 75-mm wider track than the ATS’s.

Camaro has had independent rear suspension since 2010, but the hardware is new for 2016. Magnetic ride control – previously exclusive to the ZL1 – is now available on the SS. Brembo brakes are standard on the SS and optional on the smaller-engined LT trims. Electric power steering becomes standard across the board, the SS now having a quicker ratio than the V6.

Enhanced efficiency

The Camaro’s balance of performance vs fuel economy can only be further enhanced by the powertrains. The new base engine is a first for Camaro – a four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbo that generates 275 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. GM claims it’s good for either 0-60 mph (0-96 km/h) in well under 6 seconds, or better than 30 mpg (7.85 L/100 km) on the highway. 

The other two engines seem familiar – a 3.6-litre V6 and a 6.2-litre V8 – but each in its own way is extensively revised.

The four-cam V6 really is an all-new design, and thanks to a 1-mm wider bore its exact displacement is now 3,640 cc, up from 3,564. It still features direct injection and continuously-variable valve timing, but now adds (on automatic models) Active Fuel Management, which de-activates two cylinders for improved fuel economy in light-load driving. Maximum power grows to 335 hp from 323, and peak torque to 284 lb.-ft. from 278.

“The V6 has really come into its own now,” lead development engineer Aaron Link told us. “It’s no longer over-shadowed by the V8.”

Said V8 is basically the LT1 unit that debuted two years ago on the C7 Corvette. As before there is AFM on the automatic; new to Camaro for 2016 is direct injection plus variable valve timing. Manual and automatic versions now share the same outputs: 455 horsepower (up from 426 manual/400 automatic) and 455 lb.-ft. (previously 420/410 lb.-ft.)

Speaking of automatics, those available in the 2016 models graduate to eight speeds from last year’s six. Standard transmissions remain six-speeds, the V8 keeping last year’s Tremec box but now with active rev-matching, while the smaller engines are paired with a new lighter-duty Tremec design in place of the previous Aisin.

Mule racing

Our first-drive opportunity is best described as brief but intense – four laps of the Detroit Indycar street circuit in a selection of six engineering-development “mules” (soon reduced to five after “a concrete wall got in the way” of one) still wrapped in psychedelic camouflage wallpaper. All were V6s – three regular automatics, and three manuals with the RS package that adds, among other things, a wickeder-sounding quad-tailpipe exhaust system.

That means none of them quite matched what Aaron Link told us was his favourite version of the 2016 Camaro: V6 automatic with the RS package. Ah well.

Race tracks have a way of making even the sportiest of street cars feel soft. Even so, the greater tautness of the 2016 is immediately obvious after stepping out of a 2015. Even on a completely alien track I felt confident pushing hard, right from the first corner.

Equally evident is the sound-track of the new V6 -- even with the regular exhaust, and all the more so with the quad-pipe. Its high-winding wail sounds great from the inside and mesmerising from the outside. The new manual shifter is also a sweetheart, while the slick-and-quick eight-speed automatic provided twice as many ratios as needed on the notoriously tight Belle Isle circuit.

Same fit, better finish

Interior details weren’t front-and-centre in the circumstances, but I didn’t need a microscope to notice the more modern style and higher-grade materials. What hasn’t changed much is the basic at-the-wheel environment: you still sit low, confronted by a wall-like vertical dashboard, and viewing the outside world through shallow gun-slit windows. Still, the range of seat and wheel adjustment suited my midsize-male frame well enough.

Chevrolet’s press spiel for the 2016 Camaro is long on how-it-drives engineering and refreshingly light on infotainment and connectivity. Which, however, makes it all the more jarring that one of the few new frills that does get a mention is LED ambient lighting with a choice of 24 different colours. Please, spare me …

As for the drive, one slight twinge of initial disappointment is that the steering lacks the pin-sharp on-centre clarity I loved in the ATS. Then again, when it comes to early pre-production examples of any car it’s reasonable to assume that the good stuff is likely to stay good, and the things that could be better hopefully will be better by the time the finalized car reaches the showrooms.

Coming back to the Canadian connection, it seems the Camaro’s being built here never did give it an edge in sales here. According to GM, the Camaro has outsold the Mustang in the U.S. five years straight, whereas in Canada the Ford consistently outsells the Chev, and by a significant margin.

It remains to be seen which re-imagined pony car will win the sales war going forward, but the automakers’ continued commitment to the fight can only be good news for enthusiasts of either brand.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Price: TBA

Engines: 2.0-litre DOHC 16V Turbo L4; 3.6-litre DOHC 24V V6; 6.2-litre Pushrod OHV V8

Power/torque: 2.0: 275 hp/295 lb.-ft.; 3.6: 335 hp/284 lb.-ft.; 6.2: 455 hp/455 lb.-ft.

Transmission: Six-speed manual; eight-speed automatic

Drivetrain:  Rear-wheel drive

Fuel Consumption (city/highway): TBA

Length: 4,784 mm

Width: 1,897 mm

Wheelbase: 2,811 mm

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