2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS Review: A Leaner, Meaner Muscle Car

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

The latest Chevrolet Camaro is a lesson in economies of scale: Although Chevy sells about as many Camaros as Ford does Mustangs, a rivalry that dates back five decades, the Camaro benefits from a vastly larger pool of engineering and development expertise.

That’s not to say we’re dumping on Ford — quite the contrary. The point here is that Ford’s lineup includes just one rear-wheel-drive sporty car motivated by a thundering V8 engine, while the Camaro counts among its General Motors kissing cousins a pair of big-buck Cadillacs funded by hefty development budgets. Additionally, Camaro’s heart of gold — a practically flame-throwing V8 that makes us want to sing “Born in the USA” over and over — is shared with the Corvette and, with a few modifications, GM’s big trucks and SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade.

In short, the Camaro is the kid in school with an arsenal of big brothers who have his back when the going gets rough, while the only-child Mustang scrappily fends for himself on the playground. The advantage has paid dividends — the Camaro was made MotorTrend’s Car of the Year for 2016.

Some big numbers quantify just what this big team can do: The new-for-2016 Camaro is several hundred pounds lighter than its predecessor and it is more powerful. Less mass and more power means better performance. But not only is the Camaro noticeably faster, it’s also leaner and meaner — a more lithe, stylish object ready to carve any pavement thrown at it — including the snow-covered Lookout Pass between Idaho and Washington that we recently conquered (albeit with snow tires) on an extended road trip across the Northwestern United States.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Following in the decidedly Transformers-themed design of its predecessor, the latest Camaro is taut, wiry, and ready for action. Its look only deviates slightly from before, with every angle ever so much crisper and cleaner.

SS models – those with the optional V8 that, frankly, you’re going to want – benefit from a standard rear spoiler, slightly larger alloy wheels, and a modestly modified front bumper. The rest of the lineup, badged LT but offering a choice between a standard 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and an optional 3.6-liter V6, is subtly different but no less dazzling to behold.

Yet despite its sexy show car style, the Camaro is rife with ergonomic quirks both inside and out. Its trunk, for instance, suffers from a small opening and a tall liftover, meaning heavy or large items are best left for, well, another car. Or even a Mustang, which is less sexy but more practical.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Eye-catching from every angle, even if it doesn’t really bring anything new to the party.

+ The base model ($25,700) looks every inch as good as the nearly $40,000 highly-optioned model we tested.

+ Thoroughly modern but with some classic, heritage-inspired cues.

– Concept car looks compromise the Camaro’s real-world usability.

–  Sure, the entry-level LT looks nearly identical to the SS — but we would have liked to see a little more show with the top-end model. You’re nearly at Corvette money once a Camaro SS is loaded up with options and we think everyone else should know that.

– At first glance, the latest Camaro is hard to discern from its predecessor, which went on sale all the way back in 2009. In fact, only a handful of observers in the numerous small towns we visited even gave it a second glance.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

First, what we didn’t drive: The four-cylinder and the V6. The turbo-four checks in at 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Jumping up to the V6 nets 335 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque.

A decade ago, those were top-of-the-line pony car performance figures. Hell, flash back to 1975 when the EPA turned its sights on the auto industry and began enforcing major anti-smog measures, and you’ll note that the top-of-the-line Camaro cranked out 155 horsepower. Economy cars are more powerful today.

But, as we said before, the Camaro SS is the one you really want to buy. With 455 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque on tap from its big 6.2-liter V8, which is mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or, as tested, an all-new eight-speed automatic. The clutch-less unit in our test car provided smooth, ultra-fast shifts and it can be manually shifted via a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles.

Moreover, the Camaro also includes a variety of drive modes toggled via a center console switch. For highway cruising, we left it in the more gentle “tour” mode, but some tight switchbacks in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana were best tamed in “sport” mode that tightens up the steering, firms up shifts, and modifies throttle response. A “track” mode is also included, as is a “winter” mode — which we also found ourselves needing to use.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ Ultra-slick automatic transmission fires through gears with authority and boasts better MPG than the manual.

+ With the optional dual-mode exhaust, you can wake up your neighbors every time you start the Camaro. For those who like their neighbors, the exhaust can be set to make less noise at the tap of a button.

+ You can — and should — light up the rear tires at a moment’s notice in the Camaro SS. ‘Merica!

– With all that power, we expected to see so-so fuel economy, but the observed 24 MPG over 700 miles will certainly make a dent in your wallet. 

– Zero-60 mph in 4.0 seconds is ridiculously fast, but even the turbo four does that same sprint in under 5.5 seconds: Shop wisely. There is nothing slow about the latest Camaro.

– There’s nothing wrong with the Camaro’s six-speed manual, but the seven-speed in the Corvette offers more bragging points (literally).

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

If the Camaro’s exterior looks like something you’d see rotating on the stand at a major auto show, its interior feels could have been lifted directly from an early concept sketch. Dripping with character and kitsch, it is loaded with design cues and surfaces that add substantial complexity – and, unfortunately, more compromise.

In pictures and for the first few minutes behind the wheel, the Camaro’s interior looks and feels remarkably special. The driver holds a small steering wheel that could have been borrowed from a race car, while all controls and switches are reasonably logically scattered within easy reach.

Yet after a few miles, annoyances began adding up. Most egregiously, Camaro’s lack of outward visibility proved laughably impractical. Consider putting your left arm on the window sill – something you’ve taken for granted in every car you’ve ever driven and something that seems so natural for a sporty car. Well, you can’t – that sill is as high as your cheek and the window opening is so small that you might as well use the (optional) moonroof for late night drive-thru runs at Taco Bell. Then there’s the rearward visibility… let’s just say it’s a damn good thing this coupe comes standard with a backup camera. The rear windows serve only to let light in, not to help the driver see anything.

The Camaro so egregiously pushes the limits of safe visibility that it makes us wonder at what point the government will step in and mandate amount degree of minimum glass surface.

But at least it looks really, really good.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Imaginative and dramatically styled from every single angle.

+ Tremendously comfortable front bucket seats wrapped in your choice of garish shades.

+ Lots of features, but the buttons and screens are well-organized and convenient.

– Camaro’s interior materials are undoubtedly better than before, but they seem more appropriate at the base model’s price point than the fully-loaded one we tested.

– The seatbelt anchor on the driver’s seat dug into (and subsequently bruised) the driver’s left thigh every time we got in and out.

– Atrocious visibility from the bathtub-like seating position is definitely the price you’ll pay for the Camaro’s eye-catching looks.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

On the features front, we appreciated the large, intuitive MyLink infotainment system screen that works with OnStar’s increasingly broad portfolio of  features – the heavily-advertised system’s spec sheet now includes a mobile WiFi hotspot (on the AT&T 4G LTE network) and a concierge available at the press of a button to reserve dinner tables or even book hotel rooms via Priceline — in addition to beaming turn-by-turn directions to the vehicle’s high-resolution screen.

Note that all this costs extra after an initial trial period, so budget accordingly.

Otherwise, Camaro also includes Apple’s CarPlay connectivity, which mostly worked but occasionally disconnected itself from our iPhone 6. CarPlay sounds nice — but the Camaro’s built-in navigation map is more intuitive and feature-packed.

We were surprised that Chevy doesn’t include any active safety tech — like adaptive cruise control or a collision avoidance system on the Camaro.

Tech/safety pros and cons

+ Low-glare screen, clear controls, and convenient buttons and knobs make the Camaro’s infotainment system relatively distraction-free.

+ A wireless charging pad is located at the rear of the center console.

+ GM’s full OnStar suite includes lots of nice convenience features.

– Eight airbags, but no radar-based safety tech like a collision avoidance system or adaptive cruise control.

– While OnStar’s on-call concierge is nice to have, you can spend nearly $100 a month adding services.

– Apple CarPlay occasionally disconnected itself during our evaluation.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

With the last Camaro, we always needed to include the caveat “for such a fat pig,” when we discussed its driving dynamics. This latest model has been on the paleo diet and it weighs about 225 pounds less than its predecessor.

Even shod with snow tires as our tester was when we picked it up in Bozeman, Montana, the latest Camaro is the sharpest, most capable car to ever wear that storied badge. Highly communicative electronic power steering delivered up ample road feel and relatively high effort, accolades we’re excited to bestow on a sports car. Its suspension and chassis may be shared with the uber-fantastic Cadillac ATS and ATS-V, but the Camaro is laden with less luxury, meaning not only is it cheaper – it is lighter and more fun.

Yeah, some Camaro fans might scoff that it is pretty much a Cadillac underneath, but as we said before, that means parent company General Motors has devoted a lot of resources into this sinewy two-door.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that this latest Camaro is a reasonably refined highway cruiser. Its suspension, which is optionally adjustable thanks to a set of high-tech magnetic shock absorbers, soaked up bumps like, well, a sporty Cadillac. It’s almost too refined. But if you’re looking for fun, it only takes one (hard) press of the skinny pedal to wake up all those ponies under the hood, which make their presence known immediately by both the sound (and subsequent smell) of burned rubber and the growl of the optional sports exhaust.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Conclusion

A muscle car that’s ready for the track, the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro is as adept at ripping off quick quarter miles as it is snaking through a tight canyon road thanks to its taut chassis and communicative steering. You’ll look good behind the wheel, too, since the chiseled Camaro takes its predecessor’s unmistakable style and refines things further.

We may wish for better visibility and a touch more practicality, but rest assured that the Camaro embodies American pride like nothing else on the road.

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