REVELATION: A CHEVY THAT’S BETTER THAN A BMW
By Angus MacKenzie, Motor Trend – Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: The Chevrolet Camaro is better, more entertaining car to drive than a BMW 3 Series. In more than 30 years of testing cars I have experienced several moments of dazzling, crystalline revelation: that the original Mazda Miata was the most sublimely, delicately, intuitively tactile sports car ever built; that underneath the seductive scarlet curves of a Ferrari 348 lurked a sulky, evil-tempered bunny-boiler; and that the Ford Raptor was one of the most original performance vehicle concepts from a mainstream automaker, an entertaining and engaging ride that was also uniquely and uncompromisingly American.
This one, though, was totally unexpected.
That’s partly because I’d have never thought of driving Chevy’s ponycar and BMW’s iconic sport sedan back-to-back, over the same roads. It is, after all, not an obvious comparison test; no one will ever cross-shop these cars. However, the 2016 Camaro SS and BMW 340i were both contenders in this year’s Car of the Year competition, and I just happened to drive one immediately after the other during our testing. Then I went and drove them each again, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.
I wasn’t. In terms of pure driver appeal, the 455-hp, naturally aspirated, 6.2-liter, V-8-powered, six-speed-manual Camaro simply outclassed the 320-hp, turbocharged, 3.0-liter, I-6 powered, six-speed-manual BMW. The Chevy had more tactile and communicative steering, crisper throttle response, better brake feel, superior high-speed body control, and sweeter chassis balance. It danced around the handling track, feeling remarkably light on its feet. Turn-in response was quick and authoritative, and with all the electronic nannies off, it could drift through corners with Ken Block confidence levels. I got out of the Camaro grinning. When I exited the BMW? Not so much.
Let’s be clear: The updated F30 3 Series, with revised front suspension and redesigned electric power steering for 2016, is a decent sport sedan. But in the context of four decades of 3 Series evolution, there’s something deeply elemental missing in this latest iteration. From the long throw of the six-speed shifter to its heavy, gluey steering, the 340i lacks the insouciant precision that was once a hallmark of even base 3 Series sedans. A lot of the fundamental BMW goodness is still there, but it’s as if the whole lot has been dipped in molasses. It’s still quick, capable, and chuckable, but compared with the Chevy, the BMW demands bigger inputs from the driver when you want it to play. You have to work harder at having fun in it.
I first drove a Camaro back in 1989, and was appalled by the unmitigated awfulness of the experience. Going up Angeles Crest Highway, the engine wheezed like an old man on a StairMaster, and the brakes caught fire – literally – on the way back down. It rattled and squeaked and shimmied and shook, and judging by the heaving, wallowing, corkscrewing motions through corners the body structure had all the torsional rigidity of overcooked linguine.
The previous-generation Camaro, which debuted in 2009 and was built off the Zeta architecture shared with the Australian-designed Holden Commodore, was a much more coherent vehicle. But it weighed too much and the chassis was initially blighted by understeer for some inexplicable reason, especially given the Commodore’s generally sound dynamics. The Camaro’s journey from 1989 to 2009 to 2016 has therefore been truly remarkable, and not just in terms of its engineering execution: This is a car whose whole raison d’être has been transformed.
In 2016 the BMW 3 Series has hit middle age and it feels it. The Chevy Camaro, by contrast, has been reborn.