THE CAMARO'S NEW TURBO-FOUR IS THE FINAL KEY TO ITS TRANSFORMATION FROM MUSCLE CAR TO SPORTS CAR
By Lesley Wimbush, Driving.ca - Death Valley, California - It wasn't until we'd gotten a few hundred yards into the picturesque canyon road that we realized there was no turning back. Always in search of the perfect photo op, I failed to see the "one way" sign posted at the mouth of "Twenty Mule Canyon", a roughly two-mile serpentine trail used by mule teams to haul Borax through Death Valley at the turn of the century.
"It looks like Mars," said Cheryl Pilcher, my drive partner and GM's produce manager for the new Chevrolet Camaro. "Can you imagine bringing wagons across this?
Actually, I could - a lot more readily than I could picture our bright blue sports car on this dusty pathway hacked into the alien landscape. And clearly, judging from the looks cast our way, the occasional 4x4 folks we passed along the way agreed.
But we emerged unscathed from the canyon's mouth and back onto the blacktop, though coated from nose to tail in a thick layer of yellow dust. The Camaro certainly felt more at home on the pavement, looping around iron-red and ochre-rock cuts on our gradual descent into the valley, 86 metres below sea level.
It wasn't that long ago that the idea of a turbocharged four-cylinder was enough to horrify traditional muscle car fans. But German sports car manufacturers have long embraced these lighter, more efficient powerplants and even the original pony car, the Ford Mustang, now boasts one in its lineup. Pilcher believes the new engine will expand the Camaro's customer base by appealing to the tuner and performance market.
Purists can take heart - the 2.0-litre engine is a far cry from the detuned, 90-horsepower "Iron Duke" of the 1980s, an engine so woefully underpowered that the car struggled to make it from rest to 100 km/h in 20 seconds. With 275 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, the turbo-four Camaro can make that run in just over five seconds - just like the mighty 427-powered Camaros in the halcyon days of big-block horsepower.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the sixth-generation Camaro has evolved from straight-line bludgeon to a lithe and lean, genuine sports car. We sampled the V6- and V8-powered cars at the new Camaro's debut in Belle Isle last year, but this is the first drive for Camaro's very first turbo-four. And we're happy to say that, far from being the compromise choice for those penalized by high insurance rates, the 2.0-litre turbo is a smooth, sweet-running powerplant that never feels underpowered.
It helps that this car, thanks to the use of more high-strength steel and smaller engine, is 170 kilograms lighter than V6 models of the previous generation. It's also shorter, narrower and leaner looking.
"We were tired of the 'scarlet letter of mass' of the fifth-gen," said Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser. As well, the engine's peak torque is available at 2,100 rpm for immediate responsiveness off the line.
The new platform features 11 modular components and is designed to adapt to each powertrain in a variety of global markets - in other words, the 2.0-litre coupe's chassis isn't penalized with the additional weight needed to support the big V8 in the SS, and the convertible gets the extra reinforcement it needs.
At Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, we drove the 2.0-litre back to back against the last-generation Camaro - and the current Mustang V6, for good measure. If the last generation was a huge departure from the crude muscle cars of yesteryear, the new Camaro is its final incarnation as a genuine sports car.
The new car is based on the same platform that debuted with the Cadillac ATS. Extensive use of high-strength steel and aluminum have produced a structure that's not only light, but extremely stiff. Within the first lap, the difference is immediately apparent - the 2.0-litre Camaro is tight, extremely flat and well-sorted. There's none of the heaviness associated with the previous generation, and the lighter engine translates into a nice sense of balance. This car not only turns well, it actually rotates through the hairpins. Electric power steering delivers a solid feel that's comparable to a hydraulic setup.
While our experience with the six-speed manual was limited to a couple of racetrack laps, we're happy to say that the eight-speed automatic transmission is quick, smooth and displays no lag, even with aggressive downshifts. Seating is low, and while taller drivers will approve of the extra headroom, those of shorter stature will have to raise the seat to avoid that "sitting in the bathtub" sensation. Visibility, the last generation's biggest fault, is much improved and the extra headroom reduces the feeling of claustrophobia.
Swapping our 2.0-litre coupe for a V8-powered SS Convertible, we had the roof stowed in a matter of seconds thanks to a key fob-operated automatic top-down function that works up to 48 km/h. It tucks away beneath a hard tonneau for a neat, finished appearance.
It's a much more refined environment than the garish cockpit of its predecessor, with nicely stitched leather, soft-touch materials and a grippy, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Thankfully, the silly rectangular gauges just ahead of the shifter are gone, and the overall design is cleaner and less cluttered.
Tech features included Apply Car Play, 4G LTE WiFi, a limited-slip differential and a heated steering wheel. The cabin has also been redesigned to reduce noise and turbulence, and indeed, during our 144-kilometre drive we were easily able to hold a conversation - without the wind whipping our hair into tangled masses.
The SS features the Magnetic Ride adjustable dampers, as well as the selectable drive modes. Throwing it into Track mode not only gives the steering a sizeable heft, but the exhaust pipes erupt in a throaty roar when the throttle's pinned before settling down to a contented rumble. There's no discernible cowl shake and overall, the convertible feels as tight as the previously driven coupe.
Due to arrive later this spring, the base 2016 turbo-four Camaro will start at $28,245 - $2,575 less than the 2015 model. While there were no prices yet for the convertible, base 2015 LT models started at $37,030, so the new models should be roughly the same.