Payne: Carving up Belle Isle in the new Camaro

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If Chevy is going to be making pony cars as nimble as its all-new, sixth-generation, 2016 Camaro, it might want to add Corvette-like "oh,crap!" grab handles. Just ask my passenger, News photographer Stephen Perez, at Sunday morning's test drive on Belle Isle. He was searching desperately for something to hold onto while I joyously flung GM's sports coupe around the 2.4 mile grand prix course.

A nimble muscle car? On a Grand Prix course? What the - ?

Welcome to Golden Era II of the muscle car where Chevy, Ford, and Dodge are in a dog – er, pony - fight for segment supremacy not unlike the Big Three pickup wars. But where Dodge's ferocious, new, 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat is the undisputed king of brawn, the Camaro and Mustang are exploring new frontiers for muscle car handling. Frontiers like race tracks – traditionally venues reserved for introducing track-tuned, alphanumeric-badged beasts like a Z28 or GT500, not a base Camaro.

These aren't your grand-dad's '60s Dream Cruisers that sprinted like stallions from a stoplight but wallowed like pigs through the twisties. Handling? That used to be the stuff of small luxury sedans and sports cars. But with its 2015 Mustang, Ford transformed its pony's front and rear suspensions and leap-frogged the Camaro in handling.

Aw, Ford, you just went and made Chevy mad. One year later, and Camaro has answered with a steed . . . built on a small luxury sedan chassis. The same Alpha platform used by the sensational, best-in-class Cadillac ATS carving knife.

By Turn 2 at Belle Isle, I knew the Gen-6 Camaro was a different animal.

The blind, full throttle-in-2nd-gear left-hander demands neutral handling as it launches you down a long straight. More than a few grand prix drivers have clouted the wall here (lookin' at you, A.J. Allmendinger) as the car gets light under power. The 2015 Camaro feels unsure, tentative through Turn 2, its big ol' Zeta platform twisting over the hump.

Not the new car. Stiffened by 28 percent and lightened by 200 pounds (300 for the V-6 I'm driving), the Alpha platform brings the same "inherent goodness" (in the words of Chief Engineer Aaron Link) to the Camaro that undergirds the Caddy ATS and CTS. The Camaro plants in the corner with minimal roll while I confidentially feed in accelerator. Glorious. Where the 2015 Camaro would have packed its bags for Woodward, the 2016 begs for more.

"It's a revolution, not an evolution in handling," says GM President Dan Amman. "The new car is very easy to place where you want it to go."

A licensed test driver, Amman knows whereof he speaks. He – and product development poo-bah Mark Reuss – have flogged the Camaro on Germany's formidable Nurburgring race course. When you're building cars for motorheads, it's nice to have motorhead executives.

Like most Camaro buyers, I'm already drooling at the thought of the Camaro's new, 455-horspower, 6.2-liter V-8 beating in the chest of the Alpha platform.

But the Camaro's lighter weight – its estimated 3,500 pounds will match the Mustang – is also a fuel economy play as automakers strain to meet stringent new federal fuel economy standards. Paired with a new, 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder, Camaro promises 30 mpg highway for its base car. Mustang, too, has introduced a fuel-efficient, turbo 4 to its lineup –not as a base engine, but as an optional, 310-horsepower competitor to the 335-horsepower Camaro V-6 I'm driving.

For all the change under the skin — lighter, shorter, lower — the new Camaro's muscular appearance changes little. You'll know the '16 by its vertical LED fog lights and absence (happily) of the fake intake gills aft of the doors. But the face — which underwent a well-received refresh in 2014 — largely remains the same.

Indeed, the Camaro's design language is no longer an outlier to the Chevy brand – just as Mustang has adopted the Ford family design sues seen in the Ford Fusion and Focus sedans. In GM's case, Camaro has inspired the rest of the brand.

Leaving behind the deep cowl of the '67 model, the Camaro's narrow grille and slit eyes aspire to inspire a new generation of Chevy owners. Just look at the 2016 Malibu or Cruze. The Camaro DNA is all there.

Sunday's track tests capped off a weekend-long Camaro-palooza on Belle Isle as 1,000 Camaro owners brought their Generations 1-5 toys to welcome the latest Camaro to the family. They cheered as the wraps came off the new car. Those cheers will get louder when they take it off Woodward and smoke the twisties.

Now, if only their passengers had "oh, crap" handles.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.