Payne: Camaro SS is new Alpha dog

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

We’ve all been waiting for this one. I got my first, tantalizing taste of the all-new, 2016 Camaro at Belle Isle in May, Chevy’s counter to the all-new, 2015 Ford Mustang. It’s always been thus. Over the Muscle Car War’s five decades, Mustang has traditionally made the first move — just as it launched the first salvo in 1965. The latest Mustang is the best ever. Three engine choices, edgy styling, independent rear suspension. Now comes Camaro’s answer. Three engines, edgy styling, independent rear susp ... oh. Camaro’s been there. Done that.

For its handling trick this time, Chevy has gone to DEFCON 4.

It’s brought in a platform from GM’s luxury performance division, Cadillac. Not just any platform, but the alpha-dog Alpha bones that gird the sublime Cadillac ATS — the best-handling weapon in luxury. Seems a bit unfair, really. Ford doesn’t have Cadillacs and Corvettes laying around the shop from which to borrow technology.

Driving Generation 5 and the much-lighter Gen 6 Camaros back-to-back on Belle Isle’s IndyCar course, the difference was instantly apparent. But that was a V-6. How goes the Chevy SS with the pony-car’s signature V-8? The big boat anchor up front? I talked with legendary Chevy mod-guru, Ken Lingenfelter before I went to test the SS from Albuquerque to Phoenix.

“Call me when it’s over,” he said anxiously. “I want to know how it goes.”

Well, Ken, Gen 6 doesn’t disappoint. Gen 5 was no slouch, but the Alpha platform was designed to compete with BMW and Mercedes, for goodness sake. You know this is the best-handling pony ever from the first turn of the wheel. The electronic steering feels connected to the asphalt as if by a magnet.

The twisted Arizona mountain roads to Payson east of Phoenix are a long way from Woodward Avenue’s drag strip — and the days when pony cars were just straight-line muscle. Whether rotating through 120-degree hairpins or blitzing rocky passes, the big coupe felt much smaller than its 3,685-pound girth.

My hands moved in small increments. No sawing at the wheel. No sudden corrections. The car goes right where you point it, and the result is a much quicker — and safer — car. Where the Mustang (and previous Camaros) are a ball to drive, you feel them working hard. The Camaro’s handling is effortless.

Don’t get me wrong, the Chevy is no ATS — but its DNA is there.

As is the Corvette’s. The SS’s LT1 engine is the same 455-horse stump-puller found in the C7 — complete with rowdy, dual-mode exhaust system (unfortunately, the bulky manual trannies feel the same too). Squeeze the throttle and it will effortlessly eclipse triple digits. Both cars are the work of gifted designer Tom Peters. Both are sculpted with hard edges as if cut with a chisel. Both share design elements: Roof “Mohawk,” deeply scalloped sides, horizontal LED daytime running lights.

Standard on my Bright Yellow, $38,585 SS, the LEDs are sinister. Coupled with the narrowed front grille and enlarged lower intakes, the Camaro has effectively evolved from the wildly successful, ’60s throwback of 2010 to a modern, halo design for downstream Chevy sedans. With its narrow greenhouse, huge blind spots, massive wheels, and brooding cowl, this is an uncompromised concept car brought to life. “We’ve amplified its proportions,” says the soft-spoken Peters, mobbed by Camaro groupies at the Albuquerque intro. “Like the T-shirt on a muscular physique.”

Want to know what a front-engine Lamborghini would look like? This is it.

Much has been made of the Camaro’s gun turret-narrow windows. But the Peters’ team boldly emphasized art — letting the car’s digital, driver-assist technology handle the blind spots.

Want to see out the back? Buy a Mustang. Want to look like you hijacked a car from a sci-fi movie set? Buy the Camaro. That said, the Mustang’s extreme makeover has been flying off the shelves as existing owners traded in their old ponies for the fresher styling. The Mustang’s gorgeous, less-severe looks should wear better over time. If you want a V-6 cruiser, Mustang gets the nod. If it’s performance you want, the Camaro V-8 will walk all over the Ford — and kick sand in the face of the odd Bimmer as well.

Existing Camaro owners unmoved by Gen 6’s sports car handling (“Who pulls Gs in the Dream Cruise traffic jam, man?”) may not feel the urgency given its evolutionary, not revolutionary, styling (though blessedly, the fake side shark gills have disappeared).

They should think again.

Chassis aside, the most dramatic change to the new Camaro is its interior. This is one muscular smart phone. GM has been on the cutting edge of in-car technology and the Camaro is a digital leap over its rival. For our western journey, the SS came without a nav system. No sweat. My wife just mated her iPhone to Apple Car Play and we were in business. She also worked on her iPad thanks to the car’s standard 4G WiFi. In remote western New Mexico, we called OnStar ($300-a-year subscription) for directions and restaurants.

Muscle cars are just for guys? Mrs. Payne lounged comfortably in the quiet, connected passenger seat — only protesting when I explored the car’s .98 G-load capabilities with mountain cliffs just feet away.

The dashboard is a big leap over Gen 5 as well, though its spare design leaves little room for storing anything beyond two cups. The instrument cluster is a fully digital display stuffed with useful information, and the aviator-style climate controls anchoring the console are the coolest things this side of an Audi TT.

With its sophisticated chassis, Lambo styling (look up the Urus), and interior controls, the SS is a worthy alternative to rear-drive luxury coupes like the BMW M4 and ATS-V — but for $30K less. On my way into Phoenix I stopped by the famed Bundurant School of High Performance Driving where the boys informed me Bondurant is divorcing Chevy for Dodge school cars. A pity that. As much as students will enjoy Hellcat power, it can’t touch the Camaro’s nimbleness around the cones. And not just the SS. At over 30-mpg freeway and just 3,338 pounds – a staggering 390 pounds lighter than Gen-5 V-6 — a coming turbo-4 will make Gen 6 a serious autocross contender.

But that’s for another time. For now we revel in the battle of V-8s. Camaro has answered Mustang. Mustang has unleashed its 8,000-RPM Shelby GT350 monster.

What say you to that, Camaro Z28? The anticipation builds again.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2016 Chevy Camaro

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe

Price: $26,695($38,585 SS as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder; 3.6-liter V-6; 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 275 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (turbo-4); 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 455 horsepower, 455 pound-feet of torque (V-8)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 seconds (SS V-8, Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,685 pounds

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Precise handling; Corvette power

Lows: Blind spot the size of Rhode Island; useless door storage


Grading scale

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