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Payne: 2015 Vehicle of the Year: Chevy Camaro

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The 2016 Camaro’s intriguing attributes led News auto critic reviewer Henry Payne to look past its sight line and storage shortcomings.

Were I a film reviewer, I might have gone mad by now. Consider some of the dogs that critics had to spend two hours watching in 2015 with nothing to comfort them but a bucket of popcorn. “Victor Frankenstein”? Dog. “Get Hard”? Woof woof. “Tomorrowland”? Lord, kill me now.

But I’m not a movie critic, I’m an auto critic. And that was a glorious thing to be in 2015. I drove 32 (of 40) new, 2016 model-year vehicles this year in daylight, on open roads, at full throttle. I never needed popcorn. There wasn’t a dog in the bunch. Audi TT, Cadillac ATS-V, Fiat 500X, Ford Edge, Honda Pilot, Mustang GT350 — even the new Chevy Malibu turned heads.

Sure, some were homely — the Scion iA, for example, looks like a bulldog that’s been punched in the face — but then not every movie starring Margot Robbie is an Oscar contender either (“Focus”? Woof). Like every new car this year, the affordable Scion is a complete player. Up in First Class I was admittedly seduced by the electric Tesla P90D’s “Ludicrous” acceleration, iPad console, and re-invention of the auto experience. But only 300 people can afford the thing.

No, the car of the year must be accessible as well as emotional. As in the movies, money isn’t everything. A $50 million rom-com can be just as stirring as a $500 sci-fi blockbuster. The $30,000 Mazda MX-5 Miata made me smile as wide as the dumb grin I wore emerging from the $130K Tesla.

Thus my finalists for The Detroit News 2015 Vehicle of the Year. If Miss Universe host Steve Harvey were to crown the wrong winner, no one would bat an eye. All three are deserving.

Second runner-up: Jeep Renegade

Henry Payne says, “The Renegade is the most intriguing (of the new subcompact utility vehicles) with its off-road Jeep swagger and impish sense of fun.”

With none of the Big Three truck makers debuting a pickup, all eyes turned to SUVs where manufacturers are furiously offering new products to satisfy public demand for anything on stilts. Compact utes became the biggest non-pickup segment in Autodom (eclipsing midsize sedans) and the Honda Pilot and Kia Sorento launched formidable midsize products in the Battle for Soccer Moms. But the most intriguing new entries were in the newest market of them all: Subcompact utes.

All are rushing to put their stamp in the exploding marketplace that is luring young buyers and empty-nest oldsters alike. From the hot-hatch-in-disguise Mazda CX-3 to Fiat’s 500X cutie, the shelves are full of toys.

But the Renegade is the most intriguing with its off-road Jeep swagger and impish sense of fun.

I took it to a neighbor’s house and spent a half-hour with their kids finding the car’s 30-something hidden “Easter egg” details. Hidden gems include “X”s echoing the brand’s World War II Army gas cans, Jeep silhouettes crawling up the windshield, even an Italian-speaking spider (the Jeep is imported from Italy) hidden in the cobwebs behind the gas door. The kids bonded with the vehicle even before we had turned a wheel.

Exterior design is as cute as its details — eschewing the bigger Cherokee’s mod look for a youthful face and huge moon roof that can be removed to simulate an open-air Wrangler. On road, the Renegade is pleasant, if hardly the apex-diver the Mazda aspires to be. As the removable roof suggests, Renegade is about answering nature when she calls.

At an off-road park I experienced the 4x4’s full repertoire from shimmying down 30-degree sand dunes to roaring around unpaved roads. The Renegade is an all-season, all-wheel-drive, all-around athlete. All that personality is key to overcoming Jeep’s perpetual quality challenges that drive buyers to Hondas — including a nine-speed transmission that has haunted the brand. That tranny is key to good mileage numbers for the Renegade — an important factor in this budget-conscious class.

First runner-up: Honda Civic

Henry Payne says, “The 10th generation Civic telegraphed its determination to get back in shape by benchmarking to the whip-quick Audi A3.”

If the Renegade looks to put its stamp on a new segment, the new Civic is seeking to re-establish itself as the standard in an old one. Mission accomplished.

While Honda set its sights on dominating small crossovers with its CR-V, the Civic got flabby. The 10th generation Civic telegraphed its determination to get back in shape by benchmarking to the whip-quick Audi A3. Be like Mike.

Lowering its center of gravity by an inch and widening its stance, the Civic is nimble fun. Honda has plans for a Si sport version as well as a track-pawing Type R, so the base chassis bodes well for those offspring. But the ’16 Civic is more than an athlete — it’s a class valedictorian with class-leading fuel mileage (credit Honda’s first turbocharged engine and a nifty, un-CVT like CVT tranny), console apps, and rear leg room. Yes, this baby’s got back. A back seat into which I can fold easily my 6’5” frame.

With its good looks and utility, Civic should have the midsize Accord looking nervously in its mirrors.

The winner: Chevy Camaro

“I can’t see out of it. Its front door storage is useless. And I am only comfortable in the back seat if I remove my legs first. But the 2016 Camaro is addictive,” Henry Payne said of his choice for 2015 Car of the Year.

I can’t see out of it. Its front door storage is useless. And I am only comfortable in the back seat if I remove my legs first. But the 2016 Camaro is addictive.

In an age where mpg-optimized, soap-bar cars all look alike, the Camaro is proof you can still own a vehicle for pure fun.

The Chevy’s exterior is a minor evolution from the previous model, but its angular air intakes and sinister headlights evoke a front-engine Lamborghini. Or something that Kylo Ren might keep in his garage.

The Camaro’s real story is under the skin where it shares a platform with the Cadillac ATS — the best-handling luxury sports coupe. Dance like a butterfly, punch like Ali. GM is leveraging its global platforms to raise all boats. Pushed by the formidable Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, Camaro is taking the pony car segment to new heights.

So good is the Chevy that it deserves looks as a BMW coupe fighter with a powerful V-6, turbo-4, and Corvette V-8 — something not even the ATS can offer. The Camaro benefits not only from Cadillac but from the General’s huge tech investment as well. The Camaro’s brawn is matched by tech brains with excellent 4G Wi-Fi connectivity and Apple Car Play and Android Auto ability (the latter coming in early ’16).

So what if the Camaro’s last movie cameo was in a “Tranformers: Age of Extinction” bomb. The new pony is a genuine road star.

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.

’15 Jeep Renegade

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $18,990 base ($27,355 “Omaha Orange” Latitude 4x4 as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo, in-line 4-cylinder; 2.4-liter, in-line 4-cyl “Tigershark”

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (2.4L)

Transmission: Six-speed manual (turbo 4-cyl engine only); nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.6 seconds — turbo 4-cyl (Motor Trend est.); 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds — 2.4-liter 4-cyl (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,044 pounds (4x2 turbo 4-cyl); 3,573 pounds (4x4, 2.4-liter Trailhawk edition)

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway/27 mpg combined (turbo 4); EPA 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway/24 mpg combined (2.4L)

Report card

Highs: Jeep styling; As happy in the outback as on the road

Lows: Upright front end and broad C-pillar create blindspots; lumbar support-challenged seats


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

’16 Honda Civic

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $19,125 ($25,535 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 174 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; Continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,742 pounds base (2,899 EX-T trim as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 27 city/40 mpg highway/31 mpg (manual, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/41 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 2.0-liter gas); 31 city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg (CVT, 1.5-liter turbo)

Report card

Highs: Super-sized rear seat; Turbo-riffic

Lows: Those plasticky, rear-duct thingies; AWD option, please


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

’16 Chevrolet Camaro

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

Price: $26,695($38,585 V-8 SS as tested)

Power plant: 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)

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 174 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic

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

Weight: 3,685 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/28 mpg highway/23 mpg (V-6, automatic); 17 city/28 mpg highway/20 mpg (6.2L V-8, auto)

Report card

Highs: Precise handling; Corvette power

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


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★