Payne review: Camaro 1LE is a joy to drive hard

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the Camaro 1LE's engine size.

I usually review a sexy coupe each May to celebrate the first muscle car of spring. Like a Mustang convertible galloping across a green landscape. A colorful Dodge Challenger on Woodward. Or a drop-top Camaro with its V-8 singing like a robin.

But spring never came this year. Michigan went straight from winter to summer.

April was a cruel, cold, wintry mistress, the coldest in 140 years. As May tentatively stuck its head out the front door, temps jumped from 40 to 80. One day the branches were barren, the next they were covered in leaves.

In part that’s because May brought more rain across the middle states than Noah’s worst nightmare. A weekend race of mine was canceled at Summit Point, West Virginia (old slogan: Take me home country roads. New slogan: Take me home swollen rivers.) due to flooding. Never seen that before.

So I’m still a little shy about the convertible thing. A hard-top Camaro SS 1LE will do, thank you very much.

In fact, its brooding, black hood — the 1LE’s signature — suits my mood.

Once inside this beast, my outlook brightened. Which is odd since the Camaro is an ergonomic nightmare. I can’t see out of it, the infotainment screen is cantilevered down and the front door pockets are in the back seat. Speaking of the back seat, there isn’t one — unless you take your legs off, because there is zero room. Think of the seats as shelf storage.

Then I push the starter button and all is forgiven.

The 6.2-liter eight comes to life like a bear out of hibernation. GRRRUMBUMBUMBUM. The earth shakes.

“What’s that?” a friend exclaimed as he drove tentatively into my driveway — the black-hooded, musclebound Camaro guarding it like a 3,700-pound Doberman.

But the real thrills begin when the 1LE hits the road.

Chevy introduced the 1LE package back in the third-generation 1988 car to make it more competitive in showroom stock racing. By the fifth-generation, the package had matured to a bona fide “track package” complete with that matte-black hood fronting a big V-8, stiffened suspension and fat (10-inch front, 11-inch rear) tires.

The sixth-generation $37,000 V8-powered Camaro SS options the $7,000 1LE package with magnetic dampers, Brembo brakes, electronic limited-slip differential, Recaro seats, and 11-inch front and 12-inch rear Goodyear gummies.

But the 2018 1LE’s secret sauce is GM’s Alpha architecture, the same bones that make the Cadillac ATS the best-handling compact premium sedan.

The car is simply a joy to drive hard. Only the deliberate, manual six-speed transmission seems out of step with the car’s athleticism.

My week with this toned athlete was enormously unproductive as every trip turned into an excuse to find interesting roads where I could stretch the 1LE’s legs. Trip to the grocery store? Tack on a half hour while I detoured through lake country in search of side-Gs. A trip to the art supply store? Tack on a half-hour while I cruise Woodward, lay rubber at stoplights, and acknowledge the muscle brotherhood.

With rear-wheel drive and a wheelbase just an inch longer than the Cadillac ATS, the SS 1LE is always composed. Always nimble. Always easy to control around corners. In short, it’s more in the competitive class with a BMW M4 than the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger.

I didn’t take it to M1 Concourse for test laps, but Car and Driver did track it at their Virginia International Raceway Lightning Lap. The numbers tell the story. The loaded, $46,295 SS 1LE threw down lap times around the epic 4.1-mile “American Nürburgring” comparable to a $97,000 Porsche Cayman GT4 and $194,000 Audi R8 V-10. I’m not making this up.

That’s what marrying a premium sports chassis to a 455-horse, push-rod V-8 gets you. Take a bow, Chevy. But also take a look at lil brother Camaro V-6 1LE.

Offered for the first time in 1LE track trim, the V-6 wowed Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap, blowing away other $40,000-something competitors like the Nissan 370Z NISMO, VW Golf R, and, ahem, Mustang.

“(The Camaro V-6 1LE) absolutely stomps its current Blue Oval rival, the Mustang EcoBoost equipped with the Performance package,” thrilled the buff mag. “And it gets worse for Mustang acolytes: Despite a 100-hp deficit, the 1LE laps VIR faster than the eight-cylinder Mustang GT.”

Ouch. Camaro has taken muscle-car performance to a new level, but — now that it’s dicing with the elites — it also begs the question: Is it a better value than a Caddy?

My SS 1LE certainly answers the question: What would an ATS coupe be like with a V-8? Around Lightning Lap the $46,000 Camaro bests the $65,000, twin-turbo V6-powered Cadillac ATS-V, the best driver’s car Cadillac has made.

But all things considered, the V-6 1LE would be my choice as a daily driver.

While the SS 1LE puts up the gaudier track numbers, the V-6 is much more balanced without the V-8 boat anchor up front. Its manners are like the V-6 Cadillac, and though it gives up 100 horsepower to the ATS-V (335 vs. 446), that’s still a lot of grunt for the street — or a weekend track day.

Not only is the V-6 1LE $20,000 cheaper than the ATS-V (that’ll buy you a Chevy Trax ute for the 16-year-old), it’s also well shy of a comparably equipped, $53,000 ATS coupe with performance suspension and the same 335-horse engine. Apples to apples, it’ll also save you $4,700 over the V-8 while offering the same wicked matte-black wardrobe.

Of course, there’s more to sport coupes than performance numbers. Like interior comfort.

The Cadillac ATS somehow manages four more inches of rear legroom than the Camaro despite its shorter wheelbase. But I am also a fan of the Camaro’s unique console — aviation-style temperature vents and tablet touchscreen. And this being GM, the Camaro shares a head-up display and 4G Wi-Fi and smartphone connectivity found on the Cadillac.

Ooooh, I’m feeling warmer already. Spring — er, summer — is finally here and the Chevy Camaro SS and V-6 1LE track editions are here to play.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2018 Chevy Camaro 1LE 

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

Price: $40,590 V6 1LE base ($46,295 SS 1LE as tested)

Powerplant: 3.6-liter, V-6; 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 335 horsepower, 284 pound-feet torque (V-6); 455 horsepower, 455 pound-feet torque (V-8)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (V-6 1LE, Car and Driver), 4.1 seconds (SS 1LE, Car and Driver); Top speed, 155 mph (V-6), 165 mph (SS)

Weight: 3,532 pounds (V-6); 3,747 pounds (SS)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 16 city/28 highway/20 combined (V-6); 16 city/25 highway/19 combined (V-8)

Report card

Highs: Affordably wicked; athletic V-6 1LE balance

Lows: Can't see out of it; can't fit in rear seat without removing legs 

Overall: 4 stars