Chevrolet's 2016 Camaro is a 21st-century street fighter

Chevrolet's popular Camaro pony car looks familiar, but is all-new and surprisingly modern under the skin.

Chris Paukert Former executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015. Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Chris Paukert
8 min read

Perhaps more than any other mainstream American car with decades of history, Chevrolet's Camaro has been a chameleon, dramatically shapeshifting from one generation to the next. Since 1967, it's gone through five distinct iterations, and each one has looked very different to the model that came before it.

Until now.

According to General Motors executives, the Camaro faithful so fell in love with the retro-futuristic 2010-15 model that they told the company to not change a thing about its appearance. Instead, they just asked Chevy to improve its performance, interior and refinement. Thus, despite being all-new underneath the skin, the sixth generation looks an awful lot like its predecessor (a design that was itself a somewhat cartoonish homage to the original 1967-69 Camaro).

This might be a risky move over the long haul, or it could be a brilliant strategy. Not only have performance car sales been red hot, the aging fifth-generation Camaro has more than managed to hold its own at dealers in the face of fresher rivals.

You're looking at a slightly shorter, much lighter pony car. Chris Paukert/CNET

2016 Chevrolet Camaro is a reborn Alpha in familiar clothing (pictures)

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All of this means that the 2016 Camaro wears essentially the same aggressive coupe proportions as before, including a pointed nose with inset grille and recessed headlamps, the same Hot-Wheels-esque oversized alloys, the same high door sills capped by a turret-slim greenhouse and the same short rear deck. Exactly none of the bodywork actually carries over -- the whole design has been subtly but thoroughly modernized, most notably through available LED illumination and sharper sheetmetal sinews. If anything, this new Camaro is even more pugnacious looking than last year's car.

One thing you might not notice right away is that the 2016 model is actually slightly smaller than its antecedent. It's shorter by 2.3 inches, but it still reads much the same because it also sits lower. All of which is to say that the new Camaro still looks great, although once again, it comes across as casting a pretty long shadow for something with such a small cockpit.

Those same greenhouse proportions -- right down to the sliver-like side mirrors and big, fat C-pillars -- means that outward visibility is frankly terrible. Again. Apparently GM investigated taller glass and mirrors, but that compromised the styling. Existing Camaro owners who were surveyed remained adamant that GM not change the car's proportions. The solution? More technology -- blind-spot assist, something that wasn't available on the outgoing model.

The 2016 Camaro has a familiar form with much sharper body creases. Chris Paukert/CNET

Given how GM declined to dramatically renovate the Camaro's appearance, you might assume the same goes for what's underneath. That'd be a mistake, however. Not only is this a whole new animal underneath the skin and inside its much-improved cabin, the new Camaro drives decidedly differently, too.

Remember the iconic massive gray suit that David Byrne of the Talking Heads used to wear back in the '80s? His wiry body positively swam inside that oversized, square-shouldered getup. After firing this new Camaro down some windings road with real conviction, getting back into a 2015 model feels a lot like slipping on the art-rock frontman's outfit.

I made a point of piloting the fifth-generation Camaro over the very same southeast Michigan forested roads before I drove various examples of the new model, and the old car felt significantly bigger and comparatively disconnected. It's not just the couple of inches that've been shaved off the car's bodywork, nor the hundreds of pounds saved thanks in part to the 2016 Camaro's much lighter chassis. It's not even just that the aforementioned new Alpha modular platform is stiffer, though rigidity is indeed up by 28 percent. And it's not just the reduced unsprung mass thanks to lighter wheels and suspension bits, or the more precise electric power steering. It's all these things as a composite -- it's the total package.

The 2016 Camaro's cabin is several orders better constructed than its predecessor. Chris Paukert/CNET

That "black hole" feeling that you'd occasionally get swimming around inside the departing Camaro's loose-fitting, dark and high-shouldered cabin while screaming down a winding road? That's gone. In fact, it's all-capital-letters G-O-N-E in models equipped with the costly-but-worth-it magnetic ride control, a $1,695 option that was previously only available on the Camaro ZL1 . Even if this new car turned out to only be the stopwatch equal of the 2015 model (it's quicker), it would still be much better to drive just because it's so much more confidence inspiring.

(I reckon most fifth-generation Camaro owners have gotten so used to the feeling "behind the wheel of a large automobile" that they probably don't even realize their car is a David Byrne suit most of the time. It's only after sampling the 2016 Camaro that they'll realize their ride is a few sizes too big.)

All Camaros come with plenty of tire underneath, with Goodyear providing 18-inch Eagle Sport all-seasons for base LT models (20s with asymmetric Eagle F1 all-season run-flats are available), and the fire-breathing SS arriving on Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 run-flats. Each tire is very low-profile, but even on the firm sidewalls of the run-flats, ride quality is surprisingly compliant whether you've ponied up for the MRC shocks or are riding around on the base steel springs.

Camaro's design team resurrected this tri-color emblem from past models.

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That feeling of enhanced control carries over to the substantially overhauled powertrains, too. As before, there are naturally aspirated six- and eight-cylinder options, both of which I sampled. But the Camaro's all-new entry-level engine will be a new 2-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder. That's right, a Camaro with a blown I4, just like a Volkswagen GTI. Unfortunately, this engine won't be on sale initially, and thus was unavailable for a test drive. I hope to sample this combination soon, as it sounds like a honey. It features 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, and is yoked to either a six-speed manual or GM's new Hydra-Matic 8L45 eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

The Camaro's V-6 option is once again 3.6 liters in displacement, but it's an all-new, direct-injected unit with variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation for fuel savings. With 335 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, the V-6 could almost be confused for a V-8 of a few years ago if it weren't for the difference in sound quality. That's not to say the six-cylinder sounds bad. Indeed, it's nicely throaty when prodded -- especially when fitted with the $895 dual-mode exhaust. And it offers plenty of power and good punch off the line: 0-60 arrives in 5.2 seconds courtesy of a well-tuned automatic gearbox that rarely hunts and pecks between its eight ratios. A direct-feeling six-speed manual is also available.

You know you don't really need the V-8, but it's the engine you want. Chris Paukert/CNET

This being a pony car, the sixth-gen Camaro's headline engine remains an eight cylinder -- more specifically, the 6.2-liter LT1 borrowed from the Corvette. As on the C7, the SS' engine also includes variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation on models equipped with the eight-speed paddle-shift automatic. It's a stormer, with 455 horsepower and an equal number of pounds-feet -- enough to deliver 60 mph in 4 seconds dead en route to a quarter-mile time of 12.3 seconds.

While the industry trend may be toward smaller-displacement engines, there remains something intrinsically "right" about a muscle car with eight big cylinders under hood, and good as the V-6 is, it's the V-8 that really makes your neck hairs stand on end. It's surprisingly quick to rev, and the burbles and pops on overrun really drive home the performance message. As long as gas stays relatively cheap and you can afford the insurance, it's still the way to go to maximize the experience.

If you're still living with the deeply outdated stereotype that these cars don't handle, a spin in the new Camaro will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Of course, big, sticky contact patches will always yield impressive skidpad numbers -- the SS is capable of 0.97g -- but it's the surprisingly refined way in which the Camaro dispatches mid-corner bumps and quick left-right transitions that really sell the benefits of a stiff chassis and a diet that has seen all models lose at least 200 pounds (some models drop nearly double that amount).

The small rocker switch adjacent to the shifter is the Driver Mode Selector. Chris Paukert/CNET

A three-mode Driver Mode Selector optimizes the throttle map, shift schedule, steering weight and electronic safety minders like stability control for everyday driving (Tour), banzai running (Sport) and winter (Snow/Ice). The DMS even alters the interior ambient lighting to set the mood. Naturally, SS models pick up a fourth setting, Track, with even quicker, firmer shifts and more aggressive throttle tuning.

The latter also comes standard with upsized Brembo brakes (13.6-inch four-piston fronts, 13.3-inch single-piston rears), and a smaller set of Brembos (12.6-inch front/12.4-inch rear) are available on mid-level LT models. While Michigan offered no racetracks or steep mountain road plunges available for testing, hard usage revealed good initial bite and little fade.

You may notice that I have yet to really delve into the Camaro's interior -- that's because I was saving the biggest improvement for last. The fifth generation's cabin was a symphony of hard plastics and often discount-feeling switchgear, and there wasn't much tech on the menu. The new model is much better, with smartly grained soft-touch plastics, more substantial controls and even a couple of surprise-and-delight features, including oversized air vent bezels that cleverly double as temperature and fan speed controls.

Build quality in a range of early production cars I sampled was also good, with solid fit and finish and no squeaks or rattles observed. Not bad, especially considering all Camaro tooling recently moved to a new home in Lansing, Michigan -- the last model was built in Ontario.

Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment gains Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability.

Chris Paukert/CNET

CNET has praised Chevy's MyLink infotainment architecture in the past, and this latest iteration, accessed through an 8-inch screen, looks to be the best yet. While more time for exploration is necessary, the screen's crispness, simple graphical layout and snappy responses during my brief time with these cars suggests good things are ahead for owners, especially now that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration are part of the picture, as is a 4G LTE-powered Wi-Fi hotspot.

One thing that hasn't changed is that while the Camaro is listed as a four-seat car, it's not even a humane 2+2. While full 2016 interior measurements aren't yet available, the back seat seems even more cramped than before, with a comically high bottom cushion that forces rear seat occupants to adopt dining-chair-like postures. That'd be fine, except there's no headroom. Forget adults, even kids won't really be able to stand it back there. The rear seats are upholstered parcel shelves and an insurance discount, nothing more.

Worryingly, trunk space appears somewhat smaller than last year's already tight 11.3 cubic feet, too. Both are likely casualties of the new smaller platform and shorter wheelbase. Of course, the Camaro has never been particularly concerned with space efficiency -- just ask owners of the fourth-generation F-body. But hey, you weren't really trying to convince your spouse a Camaro could be a family car, were you?

For some reason, this narrow cargo space is upholstered and has seatbelts. Chris Paukert/CNET

It might not make for a good kinschlepper, but Camaro pricing overlaps that of many upper-end family sedans. A base 1LT with the 2.0T starts at $26,695 delivered, the 1LT 3.6-liter V-6 runs $28,490, and the 1SS with the 6.2-liter V-8 asks $37,295. The Bright Yellow 1SS manual shown in these photos with dual-mode exhaust rings up at $38,585, and a loaded 2SS V-8 automatic can creep up near $50,000. (The Camaro isn't available in the UK or Australia, but for context, a straight currency conversion yields a £17,200-£32,000 range in Britain and $36,500-$68,500 Down Under. However, both countries have much stiffer tax structures.)

At the launch event, Mark Reuss, GM's executive vice president of global product development, remarked: "These cars reflect a completely different philosophical approach to how we engineer our vehicles." That may well be, but what The General has arrived at is a familiar winning formula: Less Weight + More Power = Better Driving.

The 2016 Camaro may look very familiar, but having finally banished its David Byrne suit once and for all, this Bowtied pony car is hardly the "same as it ever was." It's much, much better.

With a 0-60 time of as little as 4.0 seconds, this is going to be a familiar view. Chris Paukert/CNET