Outside of asking for a tank-crushing armored vehicle, there’s no better car to drive the week of July 4. I wanted the most American muscle car in the entire Chevy fleet. I didn’t care if it had a damn blower on it or not, just as long as it was red, white, or blue.
As luck would have it, there was one muscle car available that week, and it sounded perfect. Big, red, loud, and all-new for 2016, the Chevy Camaro arrived at my doorstep ready to unleash a cloud of tire smoke and exhaust noise, 455-horsepower V8 idling at the ready. Better yet, this was a six-speed manual 1SS that had been upgraded with an adaptive performance exhaust system and GM’s sensational magnetically dampening shocks.
After spending the entire holiday weekend waking up my neighbors and generally feeling like a joy-riding kid, I came away absolutely entranced by the latest Camaro, and here’s why: Driving a Camaro SS with factory performance upgrades is kind of like going to an all-you-can-eat deep fried Oreo buffet, then wrapping up the evening with tallboys of cheap beer at a monster truck rally. It’s that kind of inexpensive, overindulgent entertainment, and damn does it make you feel patriotic.
In my opinion, this is without question the best looking Camaro since the 1970s, and I’m not saying that to make friends or fondle muscle car egos. The Camaro’s looks have been an acquired taste for decades, but this new model looks sharp, and a lot of that has to do with how its front and rear fascias have been re-sculpted with pinched lines, scowling LED lights, gloss black grilles, and matching rear underspoilers. Almost all of the issues I had with the earlier, overly-complex Camaro designs have been rectified, and with the right wheel/tire combo, the optional exhaust upgrade, and some classic racing stripes you won’t be able to take your eyes off one.
Exterior pros and cons
+ With its pinched body lines and jutting aerodynamic angles, the new Camaro is the most attractive model in years.
+ Swooping LED running lights, HID headlamps, tasteful black grille sections and matching rear roll pan, as well as the fully functional hood vents all look and perform flawlessly.
+ The optional, red pinstriped 20-inch gloss black wheels and dual stage quad exhaust are just a couple of the snazzy add-ons buyers can opt for.
– That streamlined look is really counterproductive when you realize how limited visibility is in this car, as every window is severely undersized.
The 6.2-liter V8 in the SS delivers 455 horsepower and the exact same amount of torque, which means acceleration feels unbiased either toward top or bottom-end grunt. It’s a very fun car to drive, and chirping the tires happens easily, especially with the stout six-speed manual gearbox. Various driving modes reward you with performance results, steering column-mounted rev-matching paddle shifters keep engine revs in line, and a clever traction system add up to a feeling of control here that you don’t expect in a muscle car.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Identical torque to horsepower numbers look great on paper, and once the rear wheels start churning out all 455 of them, you realize just how brilliant this 6.2-liter V8 is as it sends you to 60 in just 4 seconds.
+ This six-speed manual gearbox is a finely honed, surprisingly easy setup, and both its limited-slip differential and rev matching make spirited driving a safe and thrilling affair.
+ Drive modes include Touring, Sport, Track, and Snow settings. Once you switch out of the Touring, that optional dual performance exhaust opens up, making it easier to wake up your neighbors.
– Traction can be a bit of an issue in this car, even when in Touring mode. Choose your tires carefully, and watch out for the corners, because in true muscle car fashion the ass-end tends to kick out without warning.
Inside, the Camaro has as many weaknesses as it does strengths. The slim trunk is quite deep, but it’s so narrow that fitting a standard suitcase inside takes some serious finagling and a lengthy prayer to the Almighty. It also loses a few points for having quite a few cheap looking/feeling plastic bits, poor visibility in every direction, and some of the most uncomfortable stock seats I’ve sat in in some time. Having said that, the cabin isn’t the worst place to spend some time, and the layout of the cockpit, along with the steering wheel, gauge cluster, and shifter assembly are all very well placed.
Interior pros and cons
+ The D-cut steering wheel, nicely arranged center console, snazzy door panel designs, and a jagged gauge cluster that matches the exterior all score major cool points.
+ Nice LED interior touches, round vents with spinning ring controls for flow and temp, multiple power seat settings, and streamlined electronic e-brake and drive mode selectors.
+ The lines that feed from one door panel to the next, connecting the dash and all of the trim accents along it are quite nice looking; even the center armrest is curved to match.
– Cheap plastic touches, a too-light shift knob, undersized cupholders, and the absence of aluminum “SS” sport pedals.
– The backseat is pretty damn cramped when compared to a Challenger, but it’s the front seats that offend the most. Reclining is limited to an almost completely vertical alignment, and the material used to wrap them is rough and almost canvas-like.
Tech and safety
Tech-wise, the 1SS has a pretty standard suite of modern GM conveniences, with OnStar, colorful touchscreen, and clever MID settings that wouldn’t be out of place in a Malibu. But being a muscle car, the Camaro also has a snow mode for decreased wheel slip, traction settings that help prevent fish-tailing under heavy throttle (to an extent), and a Track Mode that firms the steering up to the point where your arms grow tired after a while. It’s smarter than its ancestors, and safer to boot, with just enough performance nannies to keep overzealous drivers in check.
Tech pros and cons
+ Multiple USB ports in the center console, passive keyless entry, push-button start, 4G LTE Wi-Fi, five years of included OnStar services, a year of free XM radio, integrated Bluetooth, and Apple CarPlay all score big runs for the Camaro team.
+ Hill start assist, rollback prevention, an electronic e-brake, and the ability to electronically tweak driving modes on the fly are notable tech safety features. The backup camera is also a lifesaver considering how poor rear visibility is.
+ Chevy’s 8-inch MyLink infotainment screen and driver MID may appear a bit simplistic, but they’re extremely informative, rock modern video game-grade screen graphics, and are really responsive.
– Stock speakers are underwhelming, electronic e-brake is a bit slow to engage, and not having blind spot monitoring like the 2SS means lane changes can be a dicey affair.
Tire smoke, engine revs, screaming exhaust notes, surprisingly sure-footed handling… wait, what? Yes, the days of the Camaro handling like a hog are long gone, and while it’s by no means a track star, this SS is far more agile than one might expect. Outfitted with a set of magnetically adapting dampers, hulking Brembo brakes, and an equally adjustable performance exhaust that howls like a scorned banshee, the Camaro has evolved into a sports car that can take a corner.
While the 4-piston Brembos and magnetic ride control settings were precise and offered effortless inputs, it was the gearbox and clutch in this car that truly surprised me. Crisp and easy to use, they moved the car along flawlessly. While the shift knob itself could’ve stood to be a little heavier, and traction still got a little squirrely in the corners, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to drive. Plus, the rev matching proved to be a blast.
The cabin was rattle-free, the MID was useful and quick to offer live driving updates and shift point prompts, and jumping from Touring Mode to Sport or Track Mode opened up the dual-mode performance exhaust for even more power and noise. Unfortunately, the ride in this car leaves something to be desired, as the stock seats are so rough and refuse to recline very far, visibility in every direction made me feel like I was squinting, and even with 223 pounds of weight savings, the car is still heavy. But perhaps its most annoying foible was how the circular center vents churn frigid air directly onto your knuckles as you shift, causing one’s right hand to catch frostbite when the AC is on.
Wrap up and review
Built to please both long-term fanatics and Camaro nonbelievers (like myself), the latest generation of Camaro is a solid muscle car, especially in 1SS trim. It looks good, it corners and drives like a much smaller vehicle, and with the right array of upgrades, it can become a very comfortable car to to drive.
While it does have a few notable drawbacks, the pros well outweigh the cons, and with a starting price of just $36,300, the 1SS is an extremely affordable alternative for anyone not needing the ZL1’s power or its price tag. I can’t recall a single moment where I was left wanting while behind the wheel. The car’s clever traction control settings and adaptive suspension did a great job of keeping everything in line, even when I sent all 455 foot-pounds of torque and then equal amounts of horsepower to the rear wheels. Chevy has done a banging good job with this one, as even aesthetic upgrades like the optional 20-inch gloss back wheel/tire combo hit the nail on the head.
So while it may not be as classically styled as a Shaker-equipped Challenger Scat Pack, or have the flat plane crank like the Mustang Shelby GT350, the SS holds its own with shear drivability, styling, and technology. Plus, with all the factory performance upgrades, my tester only came to $41,880, which is a hell of a deal considering what you get. Inexpensive, well-styled, muscle-bound, and ludicrously loud, the 2016 Camaro SS is all that I could have hoped for when celebrating our nation’s independence. Hell, it’s the American way.