Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff collection of impressions, jottings, and marginalia on whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The four-cylinder Chevrolet Camaro.
Americans might feel more open to scaled-down engines in a muscle car, if they hadn’t been played for suckers in the past. Forget even the epicene Mustang II: The Camaro Iron Duke, the four-cylinder, 90-horsepower turd that GM dropped on unsuspecting fans in 1982, wasn’t just the biggest imposter in muscle car history; it was one of the worst cars ever to come from Detroit. And that’s saying something.
Like communist historians, GM (and Ford, and Fiat Chrysler) often likes to whitewash entire chapters of performance oppression and outrage, yet the carmaker sometimes can’t resist jogging our bad memories. Chevy boasts that, by developing 275 turbocharged horsepower, the newly-standard four-cylinder in the 2016 Camaro matches or beats the output of any small-block V8 offered between 1971 and 1995. I can already hear your applause tapering off. Yet this Camaro RS—like the Ecoboost Mustang—is a sincere olive branch to fans, not another hobbled Trojan horse.
If you love the Camaro’s rebellious roots and style, aren't bothered by its godawful sightlines, and can’t stretch your budget to the V-6 model or the dominating SS V-8 version, there’s much to like here. This is a Camaro that, at just 3,339 pounds, weighs 390 fewer than the previous generation’s six-cylinder base model. Incredibly, this lightest Camaro weighs in like a Corvette hauling a few groceries—it's only 41 pounds heavier than a base Stingray. As with the entire sixth-generation Camaro lineup, thank the mass-shedding chassis it shares with the Cadillac ATS and CTS. It’s like one of those mind-blowing weight loss before-and-afters: The Camaro, after 40 years of packing in Detroit coney dogs, is suddenly as trimmed and toned as the dude in those Insanity fitness videos.
Save weight, save money. My four-cylinder Camaro 1LT started at $26,695 and shot out the door at $30,380, versus roughly $44,000 for the SS I memorably partnered with in the Adirondacks. Auto journalists, this one included, sometimes forget that 40 grand is too guilty a splurge for even solidly middle-class buyers, especially for a good-times car. And while I couldn’t quite maintain the EPA rating of 30 highway miles per gallon, the manual’s overdrive sixth gear put a frugal 28 mpg within easy reach.
Despite its cylinder-challenged status, only a prick would accuse this Camaro of being slow. The four-pot RS runs to 60 mph in a pride-salving 5.4 seconds with the manual trans, and does the quarter-mile in 14 seconds flat. That’s a respective 0.1 and 0.2 seconds quicker than the previous-generation porker, the 304-horsepower V-6 model.
Yet for all that, I’m just not personally interested in a four-cylinder Camaro—or maybe any four-cylinder pony car. The culprit here is GM’s Ecotec four-cylinder, the one that always sounds great on paper (see: ATS, CTS, Buick Regal GS) but never quite fools your eardrums or inner ear on the street. Put an overachieving VW/Audi turbo motor in this car, or BMW’s boost-crazy TwinPower engine—two four-bangers where you don’t miss the extra cylinders—and I might feel differently.
The Ecotec has improved over the years, but it’s still laggy at the bottom and wheezy at the top. The punch is estimable, including 295 pound-feet of torque, but it’s packed in a short, almost diesel-esque powerband. A final crawl to redline, between 6,000 and 7,000 rpm, makes it the Lady in Red of four-cylinders: The slow dance you never want to relive. The lack of sonic boom and low-end grunt, so explosively addressed by the SS model's Corvette-based V8, seems at odds with the Camaro ethos. Chevy has coaxed a modest terrier growl out of the four-cylinder, but many fans expect off-the-leash Doberman instead. Visuals are no problem, as my electric-blue Camaro drew as many compliments from onlookers as the SS. Fire it up, though, and some loyalists will wonder: Is this a real, bro-worthy Camaro, or a Subaru duded up to compete on “The Bachelor”?
On forested two-laners in New York’s Dutchess County, this milder, softer Camaro couldn’t mount the same thrilling commando attack as the SS, which includes a stiffened suspension, Brembo brakes and sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber in its ammo belt. (The difference shows up on paper, too: Chevy claims 0.85 g’s of lateral skidpad grip for the base LT, versus a lofty 0.98 for the SS.) My test car did raise its game with a $1,950 RS package, including 20-inch alloy wheels wearing run-flat tires, HID headlamps with decorative LEDs, a reworked grille, rear spoiler, and LED taillamps.
Yet the revolutionary transformation of the new-gen Camaro still shines through. The car has the fastest, most spot-on steering of any muscle car, a tight and responsive chassis, and an excellent six-speed manual that ups driver involvement. The Chevy found its best proving ground on the Sawmill Parkway north of Manhattan at night, dispatching fast sweepers and hugging concrete dividers like a NASCAR-lite stocker.
As someone who couldn’t stomach the Camaro caricatures of the Seventies through Nineties (or the local Detroit dopes who tended to drive them), it’s great to see a Camaro that defies so many of its stereotypes and gets with the enlightened-man program. So it shames me a bit to say that this four-cylinder Chevy sheds a bit too much baggage at once. A Camaro still needs to tease up its roots, show off its muscles and crank up the metal, enough to get Tawny Kitaen writhing on the hood.
2016 Chevrolet Camaro 1LT
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder: 275 hp / 295 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 5.4 seconds (six-speed manual transmission)
Price (as tested): $25,695 (30,380)
Spinal Tap Amplitude: Four (out of Eleven)