When Chevrolet launched the 6th gen Camaro last year, one of the more interesting surprises was that the base model would be powered by a turbocharged 2-liter four cylinder engine, and the all-new V6 powerplant would be the mid-range engine. We were eager to see what the turbo four would be like in the new chassis, but we’d have to wait to find out – only the V6 and V8 SS trim were available at launch.
We’d had a chance to do a cross-country trip in a V6 RS as part of Chevrolet’s “Find New Roads” 48-state media tour, and discovered a lot to like about the car, but felt that the 3.6 liter naturally aspirated six was a fairly unremarkable powerplant – it certainly gets the job done, but didn’t leave us feeling like it had any personality. It’s in a tough spot in the product lineup too, since it will have to live in the shadow of the unarguably charismatic and powerful LT1 V8, while also carrying a higher sticker price than the base 2.0 liter turbo.
The question we wanted to answer for ourselves was whether the four cylinder would be able to rise above its deficits on paper, compared to the six, and make for an entertaining driving experience. We finally got the opportunity to sample both the 2 liter turbo engine and the 6th gen drop top in the desert southwest last week, and came away with some strong impressions about both. The first half of our time was spent on the Spring Mountain Motor Resort’s west track, and the second covered public roads stretching from Nevada across into California. In the process we’d get to try out the littlest Camaro engine ever in both environments.
Against The Competition And History
Chevrolet was confident enough in the new engine that they invited the automotive press to drive the 2016 Camaro outfitted with the turbo four in a head-to-head comparison against both a 5th gen V6 Camaro, and a new S550 V6 Mustang straight off the showroom floor that was literally purchased specifically for this event. Chevrolet is making a lot out of the fact that they’ve positioned the 2.0 turbo as the entry-level Camaro engine, and wanted to showcase it against the base Mustang powerplant, the 300 horsepower 3.7 liter V6, rather than the more expensive 310 horsepower 2.3 liter EcoBoost turbo four.
The drill was simple – first, take a lap in the old V6, then the Mustang, then the 2016 Camaro four cylinder automatic, and finally in the stick shift. Instructors from the Ron Fellows driving school were along in the right seat to help coach us through the tight, technical course.
The 5th gen handled the road course like you’d expect any stock suspension 5th gen to – unless you’re talking 1LE or better, these cars never really felt like they were at home on the track. When we were first introduced to the 2016 Camaro at Bell Isle last year and got to compare it back to back against a V6 5th Gen, the same impression of the legacy car prevailed – it takes some hard work to get it pointed where you want it to go, sapping some of the fun from lapping it at a spirited pace.
The Mustang, despite gaining independent rear suspension in this latest iteration, was even less composed, never really feeling settled from one control input to the next. Call it prejudice against the competition if you will, but the weight of the Mustang seemed to be very evident, and the harder we pushed the Ford, the harder it pushed, too – understeer being the primary handling mode around every corner.
At 200 pounds lighter than the 5th gen V6 car, and with a big improvement in claimed chassis stiffness, the 2016 Camaro 2.0T is far more rewarding to drive on track – even though we weren’t pushing the cars to their absolute limits, you could definitely tell the difference. Turn-in was sharp, the car’s handling balance was on-point, and like everything else performance-related, the brakes benefit from having a whole lot less inertia to overcome.
We’ve talked about GM’s new 8-speed automatic transmission family before, and we like the “lite” version that comes behind the 2.0T should you choose the two-pedal route – the paddle shift function is snappy in this application, and on the highway in Drive, it did a good job keeping the whirly muffler spooled up and staying in the engine’s powerband in spirited driving.
We guess that the take rate for manual transmission turbo Camaros will be higher than the fleet average, but you really aren’t giving up much raw performance with the 8-speed. We also suspect that with just an ECU reflash and a high-stall converter, the turbo automatic will be surprisingly quick at the dragstrip, but we’ll have to wait to confirm that guess until we can get our hands on one long-term and start throwing parts at it.
Our time on the track convinced us that coupled with the peppy turbo four, even the base model Camaro should be a hoot to drive on track days or at the autocross with some sticky DOT track tires. The road miles racked up on this trip gave us an impression that the turbo Camaro drives like a much “smaller” car. While we got to compare it against the domestic competition in the form of the V6 Mustang, we’d really like to test it head to head against the likes of the BMW 228i, Lexus IS200T, or Mercedes C300.
Top Down and Death Valley Bound
Push the button and store those blind spots in the trunk, and the drop-top Camaro really shines.
For 2016, Chevy has upped the level of sophistication for the convertible Camaro. The fully-automatic soft top stows beneath a hard tonneau cover, and it can be raised or lowered with the push of a button in about 20 seconds at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, and lowered via the key fob remote. With the top up, the Camaro’s profile more or less follows that of the hard top version. There’s a bit of wind noise around the C pillar area at highway speeds with the top up, and outward visibility is no worse than in the hard top car, though that’s not saying much, as there isn’t much rearward visibility to be found in the coupe. Push the button in the convertible and store those blind spots in the trunk, though, and the drop-top Camaro really shines.
We expect modern convertibles to be free from cowl shake and flex, and the Camaro certainly doesn’t exhibit any negative effects from removing the fixed roof structure. Chevy made a point of the new Camaro’s modular bracing strategy, with different models receiving specific components to ensure chassis rigidity without adding excess weight, and it seems to have paid off. The 6th Gen convertible feels as composed over rough pavement as the coupe, and even without a wind blocker behind the front seats, wind noise and buffeting at legal highway speeds don’t cause too much disturbance to the top-down fun. We can say from experience, though, that it’s easier to keep speed from building up unnoticed in the convertible – 65 was the sweet spot for cruising the desert two-lane with the top down, but when we traded cars for a 2.0T coupe, it was shockingly easy to find the speedometer past 80 without realizing it.
Spend Less, Get More?
The bottom line? If you live anywhere that can string two or three nice days in a row together, the convertible is the Camaro to have. The one issue we have with the 2016 car – namely the lack of rear hemisphere visibility – simply isn’t an issue with the top tucked away, and there is seriously nothing better than cruising around topless in a new Camaro. The hard tonneau gives the convertible a very clean, ‘finished’ look, and top operation couldn’t be simpler. Yes, you’re paying a penalty in added weight compared to the coupe, but with the new architecture coming in so much lighter than the previous generation, it’s a decent tradeoff.
When it comes to engine choice, buyers opting for the base model won’t be disappointed with its power, especially considering how eagerly the aftermarket is going to go after that turbo four. The Cadillac ATS-V demonstrated just how much tuning potential there is with this engine, and the 6th Gen Camaro will definitely inspire a tuning culture like the one the EcoBoost Mustang has already fostered for itself. It’s legitimately a combo gearheads can love without excuses or explanations.
If it was our money, we’d pick the 2.0 turbo over the V6, especially if we wanted to go kill cones on the weekends and didn’t want the higher price at the pump or in the financing office that comes with the SS. If money was no object? Well, we got to experience another Camaro on this trip that would be our first choice, but that, dear readers, is a story we can’t tell you just yet…