Review: 2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2LT

Does the turbocharged Camaro do the platform justice?

When he drove the new Chevrolet Camaro SS late last year, our managing editor called it "anything but" in "a world of safe and average." What happens, though, if you remove that fantastic V8 and high-tech suspension? Is the Camaro still the class of the segment without its party pieces? Chevrolet loaned us a turbocharged model so we could find out.

What is it?

The Camaro is Chevrolet's pony car—its 2+2 performance coupe intended to offer speed and style to the buyer who doesn't quite have Corvette money to throw around (or simply needs that +2). It's new from the ground up for 2016, riding on a more compact platform and boasting a new powertrain lineup.

Our tester was a 2LT Coupe equipped with the new two-liter, direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder. It's good for 275 horsepower and 295lb-ft of torque. This new base engine was paired to an eight-speed automatic in our evaluation car but a six-speed manual is standard for those who want to row their own. Chevy rates this combo at 22 mpg city, 31 highway and 25 combined. Not awful.

The new Camaro rides on GM's Alpha platform—the same which underpins the Cadillac ATS. As a result, it's smaller and lighter than the car it replaces (and noticeable so). Our tester only tips the scales at just over 3,330lbs. For those keeping score at home, that's roughly the same as the (two-seat, more-cramped) Nissan 370Z.

Unlike the SS, the base Camaro can't be equipped with the top-trim car's adaptive MagneRide suspension. You still get struts up front and a multi-link setup out back, but no adjustability--manual or otherwise.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the new Camaro without also talking about the new Mustang.

While Ford and Chevrolet have taken similar approaches to their engine lineups, they have opposing philosophies when it comes to addressing the entry models of their respective pony cars. Ford positioned its V6 as the base engine, with the 2.3L turbo holding the middle ground and the V8 topping the range.

Chevy flips the turbo and V6 models, offering a 4-6-8 progression in cylinder count that perhaps makes more sense in the abstract regardless of its actual real-world implications.

Ford's approach was chosen with the belief that enthusiasts would see the turbocharged EcoBoost engine as a tuning platform, and thus would want to be able to order the car with options such as big brakes, Recaro seats, sticky summer tires and a performance-oriented suspension.

Chevy, on the other hand, thinks its four-cylinder is ideal for the customer who essentially wants to own a cool-looking American coupe, but doesn't necessarily want to spend extra for all the go-fast bits—the same way Ford positions its V6. You won't find summer tires or Recaro seats on the base Camaro's option sheet (though upgraded seats are coming to higher-end models for 2017).

That all said, it is possible to equip a Camaro similarly to a Mustang when it comes to performance, and for a nearly identical price. Simply add the Camaro's heavy-duty cooling and brake package, and you're about 85% of the way there.

The $485 price tag in our breakdown below is misleading, however, as the brake upgrade requires a wheel upgrade, which means either spending $1,000 on 20” accessory wheels or opting for the $1,950 RS package. Sorry, Chevy partisans. No easy victory there.

Remember, though: the Camaro is nearly 200lbs lighter.

What's it up against?Let's get the obvious out of the way: The Camaro is intended to compete directly with the Ford Mustang, period. The next logical alternative is the Dodge Challenger. At 3,830lbs, a Challenger SXT is no featherweight. Shop it for its brash looks and extra interior room, but don't expect it to be able to run laps with its friends without getting winded.

From a less-focused perspective, other competitors would include the Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Only the Genesis would have a shot at keeping pace, but if you're looking at $30,000, rear-wheel-drive coupes, they're all in the ballpark.

What does it look like?If you've seen one Camaro…

It may sound harsh, but honestly, the new Camaro's redesign could be generously described as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. You'd have to put them next to each other in order for the average buyer to spot the squinty new headlamps, the more sculpted rear end and the overall decrease in size.

That said, there wasn't much about the old car's look that needed fixing, so "business as usual” in this case means perfectly good business.

And the inside?Now, this is where things get interesting. The old Camaro's interior was often panned for its too-kitsch retro approach that seemed to have been given little thought when it came to ergonomics, comfort and overall quality.

The new interior? Different story. There are still some goofy (and sometimes clever) touches, such as the HVAC temperature controls located on the bezel of the center vents, but it's more modern and cohesive overall.

We have a few complaints. The steering wheel is... Hmm. "Ugly” is a harsh word. We're also not huge fans of the huge black swath of nothing running from the wheel all the way to the passenger side vent. It's interrupted to a degree by the audio touchscreen, but it's still just a lot of empty space.

Despite boasting heating and ventilation, the front seats are really nothing to write home about. They're adequately supportive, but not particularly aggressive. Chevy gets points here for the leather quality, however, which was better than what you'll find in a lot of mainstream cars.

If you're hoping that the new car is easier to see out of, well, you're out of luck there. By keeping the old car's proportions and overall style while shrinking the footprint slightly, Chevy pretty much guaranteed that the new car would boast even poorer sightlines than the old one. It's nothing we can't live with, but stepping out of the Camaro into a Golf makes the latter feel like a 1994 Dodge Caravan by comparison. Storage capacity remains at a premium too.

But does it go?With your expectations sufficiently tempered, let's talk turkey. Chevy claims the Camaro 2.0T can do 0-60 in 5.4 seconds and run the quarter mile in 14 flat. The former is a testament to the quality of GM's eight-speed automatic, which is snappy and responds well to commands from either its wheel-mounted paddles or the gear selector itself; the latter is an indictment of the Camaro's size. This may be smaller and lighter than the car it replaced (and smaller and lighter than other pony cars, period) but it is neither small nor light in an absolute sense.

While it's no SS, the 2.0T gets up and goes plenty well. Eight gears is a lot to negotiate, but the transmission acquits itself quite well both in stop-and-go traffic and unanticipated passing scenarios. The engine itself is not particularly charismatic, offering sort of a mechanical whine rather than any sort of throaty vocalization. Chevy offers a performance exhaust option, but if it's just a louder version of what we experienced, count us out.

You won't find any crazy rally-car noises coming out of the nose of the Camaro, either. If you're into the woodland-creatures-being-eviscerated-by-industrial-food-prep-equipment type noises, you'll have to look to the aftermarket.

We found ourselves quite happy with the Camaro's overall drive. The ride is generally pleasant and not too choppy, though the 20" wheels on our tester tended to clunk and clomp audibly over road imperfections. While some of this did transmit through to our backsides (especially when we encountered speedbumps), it wasn't painfully intrusive, and certainly no worse than what you'll experience in a lot of other sporty coupes.

When the roads turned twisty, we found the Camaro's handling to be quite good and the steering communicative, direct and responsive. While the 2.0T may not be as magical as the SS in the ride and handling department, GM's engineers found an excellent balance for its fixed dampers. Honestly, we wouldn't change a thing.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe turbocharged Camaro isn't the best Camaro, but it offers a respectable level of performance for a car that doesn't boast the platform's optimum configuration. The SS is where it's at, but the 2.0T is an alright place to be. If you want a more inspiring engine or flexible ride, tick fewer luxury boxes and go for the V8.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro 2LT Coupe base price, $29,800. As tested, $38,520Convenience and Lighting package, $2,800; RS package, $1950; 8-Speed Automatic, $1,495; Adrenaline Red Interior Accent package, $500; 8” Chevrolet MyLink Audio System, $495; Heavy-Duty Cooling and Brake package, $485; Destination, $995

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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