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First drive: 2016 Chevrolet Camaro V6

Road tripping through the bayou in Chevy's 2016 Camaro

Is it better to burn out than to fade away? It’s hard to tell when it comes to cars. Sometimes, bringing back a celebrated nameplate results in abominations like the 2002 Ford Thunderbird. Other cars with incredible longevity eventually lose what made them special, like the Chevrolet Impala, and its steady descent into averageness.

Honoring heritage while innovating is tricky business, and all three major U.S. automakers have had their hits and misses. American muscle’s resurgence in the mid 2000s became an opportunity for each to shine. While Mustang and Charger fought for dominance, Chevrolet quietly crafted its own contender, resurrecting the dormant Camaro. Helped by its sharp looks, independent rear suspension, and a helping hand from none other than the Transformers, many would say it was the victor in that three-way battle.

This year, the Camaro returns in its 6th iteration: leaner, nimbler, and more powerful. Is it enough to take on the next generation of Hellcats and European-influenced Mustangs? I took Chevy’s latest pony car from Orlando to New Orleans to find out.

Gators to Gumbo

Chevrolet handed me the keys to the 2LT Camaro V6, which houses a 3.6-liter power plant that churns out 335 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque. The trip from Orlando, Florida to Louisiana’s famous city was much more time than the usual first drive offers, so it would be more than sufficient both to see how it performed as well as how it would be to live with on a daily basis.

The look of the 5th-gen Camaro was a huge factor in its success, and Chevrolet rightfully realized that a wild departure in styling wouldn’t be wise. That’s why the latest Camaro’s look is more of a natural evolution of the previous version’s style. The whole package is meant to be more athletic and lean, sporting a shrink-wrapped body over a muscular structure.

Beneath the surface is GM’s Alpha platform, which is also the basis of the Cadillac ATS. That’s a good thing because the structure is designed for lightness and excellent weight distribution, particularly for rear-wheel drive vehicles. The result is that the Camaro, like the ATS, feels incredibly balanced and nimble.

Purists grumbling that it’s simply an ATS in the guise of their favorite pony car need not worry; the Camaro is made up of 70 percent unique components. It’s lost at least 200 pounds since the last version, but rigidity is up by 28 percent. The result is a car that feels very taught and easy to throw around, if so inclined. Getting the Camaro to do what you ask of it is incredibly easy and doesn’t feel keen to slip out from under you when giving it the beans.

Out with the old…

My gripes from the last Camaro (5th generation) stemmed mainly from its interior. Its visibility was poor and the cabin felt like a prototype pressed into service without being quality tested to comfortably house humans. The latest Camaro is much better, with a very well styled and ergonomic, driver-centered cockpit. In lieu of throwback gauges and air conditioning controls, it instead has a pair of vents and a simple strip of climate control options beneath an 8-inch color display where navigation and infotainment functions are found.

The 2016 Camaro improves upon its predecessor in every possible way.

The 8-inch dashboard screen is home to pages of different apps that are easily accessible, as the touchscreen works a lot like the latest smartphone and tablets out there. Not sure what to do? Instinctively swipe to navigate around or pinch-to-zoom the map, and you’ll usually get the desired result.

Other changes to the interior include swapping out a manual handbrake for an electronic one, which frees up center console room, contributing to a smoother range of motion while shifting. Visibility is still an issue inherent to the design, with its high haunches blinding me to anything coming around my rear quarters.

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Through the integrated OnStar system, the Camaro can also be a roving 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, which was so stable that I was able to video chat with family members eager to see the interior of the car (not while driving, for the record). Through the OnStar service, I was also able to very easily book a hotel for me in New Orleans on the go, having an agent reserve a room for me and remotely program in directions to the hotel into my navigation system.

Night and day

600 consecutive miles is a long enough distance to get a feel for what the V6 power plant is capable of. The 3.6-liter engine produces a very reasonable 335 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, but it lacked oomph when I put the pedal to the metal. It has plenty of power to have fun with, no question, but even with a 0 to 60 of 5.2 seconds, it felt like the Camaro could do better. The 455 horsepower 6.2-liter V8 would cure that problem.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro
Alex Kalogiannis/Digital Trends

My biggest hang-up with the last Camaro, throughout all the iterations I’ve driven, has always been the finicky clutch on its manual offerings. The clunky pedal made finessing gear changes a chore for even the most seasoned driver and thoroughly soured time behind the wheel. With the new Camaro, the feeling is completely opposite. The six-speed manual is smooth and velvety with every gear transition. Through either upshifts or downshifts, the manual effortlessly did its duty, allowing me to focus on actual performance and not once having to consciously think through gear changes.

Whichever engine you choose, the Camaro rides on the independent front and rear suspension that made it a star. The Mustang may have finally taken a cue from the Camaro and ditched the live rear axle in favor of an independent rear, but Camaro arguably feels more sports-car-like through the corners.

Conclusion

By journey’s end, I learned a lot about my stalwart travel companion. It may not be the best tourer, but its refined ergonomic interior means it’s comfortable and easy to command for exceptionally long stretches. I liked the V6, but I also long to experience what the V8 is capable of.

The Camaro is in an eternal tango with the Ford Mustang and Dodge’s Challenger/Charger duo, which means that comparisons are unavoidable. Despite the Mustang finally adopting and independent rear suspension, the Camaro still remains the more nimble, honing its sports-car characteristics faster than Mustang can gain them. Neither would beat the Dodge brothers in the power department, thanks to their 707 horspower HEMI powered Hellcats. But as much as it’s been said that they’re more than just straight-line champions, I’d heartily choose the Camaro over either when it came to track time.

Slated to go on sale this fall, the Camaro will be available very soon. The 2LT Camaro V6 tested was priced starting at $30,795, but totaled to $34,465 with options.

Highs

  • Extremely balanced structure
  • Vastly improved transmission
  • Comfortable, ergonomic cabin and driving position
  • Sports car cornering characteristics
  • Satisfyingly throaty exhaust

Lows

  • Huge blind spots hinder rear visibility
  • Large trunk, yet small opening
  • Labors with the V6 engine