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American muscle is on notice: First impressions of the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Camaro’s resurgence in 2009 answered a challenge the newly restyled Mustang and Challenger put forth. With a sharp look, independent rear suspension, and a hyped Transformers movie appearance, Camaro was poised to cross the line in the sand with confidence.

The newly revealed 2016 Camaro, brand new from butt-to-bowtie, had a tough act to follow.

Following the unveiling at Belle Isle Park, Chevrolet brought myself and the other visiting journalists back out to the track to spend a little wheel time with the test mules. The automaker was so confident in their lighter, stiffer muscle car, they even provided some fifth-gen cars for back-to-back comparison. I had always been disappointed with a few of its points, and having driven many of the car’s different permeations, the consistency of those strikes against it weighed heavily against its positives. I was eager to see if the new one resolved these points, or just carried over the same problems with it to the next generation.

The Look

Given the popularity of the fifth-generation car, which saw the Camaro badge return from a seven-year hibernation, Chevy didn’t seem eager to stray too far from the instantly recognizable look. The new car is two inches shorter, but an inch wider, and the design looks as though they’ve trimmed much of the fat. Indeed, this is backed up by the 200 pounds the Camaro shed. As such, it ultimately looks like an evolutionary design and not a revolutionary one. Opting for this conservative approach does take out a bit of the thrill from seeing a next-gen vehicle, but its hard to argue against a style that still works.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Alex Kalogianni/ Digital Trends

On the inside, however, the generation jump is significant, and in a very forward-thinking way. Gone are the retro-inspired center console gauges in favor of a new location for the air conditioning vents that integrate all the HVAC controls within them. This leaves the dashboard clean, leaving the eight-inch infotainment screen the sole feature.

Same goes for the dual-binnacle gauge clusters. There are still vestigial design elements that bridge the gap, but now, the analog gauges are now housed inside a large cluster that makes use of the real estate by fitting another, far more useful 8-inch color display.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Alex Kalogianni/ Digital Trends

The entire interior feels much more ergonomic and driver oriented, which was in my top three gripes when it came to the fifth-gen Camaro. It often felt like a prototype that wasn’t optimized for humans, rapidly pushed into service. Its very easy in the new one, however, to situate myself and focus on the drive.

The Feel

At the Belle Isle track, the 2016 Camaros on hand were prototypes that housed the new 3.6-liter, six-cylinder engine, which produces 335 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. This is a jump from the old V6’s 323 hp and 278 pound-feet. Our runs didn’t really highlight any significant differences in both power plants, but what was immediately noticeable was the improvements in the handling and in the manual transmission.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Alex Kalogianni/ Digital Trends

My gripe of all gripes with the outgoing Camaro was always its finicky manual gearbox. Like the driving position, it was never user friendly, having a narrow-feeling contact point that made even the most seasoned stick driver feel like a klutz. This has mercifully been chucked in favor of a new manual that shifts much more smoothly. I didn’t have to fight the car anymore, trying to land unforgiving upshifts and ham-fisted downshifts. Now the car was working with me, and I could focus instead on performance.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro

Alex Kalogianni/ Digital Trends

Believe me when I say that it does indeed perform. Two hundred pounds goes a long way when subtracted from various internal parts. In the corners, the new Camaro feels tight and, I dare say, European. It felt like a light, well-packaged sports car with plenty of thrust to toss it around. All the improvements — the gearbox, the chassis, the updated gauge cluster — added up to a car that is a substantial improvement over its predecessor.

Related: Chevy’s redesigned 2016 Camaro is lighter, more nimble, still brutally powerful

It’s too early to tell if tops its Ford and Dodge counterparts, but they should certainly be on notice. Chevrolet is shy to reveal performance numbers for anything other than the turbocharged four-cylinder in the base model, but its specs compared to the current Mustang makes it look like a very even fight. I’m eager to see what the car is made of when the production models drop later this year, particularly the 6.2-liter V8 SS model. Until then, I’m amazed that this quick drive has, in one sitting, changed the Camaro from a car that has disappointed me to something I’m excited for.