2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE first drive

Chevy's new Camaro 1LE carves curves with the best of them

The 1LE elevates the Camaro, particularly in SS form, to new heights for very little coin. Mustang GT350 owners have every reason for concern.

A year ago almost to the day, I set out on an 800 mile road trip from New Orleans to Dallas in a six-speed manual equipped sixth generation Camaro SS. That kind of seat time gives one the chance to really get to know a car – its strengths, limitations, and any eccentricities that might go overlooked during a brief stint behind the wheel.

The switch from the Holden architecture over to the smaller, more sophisticated Alpha platform that the Camaro now shares with the Cadillac ATS was nothing short of transformative in terms of performance dynamics. And along with a significant reduction in weight across the range, the SS model received the 455 horsepower, direct injected LT1 V8 from the C7 Corvette.

Beyond straight-line performance, the Camaro gained a sense of grace.

But beyond straight-line performance, the Camaro gained a sense of grace. While the fifth generation Camaro was a somewhat brutish muscle car that was gradually refined over the years, the sixth gen car had a sense of poise right out of the box, and it was immediately obvious that the Mustang GT had its work cut out for it.

Handing over the keys in Dallas, I took a few moments to consider my brief wish list for the SS: Stiffer suspension tuning, more grip, and better seats.

The 1LE package delivers on each of those and then some. Yet the result proves to be significantly more than the sum of its parts might suggest, in turn yielding a pair of track-focused Camaros that comprise two of the best high performance bargains on the market today.

Return of the 1LE

The origins of the Camaro 1LE date back to 1988, when the package was first developed for the third generation car in order to make it more competitive in road racing efforts. Aftermarket tuner SLP would put together a hodgepodge of parts to create a similar package for the fourth gen Camaro, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a factory-produced 1LE offering returned to the fold alongside the development of the Camaro ZL1.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the new Camaro SS 1LE is the fact that there’s nothing particularly exotic about it. The package will cost you $6,500 over the price of an SS, making the base price of a V8-powered Camaro 1LE just over $44,000. For that small chunk of change, the SS is outfitted with a laundry list of potent hardware, much of which is again shared with the forthcoming Camaro ZL1.

Standard on the SS 1LE are forged aluminum wheels with Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar rubber developed specifically for the Camaro measuring 285/30ZR20 up front and 305/30ZR20 in the rear, while six-piston Brembo calipers are paired with two-piece 14.6-inch rotors (four-piston units are equipped for the rears).

There’s also the dual-mode exhaust system, an electronic limited-slip differential which can go from full open to full lock depending on the particular situation, the FE4 Magnetic Ride Control suspension package from the ZL1 (which includes stiffer springs and beefier anti-roll bars to go along with its adaptive damping), and a comprehensive cooling package that includes engine oil, differential and transmission coolers.

Inside, the SS 1LE scores Recaro sport seats, a suede-trimmed steering wheel and a short-throw shifter. Notably, the 1LE package is only available for manual gearbox-equipped Camaros.

The dual mode exhaust system lets the V8 roar with authority when driven with enthusiasm.

Along with the unique set of wheels, the SS 1LE also visually distinguishes itself from the standard SS with a front splitter, satin black hood and mirror caps, a rear diffuser and a three-piece rear spoiler.

For the first time ever, the 1LE package graces the options sheet for the V6-powered Camaro. Offered at $4,500 over the price of an LT trim Camaro, it includes a number of bits and pieces handed down from the standard SS, including its FE3 suspension system, fuel system, and mechanical limited-slip differential.

Like the SS 1LE, it also comes standard with a dual-mode exhaust system, unique forged aluminum wheels, grippy Goodyear rubber, and braking upgrades by way of four-piston Brembo calipers up front, along with similar aesthetic tweaks and interior upgrades seen on the SS model.

Recaro seats are optional on the V6, while the Performance Data Recorder video and telemetry data logging system is optional on both the V6 and the SS.

On the road

Our street drives of both the V6 and SS Camaro 1LE took us out to the desolate stretches of highway outside Death Valley. Smooth, almost arrow straight and stretching into the horizon, both models were given ample room to stretch their legs. While the 1LE package offers no modifications to the motor, neither car is a slouch in its segment either.

The LT1-powered SS continues to be a crowd pleaser, its bark enhanced by the aforementioned dual mode exhaust system that lets the V8 roar with authority when driven with enthusiasm and providing ample power wherever you ask for it. With the versatility provided by the adaptive magnetic dampers, the SS 1LE’s ride was never remotely objectionable both on the highway and around town, though the wide tires did show a tendency to track in road grooves more than the standard SS. And although the Recaro seats proved to be comfortable for extended periods behind the wheel and well bolstered for track duty, the lack of lumber support adjustability is a bit of a bummer.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE
Chevy
Chevy

While substantially overshadowed by its bigger brother, the V6 1LE provided plenty of entertainment on the road too, though I did find myself wishing magnetic ride control suspension was at least an option here. Regardless, the V6 1LE seems well suited to tackle the daily commute during the week and then dance at the autocross on the weekend without so much as a tire change.

Like any sixth generation Camaro, the outward view can still best be described as tank-like through the small sections of glass that comprise the greenhouse, making the rear-view camera essential for any close-quarter parking lot maneuvers, while the rear seats and trunk both offer only limited usability. But such is the cost of a smaller, lighter Camaro that maintains the general proportions and aesthetic of the fifth generation car.

On the track

As you’d expect, the road course is where the 1LE package really shows its worth. Our track time was spent lapping the East Circuit at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, a 2.1 mile road course with fast sweepers, elevation changes, double apexes, a long front straight, and a slalom course set up on the back straight that was set up for this particular event. Like the Camaro itself, it’s a course that’s approachable but undoubtedly entertaining.

The car rewards good driving in general, getting consistently quicker every lap and clearly communicating the limits with a total absence of drama.

It’s here where the 1LE package, particularly in the case of the SS model, is nothing short of a revelation. Planted and predictable, the grip from the new Goodyear tires approaches Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 levels of bite, while the Brembo brakes offered consistent, confidence-inspiring pedal feel and admirable capability during our extended lapping sessions.

And while the suspension is indeed stiffer than the standard SS, it isn’t nervous when utilizing the track curbing at speed. The car rewards good driving in general, getting consistently quicker every lap and clearly communicating the limits with a total absence of drama.

But it wasn’t until I got out of the SS 1LE and into a new BMW M4 outfitted with the Competition Package that I really discovered how well sorted this Camaro is. While the turbocharged BMW has an advantage over the SS down the main straight – or so its heads-up display indicated by the BMW’s 2-3mph higher rate of speed before mashing the brakes for Turn 1 – the SS 1LE consistently outguns it in turns of both engineering and dynamics.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

For instance, where the BMW’s shifter feels rubbery and vague, I was never concerned about missing a shift with the SS 1LE’s stout short throw unit. I’ve also always been a fan of GM’s rev-matching technology, which can be turned on or off at will with just a flick of the steering wheel-mounted paddles on SS models, 1LE or otherwise.

The M4 certainly offers its own brand of driver engagement on track, but there’s no question that the car is out-braked and out-gripped by the Camaro SS 1LE. In sections where the BMW wanted to push, the Camaro typically just held the line, and when Camaro’s limits of grip were reached, it gave way predictably and progressively.

A new benchmark

Al Oppenheiser, Chevrolet’s chief engineer for the Camaro, explained during our technical briefing that the goal of the team was to design the car for a broad range of skill levels, and above all, make the car approachable.

After spending a few hours on track with their latest creation, it’s not only clear that they’ve accomplished their mission, they’ve also delivered what is almost certainly the most track-capable car available for under $50,000 – a car which can comfortably go toe to toe with vehicles costing substantially more.

Simply put, you’re currently looking at the new high performance benchmark in this segment, and the competition has their work cut out for them if they want to catch up any time soon.

Highs

  • Superb handling and braking
  • Sophisticated traction and stability control
  • Great value, particularly for SS model

Lows

  • Wide tires on SS 1LE tend to track in road grooves
  • Still feels like looking out of a pillbox
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