Lean muscle: driving the lighter, better 2016 Chevy Camaro SS

In a place called Hell, Michigan, I met the team that developed and built the all-new sixth-generation 2016 Chevrolet Camaro.

Hell — this hell, anyway — isn’t as bad as it sounds. It helped that I was on the rustic hills of the 37-acre Hell Creek Ranch, surrounded by snarling pony cars and people who knew how to talk about them. It also helped that I knew I’d soon be behind the wheel.

But “behind the wheel” is a funny concept, because if you’re under a certain age, you’re liable to have spent more time driving a Camaro in a video game than in the real world. Even GM engineers have started taking cues from consoles: the car’s lead development engineer, Aaron Link, says that he played Forza Motorsport 5 to freshen up on the ins and outs of the notorious Nürburgring track as he readied the new, lighter Camaro for its shakedown.

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Link told me the game was an ideal primer to beef up on his memory of the Nordschleife’s 73 perilous turns, but it wasn’t until he experienced the reality of driving the ‘16 Camaro on the German tarmac that the car came to life. "You don’t get the vibration," he said. "You don’t get the hydraulic feel. But the thing you miss the most is the elevation." He described the sensation of rip-roaring downhill on the track’s 1,100-foot descent in the Camaro SS with a devilish smile. "This car is really rewarding," he said.

As one of the main characters in an ever-present rivalry with the Ford Mustang that spans nearly half a century, of course this Camaro SS needs to be really rewarding. The rivalry is filled with people who aren’t concerned with electrification (yet), with self-driving, with the claims that kids don’t want cars anymore. They’re car people, and the only way to win that fight is by making a good car.

The new Camaro makes General Motors executives giddy, at least. Before they gave me the keys (or key fob, more precisely), Mark Reuss, GM’s EVP in charge of global product development, arrived on site in his own 2016 Camaro to testify on its behalf. "There is no punishment in driving a Camaro," he said. He harkened the new car back to the glory days of General Motors, which presumably pre-dates the births of many of its current customers and the car’s more recent fame as Transformers’ Bumblebee.

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But even as GM tries to appeal to a new generation of car lovers, some tried and true Camaro signatures are here: the dual tailpipe design, the angular hood, the fierce face, the inflated wheel wells. After its 1967 introduction, the Camaro soon became a drag racing darling and an Indy 500 pace car. And later, when the Camaro evolved into IROC-Z form, it earned its cred as the ideal accompaniment to any hair band soundtrack. (Think back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which the ultimate stoner Spicoli totals the high school football star’s 1979 Camaro Z28 to capture the flavor of that era’s long-hair-don’t-care vibe.)

From the outside, this latest Camaro hasn’t gone through major plastic surgery from the outgoing fifth generation, which was highly praised and managed to stay fresh through its lifespan with the track-ready Z28 model that came out last year. Instead, the major transformation on the new Camaro takes place inside — in the parts we see, scroll through, and fiddle with, but also in parts that are beyond the driver’s eye. It’s built on a new platform that has trimmed at least 200 pounds of fat versus the 2015 model on all six available configurations. Weight saving is an old stock-car racing trick that also happens to improve fuel economy, achieved from a cocktail of aluminum, high-strength steel, and engineering trickery. Reuss says GM invested 9 million computational hours on structural development divided among a team of over 140 engineers. On the 2.0-liter turbo model, GM claims it achieved 30 miles per gallon, a notable benchmark for a "muscle car." (Whether you can call a 2-liter four a "muscle car" is another discussion for another time.)

By far the best tool for the twisty roads of Hell is the six-speed manual SS

In a series of short jaunts through Hell — which is more wooded than you might think — I worked my way through the models and engines, leading up to the big one, the SS. (The V6 was nowhere to be found, though we had a chance to drive it earlier this year.) The morning started off in the most modest offering, an automatic, white 2-liter that churned 275 horsepower — Camaro’s first turbocharged engine. Despite the obvious misgivings of putting a tiny turbo where a musclebound V-8 normally belongs, GM boasts that this base model still outperforms its ancestors from the 1960s, charging to the quarter mile in 14 seconds and from 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. I didn't have a chance to drive the four, but even on the V-6, Camaro’s most striking aspect is its visceral feel behind the wheel — the weight savings is definitely noticeable.

By far the best tool for the twisty roads of Hell is the six-speed manual transmission SS and its 6.2-liter V-8, which launches from 0 to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds (4.0 seconds in the automatic) and can brush up against $50,000 depending on options. This is the model that sends us to the body-tingling boundaries of gravity, introduces us to the concept of "g-force," and reminds us why 455 horsepower is a Good Thing. And what makes it even more satisfying is that hungry growl from the dual-mode exhaust system, which uses electronically controlled valves to bypass the muffler and pump up the volume when you mash the throttle. It’s all there — the sound, the fury, the smell, the feel.

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The feel: that’s the real reason to drive this Camaro. There’s nimble cornering and responsive braking power here that defies Camaro’s reputation — that is to say, it can do much more than go fast in a straight line. You can pick your poison with several driving modes: snow and ice, touring, sport, and, on the SS, track mode. (The real speed demons may want to hold out for the big performance numbers that will undoubtedly be attached to the upcoming ZL1 and Z28 models, but the SS is still awfully fast.)

But for perhaps the first time in the Camaro’s history, this car is as much about technology as it is performance (or, depending on the engine, the appearance of performance). Chevy has recently overhauled its entire product lineup with standard technology like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, LTE, and Wi-Fi in all models. The Camaro’s improved 7-inch color touchscreen is more intuitive than before, but the optional 8-inch screen and head-up display is even better, and easier on the eye. (And there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the g-force indicators that Chevy provides for performance-obsessed drivers.) There’s also a standard rear vision camera, which is helpful to avoid the Camaro’s infamous blind spots — a by-product of its hunkered, beefy exterior design. Meanwhile, a nifty feature that lets you adjust temperature directly from the air vents saves on distracting screen real estate.

While much has changed in the car world since the dawn of American muscle, it’s clear from a short trip to Hell and back that the battle between the Camaros, the Mustangs, and the Challengers of the world rages on; it just looks a little different than it used to. Sure, we’re probably going to see hybrids (and possibly even full electrics) permeate this most American car segment in our lifetimes — and yes, it’s easy to be bearish on a bunch of cars that grew up around drag racing and the stench of gasoline. But when you’re behind the wheel of the SS — or even the six! — it’s easy to understand why GM sounds so bullish.

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