“Muscle,” as the American auto industry treats it, is a wildly flexible concept. In lean years — the ‘73 oil crisis and its multi-decade fallout, for instance — a muscle car could conceivably deliver just a couple hundred horses from an anemic V-8 engine, beset by new emissions requirements and a demand for better fuel efficiency. (To be fair, a switch from gross to net horsepower ratings didn’t help, either.) Advances in technology, helped along by the resurgence of the middle-class car enthusiast, eventually got us back to giant, throaty V-8s by the aughts.
Of course, the pendulum is swinging again, just as it always does. I can feel it. But I think it’s a far less dreadful thing than it was 32 years ago.
Over the weekend, I drove a camouflaged example of Chevrolet’s next-generation Camaro around the 2.3-mile road course of the Belle Isle Grand Prix, just a short drive from General Motors’ headquarters on the Detroit River. The experience was a little unusual: available with one of three engines, Chevy gave me the keys to the mid-level model, a variant of GM’s latest 3.6-liter V-6 that will make 335 horsepower in its Camaro configuration. At the outset I would’ve expected to drive the SS, featuring a 455-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8. When you’re debuting a new version of a car as iconic as the Camaro — a car designed specifically to do stoplight battle with Mustangs, stretching all the way back to its 1966 introduction — you want to play every card you’ve got, right?
But over the course of that Sunday morning on Belle Isle, the pieces fell into place for me. First, the SS isn’t the volume model; the Camaro is designed to be an eminently accessible performance car, and an SS isn’t leaving the dealership for under $30,000. Second, if journalists had gotten behind the wheel of the SS first, the lower-end models wouldn’t have gotten an ounce of press. And third, color me surprised, but this V-6 is damn good.
Chevy had us first drive the current-generation Camaro equipped with the V-6, followed by the new one. The new model represents an increase of 12 horsepower but a fairly dramatic 28 percent increase in stiffness and 200-pound weight loss, facilitated by a smaller body and a significant uptick in the use of lightening materials and techniques. I wish I could’ve been blindfolded for the test to scrub any confirmation bias, but the next-gen car certainly felt lighter and more nimble on the track. It lacked the almost supernatural pull of a big V-8, but was delightful to flick around the course’s tight corners. (I wish I'd had far more time with it, but drivers were turning just a single lap before letting the next group go.)
And — this is a far bigger deal than I’d like to admit — this unassuming six-banger will have one of the meanest stock exhaust notes from a cheap performance car on the street. It keeps its composure under mild acceleration, but when you punch it, it lets out a blood-curdling braaaaap! that makes the last-gen V-6 sound like a Lincoln Town Car.
Strangely, I might be even more excited to try the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder option, which will be the new Camaro’s base engine. It’s good for 275 horsepower. 275! We’re working with specific outputs that production vehicles could only dream of 30 years ago, a weird place where an engine size starts to decouple wildly from its rubber-meets-road capability. The timeless adage, "there’s no replacement for displacement," may still hold true — the three engines coming to the Camaro are evidence of that — but it’s less true than ever. Like Moore’s Law, it is destined to become a fallacy over time, and we’re perilously close to that tipping point. Just earlier this month, Volkswagen unveiled a 1-liter, three-cylinder engine capable of nearly 270 horsepower. Heinz-Jakob Neußer, head of VW’s powertrain development, called it "a nice example of just how much potential combustion engines still have in them."
And that’s precisely the thing: I believe we are now ready, at long last, to have our cake and eat it, too. Muscle cars are associated with big-displacement engines only because they’ve always been, not because they need to be. And now, unlike in 1973, we have the technology to produce a six-cylinder slice of Americana that’s still capable of putting a giant grin on your face, and, as I learned this weekend, turn your knuckles white on an IndyCar race course. Heck, we’re even ready for turbocharged fours: Ford has been doing it on the Mustang since the latest model went on sale last year, and the Camaro is about to do the same.
But this isn’t the end, it’s really just the beginning: the next inevitable step will be for these cars to adopt hybrid drivetrains. The market isn’t ready today — let’s get folks accustomed to these tiny four-cylinder engines first — but the technology is there, and it’s rapidly dropping in price. GM already offers hybrids across a fairly wide swath of its product portfolio, but they’re focused on efficiency, not performance. Cars like the LaFerrari and Porsche 918 prove that there’s a technological case for combining the limitless torque of an electric motor with the roar of a performance-oriented combustion engine, though. Eventually, it’ll happen across the broader market.
In the meantime, it’s interesting (and kind of exciting) to see that combustion engine tech still advances apace. It’s not a glamorous job: if you want sexy powertrains, you’re probably focused on Elon Musk, with one eye toward the billions of dollars that Toyota is pouring into hydrogen. But as Ford’s Mark Fields told me, gasoline is still the industry’s bread and butter, and it likely will be until there are literally zero tradeoffs for average buyers. For now, if a fun, loud Camaro can sip gas like it’s drinking from a teacup and do it very, very affordably, that’s a decent place to be.
Correction: The article originally stated that the Camaro was introduced in 1965. It was announced in 1966.