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Chevrolet Camaro downsizes to improve driving experience (+video)

With the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, General Motors hopes to continue to boost sales. The Chevrolet Camaro is smaller and more agile than its predecessors, according to its engineer. 

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    General Motors has unveiled the latest update of the Chevy Camaro, labeling it the most-powerful muscle car the company has ever built.
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Happy, muscle-car fans? Just this past year you've been gifted a 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat and a brand-new Mustang, with a 500-plus-horsepower Shelby GT350 waiting in the chute. It's been a Super Bowl of a year, with no deflation to spoil the fun.

In fact, it's the opposite. A new version of the the third member of the classic American muscle-car trio arrives later this year. It's been the best seller for the past few years, outpacing the Mustang again last year by a few thousand sales.

Can the sixth generation of the Chevy Camaro keep that winning streak alive? It'll rely on some Cadillac influence to do it--along with a slightly smaller footprint and a lot more technology underhood, including its four-cylinder ever.

Downsized for the better

GM says the new Camaro is quicker, a better handler, lighter, and more broadly talented than the gen-five car that bows out this year after bowing in 2010.

Other than the name and some badges, the 2016 Camaro is completely unrelated to the outgoing car. The new Camaro has a lot more in common with the Cadillac ATS and CTS, as the latest spin-off of GM's Alpha architecture and as the latest vehicle it will build in Lansing, Mich.

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The Camaro is quite a different beast from either Caddy, though, with more than 70 percent new content wrapped around the best of those related vehicles. The goal, says Aaron Link, the Camaro's lead development engineer, was to shift to the slightly smaller Alpha footprint while building on the best attributes of the previous Zeta-based Camaro, its wide track and low center of gravity.

The new underpinnings let engineers shrink the car and sharpen its handling.

It "feels more agile," Link says, and "changes directions more quickly."

By the numbers, the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro checks in at 188.3 inches overall, down 2.3 inches from Gen 5; at 74.7 inches wide, down 0.8 inches; at 53.1 inches, down 1.1 inches; and at 110.7 inches, down 1.6 inches. Its front track is narrower by 0.6 inches, the rear by 0.5 inches. With that and more widespread use of high-strength steel, the Camaro drops a minimum of 200 pounds in comparable trim levels, Link says, to about 3,000 pounds in base trim.

The blending of mechanical bits started with the Alpha's front- and rear-end structures. From the CTS, Link's crew took the frame rails, motor rails, and trunk floor. The steering gear comes from the upcoming V-Series CTS, albeit with longer tie rods that give the Camaro a wider track and helped draw out the proportions into something less sedan-like--and more a long-nose, classically proportioned coupe.

The weight-cutting lessons learned from CTS and ATS drilled their way down to individual suspension members. "People are amazed when they look at the rear suspension links," Link says. "They’re small and cross-drilled, a lattice kind of a look that’s completely weight-optimized."

That suspension design bears a lot of resemblance to Cadillac's latest efforts, but it's been tweaked for Camaro application. In front a multi-link MacPherson strut setup has a similar double-pivot design to the Cadillac sedans, as does the five-link rear suspension design. GM's highly praised Magnetic Ride Control adaptive dampers return--and this time appear on the Camaro SS options list.

One area where the Camaro hasn't been downsized is in stopping power. Four-piston Brembo brakes are available across the lineup, standard on the SS, and 18-inch Goodyear Eagle Sports are the base tires. Twenty-inch wheels with Eagle F1 run-flat tires are an option on the Camaro LT, while SSs get standard 20-inch versions of the same tire.

Enter the four-cylinder

But what you really want to know is what's going to launch the Camaro into new performance arenas--everything from a new four-cylinder version to an SS with Corvette power.

Three engines and four transmissions have been developed for the new Camaro. The intriguing alternative to Ford's turbocharged Mustang is GM's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, rated in production trim at 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque for what GM promises will be the most efficient Camaro to date, at more than 30 miles per gallon on the EPA highway cycle. It can be coupled to a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic, just like the rest of the lineup. Chevy predicts a 0-60 mph time of under 6.0 seconds.

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The manual shifter is adapted from the same Tremec six-speed Cadillac uses, only with a slightly different gearset, tighter ratios and smaller steps between gears but with the same final-drive ratio. There's no hope for more speeds, though. Link says it just won't fit: "It's not a cost or image thing, or sharing with Corvette, it just wouldn’t fit in our tunnel."

You can give up any green dreams for the Camaro too--there won't be a plug-in hybrid system of any kind, for the same space reasons. "There's no room for battery pack and plug-in...it’s packaged pretty darn tightly."

A 3.6-liter V-6 sits in the middle of the lineup. With cylinder deactivation and direct injection, the six is pegged at 335 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque.

At the top of the lineup, the Camaro SS stocks an LT1 V-8, its 6.2 liters of displacement responsible for a ripping 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque and unspecified 0-60 mph times. GM says this application of the LT1 has its own exhaust manifolds and other adapted hardware, but still shares about 80 percent of its components with the Corvette installation. With the V-8, the available six-speed manual gets rev-matching that can be disabled for track driving. A sensor under the shift rail detects movement and blips the throttle for a smoother, cleaner gear changes--and the function can be disabled via steering-wheel paddles.

No matter which drivetrain is fitted, the Camaro's driving personality can be tweaked and fiddled with through a new Drive Mode Selector. It tunes throttle, steering, stability control, and shift patterns through Snow/Ice, Tour, Sport and – on SS models – Track settings, and lets drivers break free from the presets to choose a custom combination of settings. Slow throttle, heavy steering, and long, smooth shifts? It's possible, if not necessarily desirable.

Sounding off

Making all three powertrains sound Camaro-appropriate was an area of focus, Link says. Both the V-6 and V-8 amplify engine noises and pump them into the cabin--and can be fitted with a two-mode exhaust that skips the mufflers under heavy throttle to boost the musclecar sounds depending on the driver's mood.

Of course, it's the four-cylinder that got the most attention. As with the Mustang, the reception of a turbo-four engine depends heavily on how it sounds--if it's muscular enough.

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"One of our biggest challenges [was], what’s this thing supposed to be like?" Link says. "A V-8 Camaro, we know what that’s supposed to be, it’s pretty tried and true for us.

"We weren't sure really how the reaction would be," Link admits. "There's some skepticism and some stigma" about four-cylinder muscle cars--which is why the Camaro's four gets noise cancellation across the board, to tune out weaker-sounding frequencies, and also noise amplification with its optional Bose audio system.

The four-cylinder also has a different exhaust setup--it went "from a one-in, two-out exhaust, to a two-in, two-out, so the exhaust pipe coming out of engine splits before exhaust."

In the end, Link's team decided to "embrace the four-cylinder and not trying to make it a six or eight. it would come off as very artificial."

"Our engine actually has some pretty good character of its own," he says. "We’ve erred on the subtle side for sure. The more we drive this package, we know people are really going to like it."

A little easier to live with

More drivers should fit in the resculpted Camaro, too. Cockpit styling and packaging has been the single biggest deficit of the 2010-2015 car, what with its lifeless cabin, a useless back seat, and front buckets that couldn't accommodate taller drivers, even without a helmet.

With its subtle new contours smoothing out the blocky, Transformers-like edges of the gen-five car, the Camaro also should deliver more interior space, at least for front passengers. Trunk space and back-seat room? They still take a back seat, but with some work, Link's crew has found a little more space in the rear.

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"When we first started, we realized headroom in rear was pretty bad, so we shrink-wrapped headliner better to the rear and moved some things around to be able to gain a full inch of headroom that we didn’t have."

In front, better clearance should be a boon to anyone strapping in for lap times. The front seats have a lower limit for vertical travel, and even though the roof height is lower, Link promises more room for helmeted drivers.

Wrapped around the driver is what Link says is one of the best things about the new Camaro--the interior. "People are going to be blown away" by its more open, much better finished cockpit.

"It's nothing similar to the old one," he says, outlining the Camaro's new interior. A lot of space has been freed up by reconfiguring the center stack and console; "there's not so much of a wall between passengers," he says, thanks to an electronic parking brake and round vents with integral climate controls. The CD player's been axed, too, to make more room for a big 8.0-inch touchscreen atop the stack--paired with another one offered that slots between the gauges. The screens, coupled to available wireless phone charging and Chevy's MyLink infotainment system, makes this the most connected Camaro ever.

It's not short on glitz, either. The Camaro now has ambient lighting that can be linked to drive modes. There’s even a theatrical “car show” mode that cycles randomly through the entire color spectrum when the Camaro is parked.

A first drive, of a kind

When Chevrolet opened up the gates to Detroit’s Belle Isle racetrack this weekend to Camaro fans and owners from far and wide, it opened up the floodgates, too. For the rest of this year, the automotive reaches of the Internet will spend gigabytes of data, arguing over and figuring out which new muscle car rules the roost.

Will it be the latest Mustang, or the brand-new Camaro? We don’t have a comprehensive clue just yet, but after a couple of hours’ worth of hot laps at the Belle Isle course, it’s pretty clear that the Camaro’s made a lot more effort than the Mustang to carve away at its substantial curb weight. It’s a pony car after a round of PX90—composed more of lean muscle, less barrel-chested than before.

Now for the disappointment: our early drive in prototype ’16 Camaros came only in V-6-equipped cars, though we did get to sample both the six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic. No boosted four-cylinders or whomping LT1 V-8s were anywhere to be seen, unless you count the ’15 model-year lead cars used by Chevy’s pro drivers to walk us around the tight, virtually run-off-free island circuit.

Chalk talk

If you were distracted by all the talk of turbo fours and massive V-8s, we understand. The mid-range V-6 in the Camaro might not get the headlines, but give it some undivided attention and it shows how far Camaro engineers have gone to trim weight and to button the car down much better than before.

The six-cylinder’s a 3.6-liter unit, with direct injection and cylinder deactivation. Rated at 335 horsepower  and 284 pound-feet of torque, it’s easily a five-second car in the race to 60 mph.

It’s also an eardrum-burner. Watching a snaky line of Camaros peel off down the pret-a-pit lane drummed up for the weekend, the six-cylinder Camaro ripped out of sight accompanied by a soundtrack that’s best described as lurid. Vintage Ferrari? A little F1 flavor? Whatever you hear from it, it’s clear GM’s work on dual-exhaust systems and non-V-8 soundtracks has paid off.

A double pivot

Step into the Camaro and a few impressions ring in clearly before the pushbutton start. Slimmer pillars have cleared up the view out of the Camaro’s front glass, while a look backward suggests the lower seating position and high tail will want for any rearview camera you can find. Maybe a couple of them.

The new dash has some curves in common with the old one, but paying attention to materials and shapes gives the new Camaro cockpit a strikingly forward-thinking feel. Big digital gauges, a binnacle that looks framed by Tie Fighters, huge gimbaled air vents—it’s a gamble that’s paid off, in that the Camaro doesn’t grasp for heritage straws. It’s fresh, and it’s going to look fresh for years to come.

Fire up the V-6 via the pushbutton, slide the gearbox into go mode, and the Camaro burbles quietly until you wind it up into its meaty midrange. That’s where the enveloping snarl pours into the cockpit, and the noise amplification built into the Camaro wins you over, note by engine note. It’s a rich, mellow sound that doesn’t fray into a frantic tone even when you fling the tach needle skyward.

With the drive mode set to Sport, it’s painless and reward-rich to put the Camaro very close to the jersey barriers sitting bare inches off the door panel. The fifth-generation Camaro would power its way into the same slot, but would feel like pushing a refrigerator box with your fists. Much frontal area, so amaze. It wasn’t until the 1LE that the Camaro’s steering box felt more connected to the act of driving.

Here? That double-pivot front suspension aped from Cadillac will sway anyone. True, the Camaro’s narrower, leaner, and lighter in absolute terms: it’s how much lighter it feels that’s so impressive. It feels like a few hundred pounds have come off the nose alone, the geometry and steering responsiveness creating a real sense of true, of high fidelity. Winding in and out of a couple of Belle Isle kinks, the Camaro charms away its kludgy recent past by being a hundred percent present, no distractions.

Given the choice between automatic and manual, we’d only say to go with your gut. The six-speed shifter was as trouble-free as it could be without the rev-matching add-ons that come with the manual/V-8 pairing. The eight-speed automatic gives up nothing except lever motion, its gear changes assasin-quick and clean.

We spent a bare hour with the old and new Camaros, so there’s obviously a lot more to come. We haven’t even touched the smaller or bigger engines, haven’t heard a word on Camaro pricing—but it’s all set to dribble out throughout the summer. (We’ve also seen images of a Camaro RS, but its place in the lineup is uncertain.)

After a handful of quick uncalibrated laps, we have more Camaro questions than answers. We’ll reserve our final words for a future day, when we’ve driven all versions on public roads.

This little tease? It was brief, but it’s enough to say the chunky new Mustang’s going to look a little thick at the middle come this fall.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best auto bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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