The current Chevrolet Camaro has been amazing in its ability to upend the way we view traditional American muscle cars. It's a big, heavy, gas-guzzling V8 beast, but in Camaro ZL1 guise it can slay supercars, and the Camaro Z/28 is emerging as one of the best track-focused cars of our era.
So where does that leave the basic Camaro SS, the muscle car that's supposed to be attainable for the common man? Oh, it's pretty great too, but when you buy one make sure you spend an extra $3,500 and check the box that says "1LE."
(Full disclosure: GM PR man Steve Martin loves the Camaro SS 1LE so much he sent it to me with a full tank of gas for an entire week. I should also disclose that I scratched one of its wheels on a particularly nasty D.C. pothole. Sorry, Steve. I hate this city.)
A few folks at GM have complained that not enough people know about the Camaro's 1LE Performance Pack, or at least, not in the way everyone knows about its intended competitor the Mustang Boss 302. I say it's because the name is too boring, too close to a trim level on a Camry. I think they should have called it the IROC-Z instead.
Yes, I know the International Race of Champions isn't a thing anymore, and some front company for Al-Qaeda probably owns the copyright to the name. I want what I want.
Opting for the 1LE pack gets you the SS's standard 6.2-liter V8 engine rated at 426 horsepower, but it gives you a host of other improvements like a special Tremec six-speed manual gearbox, a 3.91 rear axle, a performance-oriented suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, 20 inch black wheels, and a matte black hood and rear spoiler. Many of its add-ons come from the ZL1.
Basically, you get the ultimate track-oriented Camaro SS and a car that also happens to look like a much fancier Camaro, or possibly a hero character in Transformers. There's nothing subtle about the SS 1LE, and that's good, because who wants a subtle Camaro? No one I want to be friends with.
As you might expect, the car is plenty fast. But the 1LE package makes it a surprisingly adept handler as well. It's not magical like the Magnetic Ride-equipped Camaros are, but it's far more athletic than your standard SS.
Still, the biggest downside to my week in the Camaro was its size. It's a long, wide, heavy car, coming it at 3,860 pounds, and it feels awkward to drive in cramped city streets. And while the 1LE makes some serious improvements to its handling, that heft can still be felt in the corners. I'm not saying the Camaro needs to be the size of a BRZ, but losing a few inches in every direction and a couple hundred pounds would do it wonders.
In spite of its size, it's just a fun, engaging, balanced and very complete Camaro, one that's as comfortable on the track as it is on a long highway cruise. If you enjoy anything at all about driving, V8 power, great-sounding engines, America, apple pies, and freedom, you'll find something to like here. (Also, in a week of driving, I never ran into the recalled key problem except the one time I deliberately tried to do it myself.)
More than anything I liked the way the SS 1LE made me feel deep down inside. It made me feel awesome and patriotic and ostentatious, like I was talking a big game and could back it up with eight cylinders of power all day long. It made me feel like a badass.
It made me feel like I was main character in some cheesy 1980s action movie. A movie where I, a deeply troubled but extremely handsome cop, have no choice except to turn vigilante because the system is always in my way. A movie potentially called Streets on Fire: The Revenge.
Like I was in my silver and black SS 1LE, pursuing some bad guy in a lesser muscle car in a dangerous chase through downtown that ends with him flipping over and rolling into a ditch. Like I could walk up to him as he struggles to climb out of his upside-down car, all while its gas slowly leaks onto the pavement, with a sinister smirk on my face.
"Bet you're wishing you hadn't killed my partner now, huh, Escobar?" I'll tell him, pulling a cigarette out of the inside pocket of my leather blazer.
"They took your shield!" he'll scream, still stuck in the car. "You can't do this to me!"
"I'm not here to arrest you," I'll say, lighting the cigarette and taking a nice long drag. "When you meet the devil tonight, tell him Detective George sent you. He knows my name."
And then I'll flick the cigarette at the gasoline pooled underneath his car and speed off, my Camaro's tires smoking, without ever looking at the explosion behind me because cool guys don't look at explosions.
Something like that. When I wasn't stuck in traffic, anyway.
Exterior - 8/10
Considering it first debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007, the fifth-gen Camaro really should look dated by now. I don't think it does at all. It's aged well, and it still looks bold and aggressive, like a Camaro should. Initially I didn't care for the refreshed headlamps and taillamps, but as I saw older Camaros on the road and compared them to this one, the new look grew on me.
The 1LE package puts it way over the top. With the black vented hood and spoiler, and the huge black wheels, it looks more like some crazy tuner special than something you can get from the factory.
Interior - 6/10
Microfiber! The 1LE has it. It's on the flat-bottomed steering wheel and the gear shifter, and it's a nice touch. It's super-grippable and never gets hot or cold. No, I don't know how it will look years down the line, but for now it's great. It also has outstanding Recaro seats which offer a fine compromise between grip and everyday comfort.
The rest of the Camaro's interior is just kind of meh. Materials don't feel quite as good as some of GM's newer cars, and outward visibility is infamously poor. It's dark and a little on the claustrophobic side for such a big machine.
Acceleration - 7/10
Though it looks like it a high-end special edition Camaro, the SS 1LE isn't the balls-to-the-wall acceleration monster that the ZL1 is. But while it's not insanely fast, it is very, very quick, which excellent low-end and midrange power in that old-school V8 way. It's a dependable kind of speed — downshift to third on the highway and you know exactly what you're gonna get. Zero to 60 mph comes in the low-to-mid four second range.
In some ways I like this Camaro better than the ZL1 because its power is more usable in a real-world sense, while its supercharged brother could be filed under "too much." (Not that "too much" is bad, of course.)
Braking - 8/10
They're four-piston, 14 inch Brembo brakes and they do an outstanding job of stopping the car. Pedal feel is nice and strong, too. You know these brakes are serious because the calipers are painted red!
Ride - 6/10
What, did you think with all these suspension and track-oriented tweaks that the SS 1LE would ride like a Bentley? Like I said, it doesn't have Magnetic Ride Control or an adjustable suspension, so the norm is "harsh." I didn't find it uncomfortable, personally, but will keep you well-acquainted with your city's potholes. (Too bad you won't see them coming because of the visibility thing.)
Handling - 7/10
Besides the cosmetic stuff, the real reason you'll want the 1LE is the handling goodies. Monotube rear dampers instead of the SS's normal twin-tube dampers, 27 mm front and 28 mm rear sway bars, stronger rear-axle half-shafts and a strut tower brace all make the car take high-speed corners with extreme confidence and just a smidge of body roll. And yes, you can get the rear end out quite easily.
I also have to give praise to the steering rack, which went electric in 2013. I'm not sure if this is the same system as the one in the Corvette Stingray, but both are incredibly direct and offer levels of feedback comparable to good hydraulic systems.
Like I mentioned earlier, the car's size and weight still keep it from being the most agile thing on the road, but overall it's very neutral and balanced.
Gearbox - 8/10
The 1LE package comes with just one transmission option, a special Tremec six-speed, and it's one of the better manual gearboxes I've used in a while. Gears are easy to find, shifts are aftermarket-kit levels of short and doing so requires a nice amount of effort from your arm. There's a 1-to-4 skip shift system here as well, but I didn't find it terribly intrusive.
The clutch is heavy and a little on the grabby side, and that took some getting used to. I also noticed an odd rearward clunking noise when I pushed it in all the way. I don't know if that's worth caring about or not.
Toys - 6/10
If you don't count all the performance goodies as toys, my tester — a 1SS with fewer bells and whistles than the upmodel 2SS — came up fairly sparse in the toys department. A backup camera would have been nice but this car didn't have one.
The centerpiece toy was the Chevy MyLink infotainment system. It's really not bad. It's reasonably quick, the menus are easy to figure out, and the graphics look fine. I don't think it's quite as good as Chrysler's UConnect, but it's better than the last few TouchMyFord systems I used.
I didn't care for the flat panels around the screen that supposedly respond to your touch. These were hit or miss. Buttons would be better.
Audio - 7/10
What a lovely wail this V8 makes. It's the kind of car where you keep it in inappropriately low gears just to let that sonorous America-tastic baritone fill the cabin. And my car even came without the $895 performance exhaust, which I'd probably get if it was my car. Loud is good, but louder is better.
I'd rank the audio higher, but the Camaro's standard sound system is merely okay. Not bad, not great, just okay. But why listen to the radio when you've got a V8?
Value - 8/10
My SS 1LE tester came in at $40,340. It's not cheap, but it's certainly not stratospherically expensive, either, and still far enough away from the $53,000 Corvette Stingray for me to tell you to just buy that instead.
The 1LE is what you want when you buy a Camaro SS. The last one of those I drove was an automatic, convertible model, and this is so much better it almost feels like a different car.
If you look at the SS 1LE the way it's meant to be looked at — as an attainable, track-ready V8 performance car — then yes, I say it's a good value. It's not a luxury car and it's not loaded with gadgets because that's not what it's meant to be. I would opt for the performance exhaust option, as well as a backup camera because that will make your life a little easier. Your parking life, at least.
Like I said, the new Camaro has been good at defying preconceived notions. Can you imagine how good it will be once it switches to the smaller, lighter Alpha platform used by the Cadillac CTS and ATS?
Maybe Detective George will pick one up for the sequel.
Engine: 6.2L naturally aspirated V8
Power: 426 HP at 5900 RPM/ 420 LB-FT at 4600 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-60 Time: 4.5 seconds (est.)
Top Speed: Not listed
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,860 LBS
Seating: 2 people up front, 2 small children or people you don't like in the back
MPG: 16 city/24 highway/19 combined
MSRP: $34,350 base 1SS price; $40,340 as tested with 1LE package and other options