Camaro 1LE: Around The Block

Michael Phelps was the undisputed king of the torturous 400-meter individual medley, ready to take his record third straight gold in London this week when he reluctantly had to hand over his crown to America's new ruler of spandex, Ryan Lochte, who thoroughly trounced Phelps.

The Boss 302 Mustang Laguna Seca was the undisputed muscle car track king, but, like Phelps, its reign isn't infinite. All bow down to the Camaro 1LE, your new king.

(Full Disclosure Chevy wanted me to drive the 1LE so bad that they put me up in a swanky hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that contained a robe that was as white as snow. I wore it that evening after being served the worst cocktail in the history of beverages.)

Chevy began reviving the Camaro 1LE package (originally introduced back in 1988 for Pro-Am road racers) in 2010, when, by Chevy's own admission, the Camaro pushed like a burly pig. Amateur racers demanded help curing the cars' inherent understeer and over the next couple of years Chevy did indeed deliver, most recently with the exceptional handling Camaro ZL1.

But many of the developments that led to the ZL1 were initially developed on the Camaro 1LE test mule.

Mule no more, the new 1LE package is here and can be fitted to any Camaro SS coupe with a manual transmission. The package costs around $3,500 and includes the 20-inch wheels and Goodyear Eagle Supercar G:2 tires from the ZL1 — although rather than use the ZL1's enormous 305/35/20 rear meats, Chevy put the 285/35/20 fronts all around with an aim to neutral out the 1LE's balance even further.

The 1LE's eyes are set on the reigning king of the road racing muscle car, the 444-hp Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca. Monotube rear shocks help reduce body roll and are uniquely tuned to eat up the racetrack. Larger stabilizer bars were added, totaling 27 mm front and 28 mm at the rear. The 6.2-liter V8 produces 426-hp.

Camaro 1LE: Around The Block

To differentiate your 1LE, the car comes with a matte black hood, front splitter and rear spoiler to compliment the ZL1 wheels. Oh, and you get painted red brake calipers. They are the exact same as the stock SS brakes, but they look prettier and give it the appearance of being better. Lochte regularly parades around in pink swim trunks in an attempt to put the focus squarely on him. It doesn't make him swim faster, but at least it makes a statement. Same applies here.

Chevy, who are rather proud of their new Camaro 1LE, decided they would send a bunch of journalists to Gingerman Raceway (near South Haven, Michigan) to prove to us how amazing this car is on track. At a price tag of $37,035, including destination, it is a big chunk cheaper than the $49k Boss 302 Laguna Seca, and Chevy says it will perform better, too.

I know Gingerman Raceway well and even did a comparison test between the Camaro ZL1 and Shelby Mustang GT500 there about a month ago, so I was eager to see how the 1LE faired. The ZL1's secret weapon is its Magnetic Ride Control suspension that turns the hefty muscle car into a fully-fledged sports car. But, for cost-saving purposes, the 1LE does not have this. So without the ZL1's loaded bazooka, could it still dive off the blocks and prosper?

The answer is simple. Yes.

The grip level is insanely high and power down is planted. Obviously I had the traction control off and even still you could stand on the gas extremely aggressively. The car certainly has more body roll than the ZL1 and you do miss the Magnetic Ride, but the work done on the suspension and stiffer stabilizer bars do a great job of masking this.

The power-to-grip ratio is really balanced and the car is a lot of fun to drive. Even a driver with low on-track experience could handle and enjoy this machine, as it inspires its driver with the kind of confidence that Phelps used to display in the pool and now mostly displays in Subway ads.

The car does have more understeer than the ZL1, especially in the faster turns, and I wish the brakes were updated and not just painted. They just don't live up to the incredible handling available, but it certainly wasn't a deal breaker. The gearbox ratios are tuned for the racetrack and the throw is short and tight. For the price, its performance is not that far from that of its big brother.

What's that all mean? The 1LE is for people who can't afford the ZL1 but still want a magnificent on-track missile. Only around two percent of Camaro buyers will take their car to the racetrack, but those two-percenters will be extremely happy.

How is it on the road and to live with? I couldn't tell you, as I didn't get to try that out. But on track, it does exactly as it claims.

Camaro 1LE: Around The Block

To put this into perspective, it is faster at Virginia International Raceway than a 2009 Audi R8 V10 and a 2011 Cadillac CTS-V. It is only 0.3 seconds off the 2011 Shelby Mustang GT500. Oh, and GM claims it's 4.5 seconds faster than the Phelps-like Boss 302 Laguna Seca. And the 1LE package can be installed on previous SS models, too.

When Lochte smashed Phelps in London by 4.1-seconds, the ruling was out. Lochte would become the American poster boy for competitive swimming. And with the Camaro 1LE besting the Boss 302 Laguna Seca by 4.5 seconds, we are faced with the same scenario.

If you want to buy a muscle car for on-track use, the cheaper and faster 1LE seems like the better choice. But you'd be a fool to count out Mr. Worlds-Most-Decorated-Olympian, just as you would be to discount the Boss 302. Both are remarkable machines and represent the US to the rest of the automotive world in the most impressive of forms.

Like Phelps and Lochte, the Boss 302 and 1LE are in a new race for class supremacy. But in this opening matchup, I give the early edge to the Camaro 1LE. Question is, can the Boss 302 rebound and take back its crown? This is the start of an epic game of king of the hill.