By Eric Peters
Muscle cars, by tradition, are supposed to have big V8s as their centerpiece attraction. But what happens when a four cylinder makes as much (or even more) power than most muscle car V8s used to?
You go faster – and get much better gas mileage.
That’s the 2018 Chevy turbo Camaro.
The Camaro is GM’s iconic muscle car.
It’s still available with a muscle car V8 – if you prefer. And a very powerful V6, too. But if you want V8 power and performance without the gas bills – or the higher sticker price and the insurance surcharges – you might want to have a look at the standard Camaro coupe.
It comes with a 275 hp turbocharged four cylinder engine.
Just for reference, that’s more horsepower than most V8 Z28s of the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s – out of an engine with half as many cylinders, that uses only a little less gas than most current economy cars.
Base price is $26,900 – vs. $37,995 for the V8-powered SS version.
Camaro’s most direct rival is – as always – the Ford Mustang, which also offers a very potent turbocharged four cylinder engine as standard equipment. The Ford’s base price is a bit less – $25,585 to start – and it’s a bit more practical as far as back seat room and trunk space.
There’s also the Dodge Challenger – which is a much larger car than both the Camaro and the Mustang, with usable back seats and a Goodfellas-sized trunk.
It stickers for $26,995 to start.
Chevy – like many – is trying to encourage people to buy by offering lower-priced, less “loaded” versions of its cars. In the case of Camaro, that means a new 1LS trim – but it doesn’t mean you’re getting a stripped-down shell, as it did mean back in the classic muscle car era of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The 1LS coupe comes with 18 inch aluminum wheels – bigger wheels than any classic-era V8 muscle car ever came with from the factory – a 7 inch LCD touchscreen with WiFi, a six-speaker stereo, power windows, locks, keyless entry, power driver’s seat, adjustable drive modes and – of course – air conditioning.
Even a limited-slip rear axle is included.
The days of the bare-bones muscle car are long gone.
V8 muscle car power – and quickness – with economy car fuel-sippyness.
Less weight up front vs. the V8.
New lower price, without roughing it.
Dodge the insurance mafia.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Low roofline looks great, but gimps visibility.
Almost-unusable back seat – even for a muscle car.
Ridiculously tiny trunk – even for a muscle car.
The 2018 Camaro comes standard with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine. Which isn’t the first time Chevy has offered a four cylinder engine in a Camaro. The last time was back in the ‘80s. The difference today is that the 2018 Camaro’s standard four is turbocharged and while it’s economical it is also powerful.
It makes nearly three times the horsepower (275 hp) of the ’80s-era Camaro’s larger (2.5 liter) four – which barely made 100 horsepower – and 100-plus more horsepower than the same-era Camaro Z28’s more-than-twice-its-size 5.0 liter V8 engine, which only made 145 hp, if you can imagine that.
Either way, the turbo Camaro gets to 60 in about 6 seconds flat – quicker than all but small handful of classic-era V8 muscle cars. Quicker – I’m embarrassed to admit – than my gaudy ’76 Trans-Am, which has a 7.4 liter V8 and was – in its day – the strongest and quickest V8 muscle car available.
It got to 60 in about 7 seconds – right there with a new Camry.
And did not get 20 MPG in city driving and 30 on the highway, as the turbo Camaro does. 22 in city driving and 31 on the highway with the optional eight-speed automatic, which is more efficient due to its extra-tall overdrive gearing.
A limited slip differential is standard, either way – as well as selectable drive modes.
This is a big car, even though it’s a two-door. At 188.3 inches long overall, it’s more than a foot longer than sports cars like the Nissan 370Z and Mazda Miata. This is traditional – as muscle cars were never small cars.
It’s a weird feeling, if you’re not used to driving a big car that is also a sporty car. Camaro uses most of its lane, with little margin to either side. But this is ok, because the car’s ability to keep on track is as good – or better – than smaller, sportier cars.
It’s like a 300 pound NFL lineman who can also run.
Speaking of which. The turbo four’s power/performance would have qualified for supercar status back in the ‘80s – and well into the ‘90s. It only pales – in perception – when compared with the ludicrously powerful V8 in the Camaro SS (6.2 liters, 455 hp and 0-60 in 3.9 seconds). Truthfully, the V8 is so powerful that making full use of it requires a combination of luck – that you don’t get caught – using it – as well as room and skill to make full use of it.
The four, on the other hand, you can make full use of – which is what makes it fun. This means full throttle runs to redline, then stabbing the clutch as you simultaneously grab the next gear up, the tail of the car jiggling left-right just slightly as the tires briefly break – and then regain – traction.
Also, because there is less weight on the nose (vs. the big V8) the four cylinder Camaro reacts to steering inputs with more verve – and feels lighter.
Because, of course, it is.
The reason for the difference isn’t displacement; it’s that the current Camaro four is turbocharged – and the turbo effectively inflates the 2.0 liter engine to the functional displacement of a V8 more than twice its size, by producing 295 ft.-lbs. of torque at 3,000 RPM. Torque – plenty of it and as soon as possible – is imperative in big, heavy car with an automatic.
Because without it, the automatic hasn’t got much to work with.
The ’80s-era Camaro’s four barely made torque in the three digits – and so was especially awful when paired with the optional automatic transmission. Slow with the manual transmission, it was paralytic with the automatic.
Today, you can go either way – with no performance penalty at all.
There is, however, another penalty – of a different species: Visibility. This the ’80s era Camaro had in abundance, a function of its enormous canopy of glass – most especially the all-glass hatchback but also the large windshield and side glass.
The current Camaro is almost Batmobile-like, with short side glass and a small, almost flat rear window. Unless you are very tall, you will sit very low in the car – and while the view ahead is okay, the view to the rear and to the sides is about the same as Bruce Wayne had inside his car.
Muscle cars are exaggerated cars, the Hulk Hogans of the car world. Bigger – brasher – than the rest. They part the crowd.
The new Camaro definitely does that.
It has some retro-themed styling elements, intended to evoke the first generation ’67-69 Camaro – especially up front – but there is also a infusion of current Corvette themes – especially as viewed from the rear.
Well, technically the Camaro still has four seats – but they are vestigial. The Chevy has the least legroom of any of the three current muscle cars (the others being the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger). There’s 43.9 inches up front – more than many mid-sized sedans have. But the back seat stat is so minimal – about 26 inches – GM doesn’t even publish it.
Combine that with the Camaro’s sexy-looking, low-cut roofline and the result is back seats for gym bags and groceries, not living things.
The trunk is also exceptionally small – even for a muscle car: 9.1 cubic feet. The Mustang’s is 13.5 cubic feet; the Challenger – which is a much larger car than either the Chevy or the Ford – has the most usable back seats of the bunch and a full-size sedan-sized 16.2 cubic foot trunk.
But these are practical criteria – and judging a muscle car by them is like judging a beauty pageant by something other than beauty. Like whether the chick on stage can explain NAFTA.
Where it counts, Camaro delivers. It’s showy and brash, an automotive Zoot suit big-stepping it down the street. It leers – and it rumbles. The right people – safety nags, Peak Oil and Climate Change neurotics – annoyed by the very sight of one. Men invariably like them and good-looking women usually do. As far as the ugly ones . . .
As it should be.
The materials inside are less nice than in the Mustang – but nicer than in the Challenger, which is the oldest car of the bunch and the one most in need of updating. And the criticism of the Camaro’s swath of gray/black plastics is – again – a small matter in context of the turbo Camaro’s price. Bitching is appropriate as far the V8 SS, because of its price.
One thing GM might have done but didn’t is to give the turbo a unique gauge package, or at least offer one for a few bucks more. The turbo four’s powerband is different, so a different tach face and yellow/redline would be cool. Even more cool would be turbo-specific enhancements such as a power bulge off to one side of the hood – and maybe an adjustable wastegate from the factory.
Mullet in the glovebox optional.
Lower insurance costs.
Especially if you are a young (under 35) single. Insuring a muscle car has always been a killer for the young and single – but you’ll get a break by skipping the V8, because the four is considered less obstreperous by the actuaries.
Despite delivering more power – and better performance – than most of the V8s available in Camaros through the years.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s not often you actually can have your cake and eat it, too.
This time, you can.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com. Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!
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