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The 2016 Motor Trend Car of the Year is...

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 11/17/2015

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Before we started, had you asked any of us nine judges if the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro had a snowball’s chance in Hyundai’s desert proving grounds of winning our 2016 Car of the Year honors, almost all of us would have said no. Most of us would have been surprised to even see the Camaro as a finalist. Except for Angus MacKenzie, who told me: “On paper it looked strong against a number of the criteria. If it drove well, it was in with a real shot.” May we all be as wise. Still, it’s a flippin’ Camaro, man, forever destined to live in the shadow of the horsey from Dearborn, the Ford Mustang. The other ponycar as our Car of the Year? Fat chance.

Had we stopped and thought about it a little harder, however, we might have reached a different initial conclusion. Why’s that? Because the sixth-generation Camaro is based on General Motor’s awesome Alpha platform architecture, the same structure that underpins the Cadillac ATS and CTS, the latter being our 2014 Car of the Year. Additionally, we’ve long felt that the ATS has been a burbling V-8, a smart transmission, and an interior upgrade away from KO-ing the BMW 3 Series. Especially as you can absolutely make the argument that GM’s core competency is the small-block. Long story short, we have a history of loving the wondrous-to-drive, lightweight, aluminum- and high-strength-steel intensive Alpha platform. But man, have we been waiting for the General to offer a small-block with a manual transmission.

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Boy howdy, did they ever deliver. Guest engineering judge Theodore said of the new sixth-generation Camaro: “Quite an accomplishment. Bravo!” He wasn’t only talking about the V-8-engined SS. Chevy also sent us an RS version packing a 335-horsepower, 284-lb-ft of torque, 3.6-liter V-6 and GM’s new eight-speed automatic transmission. Editor-in-chief Loh noted that eight-speed’s “really great calibration.” Something we haven’t been saying about its big brother, the 8L90 cog-swapper found in studs such as the Z06 and CTS-V. We’ve yet to test an 8L90-equipped automatic SS, but here’s hoping the programming is similar to what we experienced with the RS’ 8L45. As for how the V-6 Camaro scoots, Seabaugh was impressed. “The performance you get out of this six-cylinder is amazing,” he said. “It might as well have an SS badge on it. I can already hear the fanboys: ‘My RS does 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, handles better than an ATS, and gets killer mileage.’ ” Big time yup. Chevy also makes a 275-hp, 2.0-liter, turbo base model, but we didn’t have access to one in time for this test.

As good as the V-6 is—and it is—the real story here is the big dog SS. Pouring forth from its glorious naturally aspirated, 6.2-liter LT1 V-8 are 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque. All that get up and go is transmitted to the sticky rear tires via a lovely-shifting six-speed manual transmission. To say we liked this car is a severe understatement. Here’s a safe(ish) for work version of Cammisa’s thoughts on the SS: “Hallelujah, Jesus Christ, and holy stuff this thing is fracking incredible! I could have lapped it for the next 10 years. I am absolutely in love with this car’s limit handling.” Seabaugh adds, “Wow wow wow wow wow.”

But this isn’t Best Driver’s Car (though as Cammisa points out, the SS “could/should have won Best Driver’s Car.”). This is Car of the Year, and as such, let’s see how the 2016 Camaro stacks up against the six key criteria.

Related link: 2016 Motor Trend Car of the Year Contenders 

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Advancement in Design

Obviously, the sixth-gen Camaro looks closely related to the fifth-gen version. Since Chevy sells more than 80,000 Camaros a year, we understand why the automaker went for evolution as opposed to a revolutionary design. That said, the new Camaro design is excellent. “The surface handling is fresh, and the line work is great,” Gale, our legendary guest design judge, said. “The biggest area of visual change is likely the C-pillar and quarter window area for most people. Wheel to body, gesture, and overall graphics add to a very nimble appearance, especially the rear three-quarter view.”

A legend in his own right, Theodore noted that the new Camaro’s wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer than the Cadillac ATS’, which helps with dash-to-axle, but he’d like to see the beltline dropped by an inch or two to de-chunk the sides. “An exterior design with more reach might have been able to attract new buyers to the Camaro ranks,” he said. A fair point. We all agreed that in terms of the interior, the new car is hugely improved compared to the cockpit it replaces. Perfect? No. For instance, while we almost all loved the, to quote Burgess, “smart and creative” central vents with integrated HVAC controls, they should be located 6 inches higher on the dash. However, if you only wear kilts, Chevy has you covered. Also, the “mouse ears,” as Theodore calls the top of the instrument cluster, need to be shaved off. If you’re going to lower the hood by an inch, why then block the view with superfluous bunting? Dunno.

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Efficiency

If there’s a single criteria the Camaro doesn’t ace, it’s efficiency. That’s the nature of the beast, to a certain extent. However, compared to equivalent Mustangs, we’d be willing to bet that the Camaro V-6 bests the EcoBoosted Ford in the real world. Now, the SS is rated at 14/26 mpg to the GT’s 15/25. However, according to our Real MPG tests, the Camaro SS gets 16.1/25.2/19.2 mpg city/highway/combined compared to the Mustang GT’s 15.9/24.1/18.8. The less said about the two-ton-plus Dodge Challenger’s fuel economy, the better.

Safety

As the 2016 Camaro is brand-new, neither the IIHS nor NHTSA has crashed one yet. However, both the Cadillac ATS and CTS received 5-Star ratings in every single category from NHTSA, and IIHS has the CTS rated Good (the highest mark) in each of the five tests of crashworthiness. In front crash prevention it’s ranked Superior. (Crash avoidance and mitigation is ranked on a different scale; Superior is the top mark.) We have no reason to believe a further evolution of the Alpha platform will be any less safe.

Related link: 2016 Motor Trend Truck of the Year

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Value

Here’s another criteria the Camaro utterly nails. A 275-hp turbo for $27K, 335 horsepower for $28.5K, or 455 hp for $37K? This isn’t rocket science, people.

Related link: 2016 Motor Trend Person of the Year

Engineering Excellence

Chevy hit this one out of the park. When new for 2015, the Ford Mustang GT gained 196 pounds. The new Camaro SS is down more than 200 pounds compared with the car it replaces, 3,672 pounds versus 3,908 for the V-8. The V-6 comes in at only 3,461 pounds, with an automatic! Weight is the enemy of performance, and you can easily see this when you note that the new SS is nearly as quick in a straight line (0-60 mph in 4 seconds flat, quarter mile in 12.4 seconds) as the outgoing and more powerful Z/28. Lower weight plus the superlative Alpha bones make handling measurably mega; the SS runs our figure-eight track in 24.1 seconds, two-tenths off a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S.

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Performance of Intended Function

Here’s one where the new Camaro might actually transcend the criteria. Is this the best production ponycar the world has ever seen? Without hesitation, yes. What was interesting to me is that we judge types weren’t talking about the Camaro in relation to the Mustang GT that we brought along as a benchmark. We were talking about future Camaro comparison tests against BMWs, Audis, and AMGs. I’d even throw Porsche into that mix. MacKenzie sums up our feelings: “A revelation. Absolutely world-class sports car performance and dynamics from an American icon. The new Camaro is one of the finest driver’s cars in the world. And that’s before you even talk about the price.” It’s also absolutely bitchin’, and it’s the 2016 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

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