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2016 Chevrolet Camaro V-6 vs. 2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 6/2/2016 DANIEL PUND
2016 Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost and 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS V-6

From the June 2016 issue

This article is part of our special feature exploring turbocharged vs. naturally aspirated engines, for which we conducted four head-to-head matchups of turbocharged vehicles and their non-turbo competitors. Beware: These are not conventional comparison tests. We focused these stories on the characteristics of the engines and judging the suitability of engine type for each class of vehicle.

There are two kinds of people in this world: ketchup people and mustard people. I am a mustard man. Nothing against ketchup, mind you. It’s just that it’s basically sugar made red and viscous. It’s the condiment of choice for people who order off the kid’s menu. Mustard, though, is beguiling and complex. From sweet to sinus-scorchingly spicy, mustards can thrill all the tongue’s taste buds.

Yes, we know there are those who use both the king and the queen of condiments, but we think those people just lack commitment.

Similarly, there are Ford Mustang people and Chevy Camaro people. And there are fans of turbos and adherents to naturally aspirated mills. Convenient, then, that we just happen to have a Heinz-red Mustang EcoBoost and a French’s-yellow Camaro LT V-6. And if you think this sounds like a very elaborate scheme to justify expensing a lunch of old-school sliders and fries at southwest Detroit’s venerable Telway Hamburgers stand, well, you’re not entirely correct.

That’s because in any war between turbocharged engines and naturally aspirated ones, the Mustang/Camaro battle is unique, important, and extremely worthy of contemplation. As of this year, each company serves up its sports coupe with a choice of three engines: a turbocharged four-cylinder, a V-6, and a V-8. Where the two companies differ is in the placement of these engines in their hierarchies. Ford, the first to turbocharge its current model, regards the EcoBoost as its middle-rung Mustang—the performance-oriented pony car for those who don’t want to pony up for the V-8. It’s powered by a 310-hp 2.3-liter four-cylinder and is offered with the full ­complement of performance- and luxury-enhancing options. The base Mustang is the one powered by the 300-hp 3.7-liter V-6. It is mostly foisted on rental-car companies, and Ford offers it with none of the options that a performance enthusiast might crave.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro V-6 vs. 2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost© DANIEL PUND 2016 Chevrolet Camaro V-6 vs. 2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Chevrolet flips the order. A newly available 275-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder powers the base-level Camaro. The version priced and positioned to go against the EcoBoost Mustang is the one powered by the new 335-hp 3.6-liter V-6.

We specified six-speed manuals for our two performance-minded non–V-8s, because we prefer manuals and because it allowed us to test each car’s throttle response [see page 058]. Can a punchy, turbocharged four-cylinder usurp a higher-revving, larger-displacement V-6 in a class of cars where driving exhilaration trumps fuel economy?

We would find out on a mix of our 10Best testing roads, expressways, and Detroit’s cratered byways. We would also eat burgers and fries. With mustard.

We love the new Mustang. We named the Mustang GT to our 10Best list last year; the Shelby siblings, the GT350 and GT350R, made our list this year. The Mustang we haven’t honored is the EcoBoost model.

We still love the attributes it shares with higher-performance models: the styling; the firm, progressive brake pedal; the tune of its all-independent suspension; its easy, everyday-usable demeanor. But we do not love the engine. We respect it. The turbo­charged, direct-injected 2.3-liter four makes ample power. There’s enough juice to push the 3632-pound Mustang from zero to 60 mph in a respectable 5.6 seconds, only a tenth behind the lighter Camaro. Driven hard, the Mustang EcoBoost delivers 20 mpg, compared with the Camaro V-6’s 19 mpg over the same roads. The EcoBoost technically delivers on the two main promises of downsized turbocharged engines compared with larger naturally ­aspirated lumps: essentially equal performance with at least ­marginally better fuel economy.

And, as is usually the case with modern turbo engines, this one generates excellent midrange torque. Its peak twist of 320 pound-feet arrives at 2500 rpm. The Camaro V-6 generates 284 pound-feet at 5300 rpm. That makes the EcoBoost Mustang easy to live with. You don’t need to do a great deal of shifting since there’s ready thrust throughout the middle chunk of the rev range. Thing is, we like shifting, especially in performance cars. It’s fun.

But making a satisfying turbo engine is not just about making the requisite power and reducing, as much as possible, turbo lag. This one is sadly lacking in the qualitative aspects. First, it’s not particularly smooth. Get on the throttle and the engine sends waves of vibration through the steering wheel and shifter. And these are not the thrilling vibes sent from, say, the GT350’s V-8. They are rather just lack of refinement with no particular payoff. The vibrations don’t intensify with greater revs in a way that might signify to your brain that the engine is an eager participant in the search for speed. Instead, it’s just flat grumbling.

2016 Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost and 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS V-6© Car and Driver 2016 Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost and 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS V-6

The same is true of the engine noise. It’s a one-note song, and not a particularly pleasant note at that. This one’s a groaner, always groaning the same groan. Its volume changes in concert with revs, but its pitch never does. There’s not much point in exploring the upper reaches of this engine’s operational envelope. There’s no aural reward for pushing beyond 5500 rpm, where horsepower peaks.

It’s a shame, too, because the Mustang is otherwise great fun to drive. Its shifter feels better than the Camaro’s. And the harder you drive the car, the better and more settled it feels.

Here was the moment the Camaro sealed its win in this quasi-comparison test: I was in the Mustang, cruising along on a slow portion of our 10Best testing roads behind executive online editor Erik Johnson in the Camaro. When the road opened up, Johnson floored the throttle. I followed suit. And I was treated to the full immersion experience that is the Chevy’s exhaust. Our test Camaro came with the optional two-mode exhaust, which opens up butterfly valves and cranks the volume in response to heavy throttle. Because the Mustang is pretty much just as fast as the Camaro, I could hang with Johnson and listen as the Camaro’s combustion song rose to its tremulous highs somewhere around the engine’s 6800-rpm power peak.

Right at the upper edge of revs, the Camaro’s exhaust begins to resonate at a frequency that makes your ears feel as if they’re stuffed with cotton. It calls to mind the audio of old sports-car-racing footage where the microphones would become overwhelmed by the noise. Each upshift restarts the song, a rising ripsaw until the exhaust system and your ears can’t accept it anymore. Then a moment of relief, then another rising ripsaw. We could listen to this auditory tension-and-release sequence all day.

2016 Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost and 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS V-6© Car and Driver 2016 Ford Mustang 2.3L EcoBoost and 2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS V-6

The EcoBoost has its work cut out for it against the Camaro’s new direct-injected V-6, which is a harlot of an engine; smooth enough for polite company but nasty when you want it to be. We’ve run a six-cylinder Camaro to 60 mph in as little as 5.1 seconds, but even at 5.5 seconds in this test, the V-6 is probably only about a second slower to that mark than the Camaro SS with its stonking 455-hp 6.2-liter V-8 (when equipped with a manual transmission). And that might be the ultimate measure of the two middle-rung cars we’ve tested here: How often while driving one of them would you regret not having purchased the V-8? The answer is, in the case of the Camaro, not very often. In the Mustang the answer would be always.

The sensory experience is paramount in performance cars. In that context, a good naturally aspirated engine has a built-in advantage. That the Camaro’s chassis and seats and steering and turn-in response are better than the Mustang’s makes awarding the win to the Chevy all the more easy. Also, mustard.

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