First Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE

The sweet spot between the affordable entry-level Chevrolet Camaro and the face-melting supercharged ZL1 just got even more saccharine with the introduction of the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE. Now offered in your choice between either V6 or V8 for the very first time, GM’s track star has been democratized across a wider range of budgets and proves that you don’t have to pay more for big cubes to shame your friends on a road course.

The 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE doesn’t just sharpen the edge given to the previous model, it damn near slices your fingers off in the process when you grip the steering wheel.

For those who might not be familiar with Chevy’s nomenclature, the 1LE tag was ushered into existence at the end of the ’80s as the Bowtie brand struggled to gain a competitive edge in showroom stock racing. The crash course in raiding GM’s deep warehouse of suspension parts paid off, with the Camaro 1LE enjoying respectable representation on the podium before third-party tuner SLP took over tuning duties and the muscle car was eventually phased out of production in 2002. When the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro shook off the cobwebs and re-joined the performance coupe scene as a 2010 model, it wasn’t long before a 1LE version came calling in a bid to reignite past glory and kick some sand in the face of rivals like the Dodge Challenger and the Ford Mustang with a handling package that was several cuts above stock.

The 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE doesn’t just sharpen the edge given to the previous model, it damn near slices your fingers off in the process when you grip the steering wheel. Cliffs Notes: the new Camaro V6 1LE is at its core an SS with a smaller engine, as it benefits from all of the mightier model’s stock suspension components plus a unique tune for its stability control system, 20-inch Goodyear F1 tires (with forged aluminium rims), enough extra cooling to keep things under a boil after a full day on the track, a limited-slip differential with 3.23:1 gearing, and a dual-mode exhaust system. The “woah” is provided by four-piston Brembo brakes up front, and a short-throw shifter makes it easier to connect the dots while using the standard six-speed manual transmission.

Under the blacked-out hood, however, nothing changes, which means the V6 1LE’s 3.6L engine still produces 335 horsepower and 284 lb-ft of torque. Respectable numbers, to be sure, but on the street it’s harder to stay in the high rev range required to wring out maximum thrills from the six-cylinder engine (although off the line, the V6 actually beats the previous-model V8 to 100 km/h thanks to its more aggressive gearing). In a similar vein, the suspension upgrades made to the Camaro are virtually transparent in regular driving.

It’s not until you leave speed limits and lane discipline behind and line up on the starting grid of your favourite track that you can truly sample what the Chevrolet Camaro V6 1LE has to offer – specifically, much more mechanical grip than you would expect from a street car. With the freedom to hold a gear as long as is necessary, the six-cylinder engine finally comes alive, and the vehicle’s sub-1,600 kg curb weight only contributes to its agility. With such a highly tuned suspension system sitting under its chassis, Chevrolet has tagged the Ford Mustang GT as its bogey when it comes to lap times, and despite the power difference it’s no stretch of the imagination to imagine more than a few heated post-session garage encounters between Bowtie-heads and those who bleed blue.

As good as the V6 1LE is at straightening out the bends, it’s really the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE that blows your hair back when fully unleashed from the restrictions of road use. Moving up to the V8 doesn’t just embiggen your horsepower and torque (to the tune of 455 ponies and 455 lb-ft), but it also balloons the front brakes to six-piston status (paired with 14.6 inches of rotor), doubles the rear pinchers to four-pistons, adds an electronic limited-slip rear differential (with 3.73:1 gearing), and wraps Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires around the same forged rims. As with the V6, a black trunk spoiler and front splitter also help keep air flowing in the right direction at speed.

The pièce de résistance, however, is the FE4 Magnetic Ride Control suspension system, which in combination with the SS 1LE’s ultra-grippy tires makes it all but impossible to get the car out of shape. An afternoon spent flogging the Camaro on the twists and turns of Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch provided the perfect illustration of just how much time and effort GM’s engineers put into tuning the SS 1LE’s Performance Traction Management system to match the similarly high limits of the upcoming Camaro ZL1. Only rarely did the computer brain monitoring my every move feel the need to intervene in terms of throttle application, as the Camaro SS 1LE made the most of its massive Supercar contact patch to embarrass the on-track performance of much pricier autos. Again, this is car that punches well above its window sticker when it comes to the kind of specs that weekend warriors are looking for – 1.02 g, 4.2 seconds to 100 km/h, plus a laundry list of gaudy lap times.

If I had to choose between the two, it’s clear that the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE is the superior car in every single respect – even taking into account the slight weight penalty associated with its larger lump. To deliver such streetable comfort paired with a wild streak that will see you challenging for FTD at your local circuit is rare in an out-of-the-box factory offering, and although Canadian pricing has yet to be released, it’s worth noting that in the US the 1LE package adds only 16 percent to the price of an entry-level SS.

The V6 1LE is even more accessible for budget-conscious buyers, and it finally decouples autocross and road course performance from the dollar signs associated with big power. In truth, each version of the Camaro 1LE makes the same, tantalizing promise: drive to the track, kick some ass, and then drive home again without having to worry about Monday’s commute.

Sticky, Sticky, Sticky 11/11/2016 6:30:00 AM