The modern muscle car segment is generally limited to three cars: the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang. In that group, the refreshed 2019 Camaro does a commendable job appealing to buyers who want some old-school antics mixed in with modern comforts.
But, in an effort to expand its appeal beyond the traditional triumvirate, Chevrolet’s determined to pit its latest two-door offering — specifically, its four-cylinder Turbo 1LE trim — against other low-starting-price weekend performers like the Ford Focus ST, Subaru BRZ and Volkswagen Golf GTI. In some respects, this angling works, but a deeper investigation into daily life with the Camaro highlights a few reasons why this comparison might not work out in the Camaro’s favor.
Aesthetics are subjective, but still…
My tester’s Turbo 1LE spec is probably the most attractive of all the new Camaro variants. While higher trim levels like the SS have a split-front-bumper design that makes the front end look more like a 2019 Silverado, my Turbo 1LE has a body-color strip of white running between the upper and lower grilles, making the whole thing look a lot cleaner.
The 1LE upgrade package adds two-tone aesthetics by way of satin black accents on the aerodynamic bits, mirrors, wheels and hood. I think it’s a little too “boy racer” for my taste, and other mature-leaning buyers might be inclined to agree, but it’s a mandatory part of Chevy’s $4,500 performance package, so if I want to maximize on-road antics, I need to maximize ostentatiousness. The Ford Mustang’s performance upgrades require less aesthetic silliness, and most of the Camaro’s hot-hatch competitors opt to stay on the demure side, too.
Chevrolet’s styling decisions, while ultimately subjective, end up dealing objective damage to the driving experience. I slide down into the driver’s seat, and I’m met with darkness and limited visibility, because a low-slung roof and a high beltline don’t leave much room for windows on any side. The hood stretches to the horizon — great for style, but bad for parking. The rear seats are glorified parcel shelves, and the trunk isn’t much better, thanks to an awkwardly small opening that makes putting suitcases into its 9.1-cubic-foot cavity hilariously difficult. Can’t compete with hot hatches there, that’s for sure.
At first glance, the interior itself is interestingly styled, with a nice mix of visually appealing angles, but it sort of falls apart upon further investigation. While the small bit of leather padding atop each door panel feels high quality, the plastics that litter the interior are bargain-basement bad. The shape of the dashboard means the infotainment screen points ever so slightly toward the floor. I liked how tightly I fit in the optional Recaro sport seats, but paunchier buyers will not.
When it comes to fit and finish, I feel the Camaro lags the Mustang and ties with the Challenger in its segment, but it lacks the put-togetherness of its atypical competition, like the VW Golf GTI and sportier variants of the Honda Civic. The Camaro feels more competently assembled than the Ford Focus ST, but that’s a low bar.
Definitely for drivers
Thankfully, the Camaro makes up for its packaging defects with some solid on-road dynamics. Given that Chevrolet built the Camaro to handle gobs of V8 power, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Camaro Turbo can proficiently harness the 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque coming from its 2.0-liter I4. This is especially true with my tester’s 1LE package, which yoinks the suspension from the V8-toting SS trim, in addition to adding bigger Brembo brakes and wide summer tires (Goodyear Eagle F1, 245/40ZR20 front, 275/35ZR20 rear).
While the I4 doesn’t offer the most Camaro-worthy sound, I do like that it gets aggressive enough at higher revs, and an optional sport exhaust (that my tester lacks) should make matters even better. It might not have the hustle of an engine twice its cylinder count, but the I4 pulls nicely across the rev range, even though the full whammy of torque doesn’t arrive until a mysteriously high 3,000 rpm. There’s a little hint of turbo lag, but it’s still sufficiently responsive even if my right foot tries to take the engine by surprise.
My tester’s six-speed manual is a peach, offering a predictable clutch bite point and short, crisp throws. The gas pedal is easy to modulate, making rev-matching downshifts a breeze in lieu of any system automating the process. As for the brakes, they’re also easy to operate smoothly, and the 1LE’s upgraded stoppers clamp down with authority when required.
In spirited driving, the SS’ suspension keeps my Turbo 1LE tester flat through corners and under heavy braking, boosting my confidence behind the wheel. Yet, when the roads get rough, that same suspension setup isn’t the most uncomfortable thing, doing a praiseworthy job soaking up undulations despite large 20-inch alloy wheels and thin tires. That said, competitors in different segments offer more advanced adaptive dampers at similar prices, but I’m not exactly lamenting what the Camaro brings to the table.
While the Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires offer up more grip than most owners will need, they have one big downside. At highway speeds, the cabin is awash in tire noise, drowning out quiet conversation.
For those, I think this specific trim of Camaro provides an excellent learning experience for newer drivers. It doesn’t have the razor-thin margins between control and out-of-control that underline more powerful Camaro variants, offering approachable amounts of power and loads of mechanical grip. It’s a great car for learning about rear-wheel drive and its limits.
The EPA estimates that the 2019 Camaro Turbo will return 20 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. If I’m truly light with my feet and quick to shift, I can hit both numbers with ease, but the second I prioritize fun over frugality, the highway number gets closer to the city number, and the city number takes the elevator straight to the basement.
21st century tech, mostly
One area where Chevrolet is competitive, no matter the segment, is in-car tech. The 2019 Camaro picks up Chevy’s new Infotainment 3 system. First debuting in GM’s Cadillac vehicles, Infotainment 3 packs a flat design, impressive response and a clever new login system that lets you transfer certain favorites from car to car. are standard, as well.
I’m a big fan of Chevy’s system — in fact, the three current infotainment systems in the muscle-car segment (Chevy’s Infotainment 3, Dodge’s Uconnect and Ford’s Sync 3) are among the best in the industry.
Backup cameras are now standard for all new cars, and while Chevrolet has relied on some garbage-tier cameras in the past, that’s slowly changing. The Camaro’s new camera offers a wide, high-resolution view of the world behind the car, which is good considering how bad the standard visibility is. My only gripe is that, while parking sensors are available for the rear, they aren’t available for the front, which is not covered by a camera and much harder to judge thanks to that impossibly long hood.
Driver-assist systems are also notably absent. While I appreciate the blind spot monitoring built into the side mirrors, that’s the only system on offer in my tester, and Chevrolet doesn’t offer a safety suite for Camaro drivers. If you prefer a bit more safety on the street, its competition is a bit more fleshed out in that regard.
How I’d spec it
While turbocharged variants of the Camaro start as low as $25,995 including destination, I’ll start with the $28,495 2LT trim, which includes heated and ventilated seats, as well as dual-zone automatic climate control.
As much as I don’t love the two-tone look as a grown adult, I’ll still opt for the $4,500 1LE performance package for its limited-slip differential, better suspension and Brembo brakes. I’ll avoid the $1,595 Recaro seats, but I’ll throw down $900 to upgrade the screen size from 7 inches to 8, which also includes a 9-speaker Bose audio system. I’ll also skip the $950 ambient lighting system my tester has. I’m not a huge fan of throwing on accessories left and right, but the Camaro’s catalog has dozens of options for buyers more into personalization.
That leaves me with a $33,895 price tag, cheaper than my tester, which rings in closer to $36,000.
Down to brass tacks
On paper, I see the Camaro as a possible option in the weekend-racer space. Its rear-wheel-drive platform and long, low body would make a great learner car for the track without being punishing on the road. Yet, at this price point, the Camaro lacks one big thing that cars like the Civic, Focus and Golf bring to the table — versatility. You can take a GTI to the track on Saturday and use it to move a dresser on Sunday. Unless the dresser belongs to Polly Pocket, that’s not going to happen in the Camaro.
Thus, the Camaro is still best viewed in its original segment. Sure, it’s brimming with sacrifices, but that’s part and parcel with the muscle car experience. Its handling chops are obvious, and it packs a 21st-century complement of creature comforts without sending the window sticker into orbit.