It’s fall in the Mojave Desert, and morning greets us with a cool and blinding brightness at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada.
Engine (V6): 3.6-liter V6, 335 HP/284 lb. ft.
Engine (SS): 6.2-liter V8, 455 HP/455 lb. ft.
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Price (USD): $32,895 (Base) $44,400 (As Tested)
Price (CAD): $38,540 (Base), $52,445 (As Tested)
Fuel Economy (MPG): 18 city, 27 highway, 22.5 combined (V6); 16 city, 25 highway, 20.5 combined (SS)
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 14.4 city, 8.4 highway, 11.7 combined (V6); 14.3 city, 9.4 highway, 12.1 combined (SS)
Several of us mill about like the speed freaks we are, anxiously awaiting our next fix, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, pacing in anticipation.
And then it happens, someone hits the little rectangular start button on the SS 1LE to my left. Synapses fire up in unison with 6.2-liter LT1 V8, brain buzzing to the rhythmic burble pouring from the quad tips of the Camaro’s Active Exhaust, one swift kick of the right foot away from liberating bliss.
On the surface, Chevrolet’s formula is absurdly simple: Take the superlative sixth-gen Camaro, strip it of superfluous weight, dial in the suspension, amp up the brakes, and throw on the stickiest rubber you can get.
But, the Camaro 1LE is much, much more than that.
Humbled by History
The fuel sipping ’70s had long faded into a bad dream; in its place came cheap gasoline and a new lust for sporty cars. By the late ’80s, many domestic and foreign manufacturers had obliged, which in turn made the SCCA’s newly minted Showroom Stock class one of the most competitive road racing series in America, unless you drove a Camaro.
Since no one goes racing to lose, and losing is bad for sales, Team Camaro threw a kaleidoscope of track-focused upgrades at the third-gen F-body. New gearing, brakes, fuel system and suspension made the car competitive, but Chevy also had to sell those parts to people as part of the rules — giving birth to RPO code 1LE. From 1989, through to the Camaro’s demise in 2002, the 1LE was discreetly available to SS shoppers —provided you ticked the right combination of order boxes.
A Modern Mistake
Let’s face it, the fifth-generation Camaro was conceived in a time of chaos and doomed by a mandate from management to not compromise the 2006 concept car’s styling. The Camaro would be born with too much form and not enough function, manifesting as terminal understeer when driven hard.
Serendipitously, a solution showed up during ZL1 development courtesy of a chassis mule. It started with an extension of the rear stabilizer bar, along with new rear drop links, and new lower control arms. All of a sudden, the car was starting to rotate.
Eventually, the car would also get upgraded toe links, rear shock mounts, front stabilizer bar, and a new strut tower brace — everything the ZL1 had, minus MagneRide. That’s when someone asked, “Why don’t we sell this?”
Trickle Down Economics
Re-engineering the fifth-gen was an expensive lesson that would permeate the entire sixth-generation program. If Team Camaro wanted to reach newfound levels of performance, high-end capability needed to be baked in from day one, which would allow the engineering team to easily port over go-fast parts from the top down.
This time around, the $6,500 1LE package includes the magical FE4 Magnetic Ride Control suspension system pilfered from the ZL1. Along with adaptive magnetorheological dampening, FE4 also adds stiffer springs and bigger stab bars front and back.
At the corners sit a set of 20-inch, bite-your-lip beautiful forged aluminum wheels, wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar rubbers — a grin-inducing 285 in the front, and big, thick 305 rears. Keeping things compliant are a racy red set of six-piston Brembos, chomping down on two-piece, 14.6-inch rotors in the front with four-piston calipers in the rear.
Coupled with the SS’s standard LT1 is the 1LE’s unsung hero, a 3.73:1 ratio electronic limited-slip differential. Because the car can now optimize when the diff engages, the eLSD cranks up cornering performance and offers sociopathic levels of control over the 455 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of torque at your toe-tips. All cars belt out through a standard Performance Active Exhaust, while five external coolers will help you run longer sessions.
Inside, you drop into a familiar cockpit, now stripped of extras and swathed in suede. The Recaro buckets, flat-bottom wheel and 5.1:1 short throw shifter impart a feeling of practical precision.
Chevy also inaugurated the first ever V6 1LE — available on LGX equipped 1LS and 2LT Camaros — the $4,500 V6 1LE package trickles down the SS’s standard FE3 suspension, including rear cradle mounts, dampers, toe links and stabilizer bars. The 3.6-liter V6 still offers 335 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque.
V6 cars get new four-piston Brembo front calipers along with larger 12.6-inch front rotors, staggered 20-inch alloy wheels (8.5 inches thick in the front, 9.5 rears) wrapped Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric run-flat tires.
The new parts don’t stop there, the V6 also gets a new fueling system to cope with higher cornering loads, a new mechanical 3.27 limited-slip differential, and a new 5.4:1 short-throw shifter. Like the SS, it gets a standard dual mode exhaust, and five external coolers.
Aesthetically, it shares a vinyl wrapped matte black hood, front splitter, and three-piece deck spoiler with the SS 1LE.
Recaro front buckets are optional on the V6 1LE and will set you back $1,195; both the SS and V6 offer an optional $1,300 Performance Data Recorder, which allows you to record and analyze your lapping sessions.
Adding a V6 to the 1LE recipe gives Chevy access to two distinct demographics. The SS 1LE caters to a more experienced and hardcore track aficionado, it has every right to steal sales from BMW and Porsche. The V6 serves as a balanced and affordable option for the aspiring autocrosser, Chevy thinks it could even take a few sales from the Camaro SS.
Hot Shoes, Cold Feet
Thanks to new gearing, both the V6 and SS 1LE shave time off the sprint to 60. The V6 will get there in 5.2 seconds compared to 5.4 standard; the SS will do it in 4.2 seconds, a tenth quicker than normal.
In terms of lateral grip, both cars obliterate the fifth-gen 1LE’s 0.91g on the skidpad. Aided by absurdly sticky rubber, the SS 1LE will lay down 1.02g of lateral grip — nearly Corvette levels — while the V6 1LE gets the standard SS’s 0.97g on the skidpad, more if you give it better rubber.
Because it lacks two cylinders and MRC, the 3,490-lb V6 1LE is 257 pounds lighter than the SS 1LE, making it more nimble and compliant. Because it lacks the LT1’s monster torque numbers, you’re able to more comfortably use its capability, both on the street and the circuit.
The SS 1LE, on the other hand, is simply a full-blown addiction, we’re talking exhilarating feelings of excessive confidence, hyper-alertness, rambling speech and dilated pupils.
Together, we shattered the California border at speeds typically reserved for the terminally insane, babbling to myself about stability and fuel cut-off, terrified at how much further the car was willing to go.
Reaching transcendence in the middle of the Mojave, I back off slightly, giving me time to check the map for our turn back to Nevada. Just as I drop the TREMEC six-speed back into fifth for another run to the stratosphere, the bottom of my stomach falls out. The blue and red cherries of a California Highway Patrol cruiser light me up from out of the desert haze.
He approaches the Arctic White SS 1LE, rests his hand on the roof and dips down to look at me through the gun slit windows.
“Son, do you know how fast you were going?”
“This is a 65, and you were well north of that.”
“Sorry, officer, I, uh, didn’t know I couldn’t do that. I haven’t seen anything posted for about 50 miles.”
Luckily, he was a fellow speed freak and worked with me on the number. He knew all about the 1LE, we jabbered for a bit about cars and I answered a few of his questions about the Camaro — when two more from our convoy flew by in quick succession.
Turning serious again, he handed over the citation and said to me sternly “Tell your buddies they better take it easy.”
Heading back to Pahrump within tolerance of the law exposes the 1LE’s one weakness: road noise. The Goodyears are overwhelmingly loud with the engine turning over at a relatively silent 2,000 rpm doing highway speeds. The only solution is to get the LT1 singing above 3,000 rpm, replacing road noise with an atavistic howl.
In order to avoid incarceration, we hit the East course at Spring Mountain.
Active Rev Match comes standard on the SS 1LE along with GM’s trick No-Lift Shift — turning upshifting and downshifting into a video game — freeing up cognitive power to focus on what really matters, eating apexes.
Squirting out of turn 1 in third gear, MagneRide ride keeping the car poised through the dip at turn 2, using No-Lift Shift you stay flat on the gas, just clutch in and grab the next one. Making more glorious noises up the hill towards turn 3, firmly on the brakes, clutch in — rev match blips the throttle, back to third — clutch out, hit the turn in. Still trailing the brakes, the massive front tires smashing the apex with a bite of inside curb, back down the hill, foot to the firewall grinning like a child. Wash, rinse, repeat.
All the goodness gained from the SS 1LE’s magnetorheological dampening comes with one caveat; the suspension isn’t the best communicator. Because body motion is so well controlled, the car simply doesn’t have much to say, so go ahead and grab as much curb as you want. FE4 is straight wizardry on track, giving mortals the ability to do magnificent things. First it ensnares, and then it scares you how much this car is actually capable of.
The V6 1LE is the more talkative of the two, its conventional FE3 suspension providing excellent commentary about what’s happening beneath you, asking you to feel, and requiring you to participate on a different level. Despite being slower on paper, the V6 allows you to use more of its potential, offering a more attainable sensation of speed.
What More is There to Say?
Aside from the V6 1LE lacking Active Rev Match (please do it Al Oppenheiser and co.) what more is there to want for $32,895? Better yet, tell me where the $44,400 SS 1LE lacks? You could easily daily drive a V6 1LE, the car is supple enough to not torture you on the road, and sharp enough to handle weekend warrior life. Double so for the SS 1LE, although the SS will go through brakes and tires at a quicker clip.
The Camaro has always been a perfect antagonist to the happy-go-lucky Mustang; although my time in the desert enlightened me to something Ford doesn’t seem to know—the Camaro has moved on, operating on a level of fidelity to the church of speed far above any old five-liter Mustang. Al and his team are now offering levels of performance that used to be exclusively exotic for a mere 25 cents on the dollar.
As the mantra goes back at Milford, it’s Camaro vs. Everybody, and this Storm Trooper white SS 1LE is the perfect embodiment of an empire striking back.
This article originally appeared on GM Inside News