Only about a week before we departed on this particular comparison test, Ford Motor Company announced it would invest $500 million into electric-truck startup Rivian. Then, on the rainy Tuesday we left the office for points south, General Motors’ automation division, Cruise, reported it had raised another $1.15 billion in funding. And over the last couple years, both Ford and GM have announced plans to discontinue a number of conventionally powered and configured vehicles.
And yet, there we were, in rural Pennsylvania near the border with West Virginia, laying down hellacious side-by-side burnouts in two V-8-powered rear-drive two-doors that probably should be dead by now. But if the proliferation of their variants is any indication, these two apparent knuckle-draggers are actually thriving.
One quick note: Before we move on to the business of passing judgment on the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE and the Ford Mustang GT Performance Package Level 2 (PPL2), we must admit that only one of the two burnouts was hellacious. That would be the one performed in the Mustang. The Camaro, operated by a man who shall remain nameless and who is also the writer of this story, technically did a burnout. There was smoke. But it was nothing like the majestic county-wide fumigation performed by the Mustang’s driver. But how and why is it that, in the year of our overlords 2019, we’re still talking about that most Neanderthal of automotive buffoonery, the burnout? Let’s move on, shall we?
With so many different output tiers and powertrain combinations available, organizing a pony-car comparison test can feel like wading through professional-boxing weight classes. You got yer flyweights and bantamweights and lightweights and welterweights and so forth. For this test, we chose the equivalent of light heavyweights. These two pack a powerful punch but are light on their feet. They’re not brawlers; they’re boxers.
Chevrolet gave the Camaro a facelift for 2019 and then gave the just-introduced 2020-model-year Camaro another facelift to make less ugly the 2019 facelift. No matter, because the SS 1LE from both years carries the same 455-hp small-block 6.2-liter V-8 engine. And because SS 1LEs aren’t for poseurs, they all come with six-speed manual transmissions. The $7000 1LE Track Performance package also includes 20-inch wheels inside Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3 summer tires, Magnetic Ride Control dampers, larger brakes, Recaro front seats, a dual-mode exhaust, and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, along with some visual identifiers. Add the performance-data and video recorder for $1300 and the premium infotainment system with navigation for $495, and the as-tested price of our Red Hot Camaro SS 1LE came in at $51,790.
When Ford determined that the regular Performance package simply wasn’t enough but that a Shelby GT350 was too much for some buyers, it brought forth the Mustang GT Performance Package Level 2. At $6500, the PPL2 brings magnetorheological dampers, underbody and strut-tower bracing, stiffer springs, fatter anti-roll bars, a Torsen limited-slip differential, upgraded brakes, and a set of 19-inch wheels wearing fat Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 streetable race tires measuring 305/30ZR-19 front and rear. Ford makes you pay extra for its Recaro seats ($1595) and multimode exhaust ($895). Like the 1LE, the PPL2 is available only with a six-speed manual. All in, our Velocity Blue Mustang GT PPL2 carried an MSRP of $51,640. Talk about direct competitors: These two pony cars are only $150 apart in as-tested price.
Speaking of direct competitors, the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy Dodge Challenger is not one of them. Also, it lost a comparison test to the Mustang and the Camaro the last time we laid rubber across Pittsburgh-adjacent roads. For this comparo, we went a bit farther. Far enough that we managed to get our modernized anachronisms out from under the shadow of the new-style mobility companies and car-sharers swarming Steel City. The future can wait for a bit.
Highs: Relatively roomy interior and trunk, fantastic brake feel.
Lows: Easily roasts its pricey Michelins, uneven road surfaces and standing water give it panic attacks.
Verdict: The better vehicle of the two, but not the better pony car.
The Ford lost this comparison test by only three points. That’s close. But that’s not how it felt to our two voters. There was never a circumstance when our drivers wouldn’t have preferred to drive the Camaro instead of the Mustang.
On long expressway slogs, the Mustang’s Cup 2 tires sang loudly and caused the PPL2 to tramline aggressively. Its terrain-tracking combined with an inability to deal with water-covered pavement made the car a nervous wreck through construction zones in the rain. The PPL2’s stiff suspenders also made it more susceptible to freeway hop than the Camaro. But, hey, this is a performance-focused car, right?
Right. And so, naturally, the Mustang PPL2 feels more at home on winding roads. In fact, were it not for the presence of the Camaro, we would have been really smitten with the Ford. Predictably, the Cup 2 tires provide massive grip. On our 300-foot skidpad, we saw an average of 1.13 g’s. But maximum grip isn’t everything. The Mustang’s steering feels a little light and springy in action. Its shifter engagements are pleasant enough, but the throws are longer than those of the Camaro’s six-speed. No such issue with the PPL2’s brake pedal, which is perfectly firm and allows the driver to neatly tailor braking force to a given situation.
The Mustang’s 460-hp DOHC 5.0-liter V-8 makes five more horsepower than the Camaro’s larger-displacement engine. To reach its peak horsepower, the Mustang needs an additional 1000 revs over the Camaro (7000 versus 6000). But it’s really the torque output that defines the differences between these two engines. At 420 pound-feet, the Ford is 35 down compared with the Chevy. And it takes the 5.0-liter a couple hundred more rpm to get there. On the road, it felt like a much larger deficit. It’s relatively easy to get caught out in the Mustang. Trying to exit a corner in a high gear is a low-thrust downer. The Mustang’s driver really has to work the engine to get the most out of it. Have a look at the results of the 5-to-60-mph test, which is designed to be more indicative of what owners will feel on a day-to-day basis: The Ford trails the Chevy by a half-second. It might not sound like much, but it feels like a lot.
That the Mustang PPL2 didn’t get creamed in the final scoring is in part because we prefer its styling to that of the demented-face Camaro. And while it has its moments of silliness, the Mustang’s interior isn’t the ergonomic atrocity that the Camaro’s is. Also, those tires give the Mustang a slight advantage in braking and roadholding, but the differences are so slight as to be purely academic. The replacement cost, however, isn’t. The Mustang’s tires are about $400 apiece versus $280 and $310, respectively, for the Camaro’s front and rear rubber. And while the Mustang’s fat tires poke out the sides of the car, the 19-inch wheel package doesn’t fill the wheel wells. It’s not the hunkered-down look you want from a pony car. But, hey, at least you can see out of the Ford.
Highs: Precise, feelsome steering; ass-kicking V-8; daily-driver ride quality.
That damn interior again, botched facelift.
Verdict: A sports car with the bellow of a muscle car. A muscle car with the finesse of a sports car.
If you think you’re tired of reading our complaints about the Camaro’s cramped, cheap interior and pitiful outward visibility, just imagine how we feel writing those things over and over again. Please, Chevy, correct this on the next-generation car (assuming there is one). Pretty please.
But here we go again: The Camaro’s cabin design is ridiculous. The materials are substandard. Every secondary thing that you need to reach, such as a map pocket or a USB port, is inexplicably behind your back or at such an awkward angle, like the mirror adjusters and navigation screen, that you grow resentful of the car. And why do we have to feel so cramped in such a large car?
Okay, with that out of the way, there isn’t much else to dislike about the Camaro 1LE. Its ride quality is good enough that even older enthusiasts won’t complain. Despite an aggressive suspension tune and sticky tires, the 1LE doesn’t tramline. It is a drama-free straight shooter when you want it to be, such as on the expressway drives that lead to fun roads.
Once on those roads, the Camaro excels. It’s not exactly playful. It is instead precise. The steering system is a no-slack, hyperlinear control device. And though it’s wearing narrower front tires than the Mustang, the Camaro 1LE has immediate and certain turn-in. Its somewhat less aggressive Goodyears help the 1LE deliver 1.11 g’s on the skidpad, stop from 70 mph in 140 feet, and claw through the slalom at 45.3 mph. Those numbers effectively match the Mustang’s. The difference is that the Camaro never feels as though it’s breaking a sweat while performing those feats.
But it’s the powertrain that truly allows the Camaro to pull away from the Mustang. It might be the waning days for big-displacement, naturally aspirated V-8s, but we’d be happy to drive this small-block into the sunset. It sounds positively furious basically all the time, regardless of drive mode. We might dial down the programmed-in popping and cracking on overrun, at least in the less sporty modes. But, generally, we don’t mind our V-8s being a little outspoken. And even with relatively tall gears in the six-speed manual, the V-8 seems always at the ready to deliver as much thrust as you might desire.
The 1LE is a holistic performance-car package; it’s just the car’s packaging you’ll have to overlook.
From the July 2019 issue
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