For 50 years, the Chevrolet Camaro has been an American icon, but it hasn’t always been a strong performer. The 1970s brought an oil crisis and pollution crackdown, and with those events came dramatic effects on performance. Here’s a look at how the Camaro’s performance has fared in Motor Trend testing over the years.
Of that first generation, we tested almost every engine (250, Z-28 302, 327, 350, 396, and Dana 427), skipping the 140-hp, 230-cubic-inch six. The slowest was the 250 with its 155-hp I-6 and two-speed automatic, requiring 18.7 seconds for the quarter mile. The fastest, naturally, was the 425-hp Dana 427 on slicks with a blistering 12.8-second quarter-mile run at 110.0 mph (14.2 at 105 on street tires). We later tested a 427 Yenko clone on modern street tires at 13.4 at 110.6 mph.
It started as a strong decade with 5.7-liter, 360-hp LT-1 power, but the Camaro saw a big dip in engine output corresponding to both emissions requirements and the shift from SAE-gross to SAE-net horsepower ratings. The absolute low spot was when the 1975 Camaro LT’s hottest 5.7-liter V-8 engine made just 155 horsepower, resulting in an 11.0-second 0-60 time and an agonizing 17.4-second quarter mile at 79.6 mph. Our last Toyota Prius (Four Touring) ran a 9.7-second 0-60 and a 17.4-second, 77.6-mph quarter mile.
Luckily, the Camaro’s first factory-installed fuel-injected engine, good enough for a 9.4-second 0-60 time, and strut-type suspension arrived (1982 Z28), and we thought so much of these changes that we awarded the Camaro its first Motor Trend Car of the Year trophy. It took another five years for us to test our first convertible Camaro (1987 IROC-Z). By the end of the IROC-Z’s tour, it was regularly pulling 0.90 g on the skidpad and ripping 65-mph slalom passes right alongside sports cars from Europe.
Against sports cars of all types, the 1994 Z28 earned our August ’94 Best Bang for the Buck contest. What once felt like an impenetrable ice wall—14-second, 98-mph quarter miles—the 1996 Z28 SS shattered with a 13.8-second, 101.4-mph hammer, making it the first Camaro both under and over those magic hurdles. What was the difference? After a couple decades’ absence, 300 horsepower returned. Later, the LS-based engines arrived in the Z28 SS, as well, cranking out 320 horsepower. In 1993, antilock brakes reduced 60-0-mph stopping distances by some 30 feet, literally overnight.
After a seven-model-year hiatus, the next-generation Camaro SS’ horsepower rose again, up to 426, which meant quarter-mile times dropped into the 12s for the first time—and at speeds over 110 mph (12.9 at 110.7). Midway through this generation, Chevy bolted a supercharger to the 6.2-liter V-8 and made the 580-hp ZL1, which took the car tantalizingly close but not quite into the 11s and 120-mph range (12.1 seconds at 117.4 mph). But if there’s no replacement for displacement, then the Z/28’s 7.0-liter V-8, good for 505 hp, brought a permanent smile to buyers’ faces—even after they stepped on the brake or threw it into a corner, because Z/28s also managed the shortest stop (97 feet) and attained the highest skidpad lateral acceleration (1.08 g) of any Camaro we’ve tested before or since. That’s why it was awarded Motor Trend’s Best Driver’s Car title.
The 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 50th Anniversary Edition: Gray paint with orange stripes and calipers, a satin-chrome grille, a front splitter, distinct wheels, leather and suede seats with orange stitching, and more for $1,795-$5,395.
Well, it didn’t take long for the all-new Alpha-derived Camaro to get our attention. With only the V-6 automatic and V-8 manual initially available, the 2016 Camaro swooped in on a 26-car field to earn the Golden Calipers and the title of Motor Trend’s 2016 Car of the Year. During deliberations, we were talking about future comparisons against BMWs, Audis, and AMGs. (The BMW M4 fell to a Camaro SS in one of those comparisons.) Angus MacKenzie summed it up, calling it “a revelation; absolutely world-class sports car performance and dynamics from an American icon.” Months passed, and we were introduced to the first four-cylinder Camaro, which incidentally has the highest power density (horsepower-per-liter) in the Camaro canon at 137.6 hp/L, upsetting the next closest ZL1’s mere 93.5 hp/L.
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