There is no single performance story for the 2014 Chevy Camaro. The lineup includes a corral of strong, surprisingly economical V-6 models; SS and 1LE muscle cars with burbling V-8s and a blinding pace; and the top, supercar-caliber ZL1 as well as a track-tuned Z/28. It's not as confusing as trying to figure out which Chevy pickup is for you, but you certainly have a lot of performance decisions.
The base 2014 Chevy Camaro has a 323-horsepower V-6 and a choice of six-speed automatic and manual transmissions. It's the foundation for greatness, and in truth, it doesn't fare too badly as a sports car. Overall, if you can forgive the odd driving position, its electric power steering, rear-wheel drive, and independent suspension bring relatively nimble responses and a ride that's comfortable enough for just about any enthusiast type. EPA highway numbers ranging up to 30 mpg are an unexpected bonus.
The V-8s are still what most people have in mind when they think of the Camaro; the 6.2-liter V-8's lyrical engine note is a hypnotic for men of a huge range of ages. We're looped by it too--and by the gripping 60-mph runs of 5 seconds or less. With huge staggered tires and a front-end weight bias, there's still room for improvement in the way the SS handles; get the 1LE package that rights out the tires to equal sizes, tightens up the steering and manual gear ratios, and you can tap into some easy, controllable oversteer.
At the top of the performance ladder is the ZL1 coupe and convertible. With their supercharged, 580-hp version of the 6.2-liter (with either transmission) and the magnetic shocks found in the Corvette and some Cadillacs, it not only provides near-supercar numbers (0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, a top speed of 184 mph); it's also affordable, considering that, at about $60k.
Even more affordable is the new-for-2014 Camaro Z/28. With a focus on track capability, the Z/28 takes after the original 1960s models, and not the later '70s and '80s ones carrying that nomenclature. In it, a 7.0-liter V-8 makes 500 horsepower and 470 lb-ft. There's no standard A/C, and all Z/28s have a six-speed manual gearbox, but the design saves 100 pounds overall in weight. Spool-valve dampers, stiffer spring rates, and special Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires all add to the track chops.
Across the lineup, handling isn't anything at which to scoff. The six-cylinder cars have electric power steering that's not too artificial in feel, and with 18-inch wheels standard on its control-arm and coil-over-shock independent rear suspension, the base Camaro with the available sport suspension package can feel almost nimble--as nimble as anything weighing in at about 3,800 pounds can feel.
Convertibles lose some of that precise feel that's been dialed in, as a function of their (lesser) body structure. Still, this base Camaro is light-years ahead of the highest-performance Camaros of just the last generation, so make sure your expectation buttons have been reset.
There's a psychographic gulf between those cars and the V-8 Camaros, and the Camaro SS provides all of the rumble any muscle-car driver could want--with significant handling differences, depending on the steering, suspension, and wheel-and-tire packages. The powertrain is V-8 and six-speed--a 426-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 on manual-transmission cars, and a 400-hp version of the same engine with six-speed automatic-equipped cars, a power loss that's attributed to its fuel delivery system. With either combination, 0-60 mph is only about 5.0 seconds away, accompanied by one of those irreplaceable musclecar roars that belongs in the Smithsonian's audio library. While the six-cylinder cars can get away with automatic transmissions, the SS' manual shifter's not only a collector prerequisite--it's a well ironed out piece with quick shifts and short motions. Plus, there's a dual-mode exhaust system that mutes the V-8 at low speeds and amps it up at full prod--and it's only available with the manual gearbox.
From there, the V-8 Camaro family spins off into a few branches. All versions have a similar suspension design, 20-inch wheels, and now, electric power steering, but tuning differences give the handling edge to this year's new 1LE edition. The wide stance and short wheelbase aren't helped by the basic SS coupe's staggered 245/275 tires and 52:48 weight distribution; they make the Camaro feel less tossable and induce more understeer than can seem possible in a car with this much power available at the rear wheels, though the SS and versions with a sport suspension setup have better ride control than expected, too.
For more track-ready, more neutral handling, the Camaro SS 1LE cures almost all. It's a lively twist that may as well be the stock SS suspension, from our experience on Michigan's Gingerman Raceway. The 1LE gets its own specification, with a closer-ratio manual transmission--no automatic's available--and identically sized 35-series tires front and back, along with monotube rear shocks, a bigger front anti-roll bar, a front strut brace, and some suspension mounts from the ZL1 for better stability. The package is fitted to the less plushly trimmed SS for some weight reduction, and it also gets a blacked-out hood and spoiler, along with transmission cooling. It's a revelation to drive a 1LE and expect tons of push: it doesn't. With stability control set to a sport mode that allows some yaw, the 1LE gently steps out into oversteer, corrected easily with remapped variable-ratio electric power steering that's another one of GM's well-tuned efforts. It's possible to option up an SS to near 1LE-spec--but the steering is one piece that's otherwise unavailable. We haven't driven one on public roads, but a 1LE in the right context--on a road course--acquits itself with disinctly un-muscle-car moves.
Above all other comers, the Camaro's final act is the most difficult one to reconcile. It's because it's more of a supercar than a Camaro, with a pricetag in the $60,000 range to match. The ZL1 supercharges the SS's 6.2-liter V-8 for a grand total of 580 horsepower, and adopts magnetic dampers and a host of aero body pieces (the hood has a carbon-fiber insert) to cope with the copious upgrade in power. Its 0-60 mph time is pegged at 3.9 seconds, and top speed hits 184 mph--and Chevy's lapped the Nurburgring in less than eight minutes in a coupe, all figures that suggest Corvette until the cover's pulled off the body.
Believe it or not, there's yet another Camaro performance package, and it's more of an encore than part of the main performance: the Z/28. If you've forgotten, the key stats of the new Z/28. With a 7.0-liter LS7 V-8 engine, making 500 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque, the Z/28 promises to be stiff, harsh, and loud compared to other Camaro models--and just plain uncompromised. Its track-bred suspension, carbon ceramic brakes, transmission and differential coolers, and Pirelli PZero Trofeo R tires, altogether mean business, and those who spring for the Z/28 will also want to skip the A/C and delete the radio. Add in thinner rear glass, a smaller battery, no fog lamps, and this is a car that means business on the track.