The world of American muscle cars is almost unilaterally composed of household names that hearken to powerful, recognizable animals or concepts. Think Charger, Cougar, Mustang, Barracuda. But among the list, one name stands out for referencing something different – in the non-automotive world, a “Camaro” is…um…it’s a…well, it’s a Camaro, dang it! According to then-Chevy GM Pete Estes, when it was released in the 1960s, a Camaro is a “small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs” – a little on-the-nose, but it sends a clear message about Chevy’s intentions when the Camaro was new. The 2021 Chevy Camaro certainly lives up to that inspiration, but there’s a less tongue-in-cheek explanation for the name that might be an even better fit for the modern Camaro.
Reportedly, the name is taken from a 1936 French-English dictionary, where Camaro was defined as slang for “friend, pal, or comrade.” Expanding on this origin once again was Estes, who said the name “suggests the comradeship of good friends, as a personal car should be to its owner.” Compared to “Mustang-eater,” this origin is downright wholesome and a more apt descriptor of the 2021 model, which, with its widely available 1LE performance package, digs its heels in as an “everybody’s sports car,” damn the torpedoes (and rear-seat passengers, and luggage).
The Camaro might be the least practical car on the market. Sure, it has a 2nd row of seats, but putting anybody in them is a violation of the Geneva convention, and the comically small trunk is made even more useless thanks to its odd opening geometry. Fuel efficiency is no strong suit either, with no configuration doing better than 22 MPG city and 30 MPG highway, and that’s only available with the base 2.0 L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. Instead, it’s 100% invested in being the coolest, sharpest car on the market under $100,000.
From Cheap Muscle to Supercar
The Camaro comes in so many configurations that Chevy’s media page has three separate entries to talk about them. Eight trims range from 1LS through 4 LT variants, a pair of SS options, and all the way to ZL1, pricing from sub-$27,000 to near-$80,000. Add four engines, three transmissions, coupe and convertible body styles, and it all adds up to more than 35 unique configurations before factoring in other options like the 1LE performance package. What this means is that virtually any budget can afford a Camaro – it’s just a matter of figuring out which one and asking yourself if you need your car to do anything other than drive (like carrying passengers or “things”).
There really aren’t any bad options here. Yes, the 6.2L V8s – one with a supercharger – are incredible; of course they are, they’re supposed to be. The base 2.0 L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine generates 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque and reaches a 5.4 second 0-60 time too! The optional V6 is more powerful but isn’t actually any quicker off the line. You’ll feel the benefits more during highway passing or just when listening to it growl. Fans of the stick shift will be pleased to know that it remains a standard option, but any engine can be paired to one of the 8 or 10 speed paddle-shift automatic transmissions too.
Every Camaro, even in base 1LS trim, has access to visual upgrades that add the chiseled cool-factor that’s usually reserved for ultra-high performance configurations of other models. No cheap Camaro has to look plain or inexpensive; the appearance can be every bit as fun as the powertrain. These are the strong suits of the modern Camaro, arranged starkly against the weak points of awful outward visibility, low passenger capacity, and even lower cargo capacity. It’s no substitute for a passenger car; it wants nothing to do with your baggage and doesn’t want to ride with anyone but you.
The 1LE Package is Every Camaro’s Trusty Sidekick
If an uncompromising driver-centered experience sounds good to you, no car does it better for the buck than the Camaro. If that’s the kind of driver you are (and if you do have the option to choose it), the one thing that is strictly recommended across the board is the 1LE package, even if you’ll need a lower trim or smaller engine to maintain the same price and stay in-budget. That’s because the option, with specifics and price tags that vary depending on trim level, is unilaterally targeted at maximizing the already powerful and well-balanced Camaro’s performance.
Any 1LE Camaro is genuinely track-ready yet still intended to be tame enough for daily driving. There are three tiers basically tied to the trim level – LT trims with either the 2.0 L turbo or 3.6 L V6 engines get one version, SS trims get another, and the supercharged ZL1 gets the ultimate 1LE extreme performance package. Regardless of specifics, each one is built around aggressive suspension, Brembo brakes, and Goodyear Eagle 1 tires for the most adrenaline-pumping performance a pony car can offer.
Turbo and V6 1LE models get performance parts from the SS trim’s FE3 suspension and fuel systems to reach another level of composure and agility. A Track Cooling Package and suede-dressed steering wheel and shifter knobs make the car feel race-ready both under the hood and inside the cabin. Optional Recaro seats complete the experience. With an available performance recorder, you won’t need a GoPro to preserve your track day and break down your stats (even though you’re only driving a low-trim Camaro and not some European supercar).
At SS trim, all that’s included as a matter of course alongside the standard 455 hp 6.2 L V8 engine, paired to the manual or optional 10-speed automatic transmission (which is so quick, it renders the manual obsolete). Dual-mode exhaust allows the excess power to be unleashed, and larger 6-piston Brembo brakes handle the stopping, but the most significant upgrade is probably the Magnetic Ride Control which enables the damping to shift in an instant based on road conditions. That means road car comfort over cracks, bumps, and frost heaves, but track car poise in high-speed corners.
The pinnacle of Camaro performance is the ZL1 with the 1LE Extreme Performance Package. ZL1 is already performance-minded, but the 1LE takes it to the stratosphere. A huge carbon-fiber wing and other special aerodynamics help keep it planted while the supercharged 650 hp V8 tries to make it fly.
The 2019 version was Car and Driver’s top pick among ultimate incarnations of the Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger for so many reasons. It was the quickest up to 90 mph, over $15,000 cheaper than the competition, boasted better grip and shorter stopping distances, and it’s completely track-ready right out of the box. The only downside is that the already-tightened ZL1 becomes exceedingly stiff with the 1LE’s suspension upgrades, so there’s an argument to be made for the ZL1 already being Camaro-enough if you intend to drive on the parkway more than the speedway. Otherwise, you’re not here to be comfortable; you’re here to shred asphalt – and nothing does it better on a budget than the Camaro ZL1 1LE.
Closer Than Ever to Total Perfection
The pony car revival of the early 2010s is now a thriving market segment. Ford transformed the Mustang by importing the ghost of its original self to the new style after 40 years in the business. Dodge’s Challenger looks like the same car that it was in the ’70s, built with modern materials. Even the Camaro, brought back to life in 2010, was unrecognizable from its previous iteration and called to mind the original Camaros of the 1960s. But as the look evolves, becoming more aggressive and angular, the Camaro looks the part that it tries to play – as the definitive muscle car of the future.
It’s every driver’s best shot at experiencing competitive performance on a budget, with the priciest configurations capping out around $80,000 – a relative bargain for 1.17 g of cornering grip and a 3.4 second 0-60 time. It’s got the agility to run donuts around a Mustang that it was supposedly conceptualized to devour and all the refinement needed to be a driver’s best friend on pavement of any kind. The Camaro isn’t practical at all, but the 1LE performance package available up and down the lineup enables drivers of all budgets to uncork the most that the Chevy sports coupe has to offer. And what more could a gearhead ask for from their #1 pal?