During the early phase of 2016 Chevrolet Camaro development, Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser one day found himself in a meeting with a group of GM Powertrain engineers he’d never met before.
“After we all said hello, my boss turned to me and said, ‘Al, these are the four-cylinder turbo guys. You should get to know them.’ And I said to myself, well, then I guess we need to get acquainted,” Oppenheiser recalled.
Many months later on a prototype drive in Germany, Oppenheiser—a GM Performance veteran who admits to a love for muscular small-block V8s—had his first chance to wring out a Camaro mule powered by the newest and most non-traditional-Camaro engine—GM’s turbocharged 2.0 L rated at an SAE-certified 275 hp (205 kW) and 297 lb·ft (402 N·m).
"I had intended to take the car for a short drive on local public roads and ended up returning five hours later,” he told Automotive Engineering. “The car with the turbo engine is simply a blast to drive. Light and nimble. Felt lively, nice crisp turn-in. I was delighted,” he said.
There also is ample customer delight in the development story of the all-new, sixth-generation Camaro that launches this fall in LT and SS trim. A convertible is officially in the works, and mention of a Ford Shelby GT350-gobbling Z/28 version elicits grins and “no comment” from engineers. The biggest news is the platform: with their primary mission being to significantly improve Camaro’s dynamic performance, acceleration, and fuel economy, Oppenheiser’s young development team looked immediately to significantly reducing mass and improving structural stiffness (by 28%).
To achieve this they moved Chevy’s iconic rear-drive sporty coupe from its GM Australia-derived Zeta architecture, to the lighter mixed-materials Alpha platform that debuted on the 2013 Cadillac ATS and is also used on the CTS. And they created a more compact Camaro—at 188.3 in (4783 mm) the 2016 model is 2.3 in (58 mm) shorter overall, and rides on a 1.6 in (41 mm) shorter wheelbase at 110.7 in (2812 mm). Combined with the new platform’s inherent mass efficiency, the slightly smaller ’16 car is 200 lb (91 kg) lighter, on average across the model range. Comparing 2016 to 2015 base models, the new version is nearly 300 lb (136 kg) lighter.
The base turbo four that initially surprised Oppenheiser is claimed to accelerate from rest to 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 6 s while delivering more than 30 mpg highway fuel efficiency—making it the most fuel-efficient Camaro ever. The car’s six-combination powertrain lineup also includes a 335-hp (250-kW) 3.6-L V6 and a 455-hp (339-kW) 6.2-L LT1 V8. All are direct injected and their output SAE-certified. The 2.0-L and 3.6-L engines are mated with a choice of Tremec TR316 six-speed manual or GM’s new 8L45 eight-speed automatic transmissions.
The V8 powering the SS model produces 455 lb·ft (617 N·m) and employs the Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual and 8L90 eight-speed automatic. The TR6060 unit is equipped with active rev matching, a driver-selectable feature that automatically blips the throttle (using signals from a Hall Effect sensor on the shift linkage) for precision downshifts.
Other key technologies aimed at tailoring Camaro’s dynamic performance to the driver’s demands include BWI-sourced magnetic ride control suspension dampers (a first use on Camaro SS) and ZF’s rack-mounted electric power steering that GM performance-car engineers universally love while quietly bemoaning its price premium.
There are also four driver-select operating modes—snow/ice, tour, sport, and track (the latter on SS models only), and a dual-mode exhaust system that uses new electronically controlled valves to let the exhaust bypass the mufflers under moderate-to-wide throttle openings. At its most restrictive setting, the system is sneak-home-at-2 a.m. quiet. Conversely at WOT it plays a raucous back-straight symphony.
How effective are the performance improvements? According to GM engineers, the lap times of the base ’16 Camaro SS are faster than those achieved by the ’15 Camaro 1LE package, a track-day niche model that features suspension bits from the Z/28 bill of materials.
Inside Camaro, the cabin design focuses on improved human-machine interface and driver/passenger ergonomics. Tactile surfaces have a more premium look and feel than those of the Zeta-based car, and a “spectrum lighting” feature illuminates the IP, door panels, and center console in a 24-effects light show.
Iterating Alpha for Camaro duty
Moving Camaro to Alpha wasn’t entirely part of the original product plan for GM’s latest architecture, noted Mark Reuss, GM Executive Vice President for Global Product Development.
“About a year and a half ago, we took the Zeta-based car and looked at the proportion models on the patio really, really closely before we decided on Alpha for this,” he explained. “The capability to do a Camaro was always designed into Alpha, but it wasn’t decided then. You’ve got to let the market mature a bit, to see where others are headed. There were some things we had to do [to the structure] to get the Camaro proportion.”
Various design iterations followed, he said. The front structure is unique to Camaro. It is longer than that of ATS to create the required dash-to-axle ratio for the “Camaro look” and is widened to provide the desired 62.5-in (1588-mm) front track width on LT, and 63 in (1600-mm) on SS. In addition, 20% of the V8 engine has been modified to package it in Camaro, including new fabricated tubular steel “tri-Y”-style exhaust manifolds.
The crosscar beam is now an aluminum extrusion that saves 9.7 lb (4.4 kg) versus the steel beam on the current-generation Camaro. Front MacPherson strut and five-link independent rear suspension assemblies also are aluminum-intensive and account for a 21% mass savings compared with the 2015 car. Illustrating GM engineers’ attention to detail in slashing excess grams, suspension links on some models employ a structurally optimized design made with a rigid thermoset composite material that’s lighter than aluminum.
“We already had a good IRS with Zeta, so we knew we’d have a capable track car,” Reuss observed. “But how do you do that and take the next step and take mass out of the car without ruining the value equation? Well, the only exterior panel that’s aluminum on this car is the hood. But look underneath it and see all the things we did, piece by piece. The lightening holes in the steel rear suspension links show our philosophy.
“We knew if we did Camaro off of Alpha we’d get all the things Alpha brings to it—including [production] scale,” he noted. GM will build the Camaro at its Lansing (MI) Grand River assembly complex, moving the nameplate from its former build at Oshawa, Ont.
A 50-year battle
The current Camaro’s sales success has been a surprise within the industry. GM put the nameplate on production hiatus for seven model years after 2002, returning in 2010 with the Zeta-based model that replaced the ancient F-car. Almost immediately Camaro outsold its old nemesis, the Ford Mustang, ironically the original “pony car” that inspired GM to create Camaro for the 1967 model year.
For six straight years the Zeta-based Camaro put Mustang on the trailer, sales-wise, reaching a peak of over 88,000 sales in 2011. Then late last year, armed with an all-new Mustang, Ford finally eclipsed Camaro’s sales by a wide margin. With both classic American sports/muscle machines now on roughly the same development cadence, their ongoing technology, performance, and sales battle that is approaching 50 years old will be interesting to watch.