2019 Chevy Camaro Turbo 1LE driving review


SHELTON, Wash. – There’s a riddle at the heart of the Turbo , and it’s figuring out which of three Camaros it actually is. There’s the car Chevy wants it to be, a hot-hatch fighter and genre-buster that brings in people who’d never consider a pony car before. There’s the car its enthusiastic fans want it to be, which is a Mustang trouncer that has a superior chassis and nails all the intangibles. And then there’s the car it actually is, something we can’t easily sum up. Frankly we wouldn’t be surprised if potential buyers tuned out before they could wrap their heads around this turbocharged, track-oriented Camaro.

For a few people out there – maybe you? – that’d be a shame. Chevrolet doesn’t expect to sell many 1LEs (perhaps 1,000 a year), but those who buy it with their eyes wide open and an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses will love what this chassis can do out of the box. But that’s a subtle sales pitch in a market dripping with cheap-and-easy horsepower.

A quick note: The 2019 Camaro Turbo 1LE starts at $30,995 (the Turbo and V6 1LE packages are both $4,500 over the base 1LT trim), with the further options of Recaro front seats for $1,595 and the Performance Data Recorder for $1,300. There is a new trim structure, with 1LT resembling the 2018 but now with available 8-speed auto, a revised 2LT (leather, dual climate control) and new 3LT (2LT plus nav, Bose premium audio, available head-up display, standard V6 or no-cost turbo option). We drove a 3LT on the track and a 1LT with Recaros and a Bose system on the street.

The most controversial aspect of the 2019 Camaro is the revised styling, especially the more extreme SS version. The Turbo 1LE’s face has been revised to match its lesser Turbo and V6 siblings. The headlights, which before now had been similar to the previous-generation, Zeta-chassis Camaros, are now smaller – only occupying about two-thirds of the vertical height of the considerably larger upper grille opening. A glowing chicane separates the headlight from a small bit of negative space below. The grille mesh is now flattened hexagons rather than bars, lurking below the blacked-out hood. There’s no argument that it’s aggressive and bold, but around our offices the reaction has been critical. Even if you like it, we bet you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as conventionally attractive.

The changes at the rear are less extreme. The rounded-quadrangle taillights are a wash when compared to the outgoing units – perhaps they’re now a bit more distinctive. The strange placement of the submodel badge (RS, SS) remains, tacked onto the bumper as if the design team just played “pin the badge on the donkey.” But other than a better look at the pillbox gun-slit of a rear window, there’s little to note. Same goes for the interior, where very minor changes are mostly unremarkable – for better or worse. The third-generation infotainment system’s screen still cants downward, and the clever-but-low-mounted HVAC controls remain controversial as ever.

Mechanically, the 2019 Camaro Turbo is mostly carryover, so the 2.0-liter inline-four still makes 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, and the six-speed manual is the only transmission (rev matching is not available). The suspension is mostly cribbed from the Camaro SS, which calls the FE3 suspension. It includes larger front and rear stabilizer bars, stiffer bushings in the rear subframe, and stiffer rear ball joints.

The dampers are retuned for the Turbo 1LE, which is lighter over its front end (and lighter overall) than the V6 and SS models. The biggest aid to handling are the grippy Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 tires, staggered at 245/40 up front and 275/35 out back, which help the Turbo 1LE pull 0.97g on a skidpad (so Chevy claims). They’re run-flats, although you wouldn’t know it from the relatively compliant ride and predictable behavior on and off track – maybe too compliant, actually.

We spent a few hours at The Ridge Motorsports Park, about 90 minutes southeast of Seattle, evaluating the Turbo 1LE’s track chops. While the tires held up to about 40 minutes of total track time without chunking or cording, anyone who plans to track the Turbo 1LE consistently will want some dedicated rubber – just like you would for any other track-capable car. More importantly, the Goodyears are great out on public roads, so owners likely won’t feel the urge to upgrade their primary set of tires until they wear out.

The tires exemplify the Turbo 1LE’s ride quality and handling balance in general. Anyone who mainly drives on the street but does occasional track days would, and should, be perfectly happy with the compromise here. There’s enough body roll in a corner to let you know what the car’s doing underneath you, but not so much as to upset the dynamic balance. A Turbo 1LE that’ll spend more of its time on the track, but without class restrictions on equipment, would benefit from stiffer springs and perhaps adjustable sway bars to fine-tune its balance, but it’s supremely enjoyable on track as-is.

It should be noted that a Camaro Turbo (not a 1LE, of course) won the Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals in the D Street class last year, fending off a couple of WRXs and BRZs. Grassroots Motorsport mentions that the Turbo 1LE will probably fight in the B Street class, but it should still be competitive there, too. So it doesn’t need much fiddling to be competitive.

The overall impression of fun on track jibes with Associate Editor Joel Stocksdale’s impressions of the prototype Turbo 1LE’s chassis that he drove at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in April – as it should, since nothing has changed about the car since then. Joel said it felt “playful and predictable without being punishing” – spot on. And yes, the engine is “grunty enough” in the midrange, as Joel put it, too. Perhaps the Ridge’s long, sweeping late-apex corners and serious elevation change put the engine’s lack of high-RPM steam in greater focus. Whatever the setting, it’s clear that the little turbo engine loses its mojo well before redline. The engine’s also quiet enough that, even with the head-up display shift indicators calibrated to flash at peak power, it was hard to catch it before it wound out past that point.

The optimist will say: It’s a momentum car, with more grip than motor. It’s so communicative and playful that it’ll let you hang it out a bit without it getting away from you. It’s a great combination for beginner and novice track rats, and there’s some room to grow if you tune for more boost. The pessimist will say: You’ll get tired of the low power peak and weak upper end puff unless you’re actually competing in SCCA or autocross events with class limitations. The V6 or SS 1LEs are therefore better long-term propositions. Chevy Performance also doesn’t offer many factory solutions for extracting more power from the 2.0-liter turbo engine – and the V6 1LE is only $1,495 more, netting you a useful 335 hp, 284 lb-ft of torque for an approximately 136-pound weight penalty.

This gets us back to the identity issues. If you’re only looking at specs, sure, maybe the Turbo 1LE would pull some buyers out of GTIs, Focus STs, Civic Type Rs, and the Toyobaru twins. And maybe some buyers will see it this way, but it strikes us as wishful thinking. It’s also a Camaro – a pony car, with a history long and loaded – and its hamfisted restyling doesn’t help its image. It’s the best-handling, most competent pony car around, sure. And no wishlist of competitors can make the Camaro’s true enemy anything other than the Mustang EcoBoost.

Compared with the base price of the Turbo 1LE, the 2019 EcoBoost Fastback with the Performance Package Level 1 is a formidable adversary, ringing up at $29,610 with no other options – and MagneRide shocks are a standalone offer, and something you can’t even get on a Turbo 1LE. The Mustang EcoBoost PP1 nets you 310 horsepower, 350 lb-ft of torque, interior goodies like an oil pressure and boost gauge, and an upgraded radiator. A contest between EcoBoost PP and Turbo 1LE would be a great battle, but the Camaro’s planted and predictable chassis will likely give it an edge. But that’s a subtle sales pitch, and the Mustang EcoBoost is not a subtle car.

This brings us to what the car is: slightly lost. Chevy’s targeted competitors reveal its confused mission, and its more-realistic competition from Ford reveals its deficits. Instead, when we think of what cars to recommend in this segment, the Turbo 1LE will struggle to rise to the top of the list – and leave us playing a tantalizing game of “what if” to ourselves about what the Turbo 1LE might be with a better four-cylinder engine, different styling, or even a new name. Heck, even a power bump over the regular Camaro Turbo might redeem the engine, the Turbo 1LE’s heart and biggest liability.

But we remain convinced that anyone whose heart says Camaro Turbo 1LE, who loves leaving it all out there on track, won’t regret their purchase … at least for a while.

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