The pony-car war has been going on for nearly 50 years, an eternity in our world of ephemeral marketing, but it’s never been as interesting as it is right now. The newCamaro SS, lighter than before, faces a restyled Mustang GT that debuted just last year with a vastly improved suspension.
Both Michigan-made machines pack powerful V8s, but they’re clearly engineered for more than revving at red lights. They want to chase each other through switchbacks and pivot through hairpins. So, we left the gridlines of Michigan behind for the Chattahoochee-Oconee and Cherokee National Forests, which straddle the spine of Appalachia through Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. On the map, the roads in these parts appear to have been inked by a drunken tattoo artist during an 8.4-magnitude shaker. They include the famous Tail of the Dragon, the most notorious curvy road in the country.
“The Tail is actually the worst stretch,” says associate editor and third-generation Knoxvillian Zach Bowman.
People down here seem to like pony cars. Or one of them, at least. We can hardly stop for gas without having to confirm for a crowd that, yes, this is the new Mustang. No one has anything to say about the Camaro SS. That’s probably because from 10 feet away, it looks just like the one it replaces. Ford designers worked harder than their Chevy counterparts to breathe new life into old cues. The Mustang’s vertical three-bar taillights, for instance, look like they came out of a 3-D printer, whereas the Camaro’s traditional horizontal lights are, as ever, flat pieces of plastic.
Maybe, though, it’s just the gravity of the 9.6 million Mustangs built since 1964, twice the number of Camaros. If you haven’t owned one, you know someone who has. Bemused by the Mustang’s popularity, I point out the Camaro to a woman in her midfifties who’d wandered over to admire the Mustang while leaving the nozzle pumping in her F-150. “I like Fords,” she smiles back from behind her big hair.
Too bad for her, because under the Camaro’s familiar façade is an emphatically different car. A switch to Cadillac’s light and rigid Alpha platform cuts the Camaro’s curb weight to 3760, down about 150 pounds from the last-gen model. If the outgoing Camaro was a two-door Chevy SS, the new one is an ATS-V coupe with a V8 option.
The interior is not quite a Cadillac’s but has nonetheless made huge strides. Two analog gauges and the general shape of the instrument panel are the only reminders of the old Camaro. A configurable digital screen between the speedometer and tachometer can display navigation directions, more gauges, and vehicle settings. The center screen that controls the radio and navigation system is tilted downward, like a flat-screen television on a failing wall mount. Presumably done to cut down on glare, it looks odd, even if the screen is responsive and easy to use. Metal bezels on center heating and air-conditioning vents turn to adjust the temperature. Very elegant. Very Audi.
Traffic through the Tail of the Dragon is remarkably heavy for midweek. Temperatures in the high 70s have brought out flocks of Softtail Fat Boys, who lean clumsily through 318 curves, their throbbing songs carrying down hill and dale.
Our rides play nicer tunes. You can get a turbo four or a V6 in both the Camaro and Mustang, but you don’t want them for the same reason you don’t drink nonalcoholic beer—even if the flavor’s close, the point is lost.
The Camaro’s 6.2-liter V8 comes straight from the Corvette with a healthy 455 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque. It sounds every bit as good here as in the Corvette; just tick the dual-mode exhaust ($895) option. A push of the mode selector behind the shifter swings open the flaps in the exhaust, changing the volume from quiet to riot.
With twice as many valves and four times as many camshafts, the 435-hp 5.0-liter Coyote V8 in the Mustang nearly matches the Camaro’s oomph. Thrust comes on early and doesn’t taper off, even at the 7000-rpm redline. But Ford smothers its V8 melody. Pony cars should celebrate the V8; every kick of the accelerator pedal should make you want to find an American flag to salute. Show me your power, Coyote! I want to hear you. I want to feel you. But, no: In the Mustang, I’m the guy at the Who concert wearing earplugs.
The Dragon spits us out onto faster and relatively empty Route 143 in North Carolina. We follow the jagged shoreline of Lake Santeetlah, formed when a hydroelectric dam stopped up the Cheoah River in 1928. Speeds rise and the poplars and hemlocks blur. Time to pay attention.
Especially since it’s still tough to see anything outside the Camaro. Not the sky, not the treetops, and, in the rearview, not the Monroe County, Georgia, sheriff’s Dodge Charger that’s following us. But this Camaro reacts like a smaller and lighter car. Communication through the small-diameter steering wheel is as clear and detailed as in the ATS-V. The ride is a wonder. Magnetorheological shocks, offered for the first time on the SS, tighten as you progress through the drive modes, from recliner comfy to qualifyingly stiff. Commit to a corner and the Camaro hunkers down, grips, and pounds its way to the exit. On the skidpad, there’s nearly a g of cling. If there’s body roll, I don’t notice.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox shifts with the smoothness and quickness of a dual-clutch transmission. In Sport and Track modes, it’s so aggressive and smart you’ll think the ghost of Mark Donohue is taking over. (Don’t worry, you can still get a stick.)
By the time we stop for lunch in the old logging hamlet of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, it’s obvious the Mustang, even with the Performance package, can’t match the easy composure of the Camaro. There’s more slop in the suspension. Contact patches feel smaller, as if someone put too much air in the tires. There’s less interaction between the tires and the steering, too, and the nose doesn’t leap to apexes as eagerly. It all feels slower and less connected than in the Camaro. Turn, pause, wait for the chassis to take a set.
Brakes? Ford trumps Chevy. The Performance package binders bite hard and never tire. The Camaro stops just fine but lacks the pedal feel of the Mustang. We also love the Ford’s manual gearbox, which accepts quick shifts without a peep from the syncros. There’s magic in the connection between the engine and transmission that our auto-equipped Camaro can’t replicate, especially since taps of the paddles behind its steering wheel often go unanswered.
But if we’re going to eat forest in either of these two, we’re more likely to do so in the Mustang. Bowman can’t believe that a car that felt so right last year is now “loose and wallowy.”
After two days driving over the relief left behind by the Great Buzzard, there’s no doubt the Camaro, with its Cadillac platform and Corvette engine, is the thoroughbred of its class. We can’t believe it. The Camaro is almost too composed. The balance is sublime. It’s refined and exciting. Has this once fat lout of a car become a bona fide sports car?
Did that just happen?