We all have at least one dream car, and probably several. Most of them are dreams because they’re effectively unobtainable, but we each have at least one attainable car on the list. Something we’ll buy when we land that new job or big promotion. Back when I was in high school, my attainable dream had rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and a big V-8. That V-8 made just over 300 hp.
That car was a Pontiac Firebird WS6, and it hit 60 mph in 5 seconds flat on its way to a 13.5-second quarter mile at 107.4 mph per our records. Just 15 years ago, 300 hp was a lot, and it took a V-8 or a lot of boost to get it. In my car club, a 13-second quarter mile was damn quick for a street car, and breaking into the 12s was a major accomplishment. Only the hottest of hot rodders ran 11s.
That was then. This is now. We have before us two turbocharged four-cylinder ponycars, a Mustang and a Camaro, that can nearly keep pace with my teenage dream. The Camaro makes 275 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The Mustang: 310 hp and 320 lb-ft. (The Firebird, in case you were wondering, made 305 hp and 335 lb-ft.) The Camaro hits 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and runs a 13.9-second quarter mile at 101.0 mph, and the Mustang, 230 pounds heavier, needs 6.3 seconds for the former and 14.5 seconds for the latter at 98.0 mph. Welcome to the future.
MASTER IN THE CORNER: If the road is straight, the more powerful but heavier Mustang doesn’t stand a chance.
This is the only objective measure in which the Camaro has an advantage. The Mustang is hampered in two ways, the first being the weight penalty. The second is a strange tendency to pull power after an upshift if it’s shifted too fast. It was tough to get a perfect run, and even then, the more powerful Mustang was still a second behind the lighter Camaro.
It’s no academic exercise, either, as the engines have entirely different personalities. The Mustang is all low-end, giving it lots of grunt off the line and exiting a corner and making it easier and more pleasant to drive around town. Unfortunately, the party’s over just north of 5,000 rpm, where it falls completely on its face. The Camaro, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. It’s gutless below 3,000 rpm, then the boost comes on like a light switch. From there, the party doesn’t stop until the tach does. It’s harder and less enjoyable to drive in town, but when it’s time to go fast, it’s way more fun.
This is no academic exercise. Both engines have entirely different personalities.
“The Mustang has better low-end torque, but honestly, I prefer the way the Camaro’s engine behaves,” Jonny Lieberman said. “I happen to enjoy engines where the horsepower comes on strong toward the top of the revs, unlike the Mustang’s 2.3-liter turbo, which feels laggardly compared to the Chevy’s revver.”
I’m with Lieberman. Better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and wringing out the Camaro for all it’s worth is a lot more fun than short-shifting the Mustang. Both cars, as you might expect, benefit from having their Sport modes activated, though the sluggish Fordbenefits more. (It also gets a Track mode the Camaro doesn’t.) Sport is a must in the Mustang and a why not in the Camaro. The Camaro’s must: rolling down the windows. It’s no V-8, but it sounds pretty good for a four-banger and way better than the mumbling Mustang.
That said, the Camaro is watching the Mustang’s taillights in anything other than straight-line stuff. That is, except in the braking test, where the Mustang stops 10 feet shorter. Otherwise, though, the Mustang’s out in front. On the skidpad, the Mustang pulls 0.95 g average to the Camaro’s 0.91. In our figure-eight test, it’s another easy victory for the Ford with a 24.2-second lap at 0.79 g average to the Chevy’s 25.1-second lap at 0.76 g average.
How the slower, heavier Mustang manages these feats comes down to just two things: tires and brakes. Our Mustang had the optional $1,995 Performance package, which includes summer tires and four-piston brake calipers in addition to a better axle ratio and tuning improvements. The Camaro, though, doesn’t have a performance package. The closest you can get on a four-cylinder car is a front-only brake upgrade and a set of high-performance all-season tires, which we spec’d. This severely handicaps the Camaro’s braking and handling performance, and the differences were obvious both on the test track and the street. On the figure eight, the Mustang braked shockingly hard, turned in to a corner immediately and precisely, understeered mildly in the middle, then put the power down at the exit. The Camaro, by contrast, had a soft brake pedal, understeered all the way from corner entry to exit, and power oversteered a bit on the way out. (At least there’s a consolation prize.)
These behaviors make themselves known in the real world, too. The Mustang can be driven as fast as its motor will carry it down a winding road with complete confidence. The Camaro can keep up with the Mustang thanks mostly to its acceleration advantage, but it feels as if you’re driving it at the tires’ absolute limit all the time. Put the Camaro in front, and it’ll have mirrors full of Mustang all the time. When the Camaro simply can’t go any faster around a corner, the Mustang is sweating but not panting. On the plus side, the wimpy tires do allow the Camaro to do way better burnouts.
We have before us two turbocharged ponycars that can keep pace with my teenage dream.
Now is a good time to point out the role reversal going on here. Put V-8s in these cars, and it’s the opposite story. The Mustang is too soft and heavy to keep up with the faster, lighter, nimbler Camaro.
The difference in braking performance is also apparent in canyon driving. The Mustang’s brakes have incredible bite right at first engagement, and they never let up. There’s excellent pedal feel to boot. The Camaro, meanwhile, has a longer pedal that feels soft up top but firms up when you really stand on it, which, although nicer in traffic, isn’t exactly what we’re looking for in a “Performance Brake Upgrade.”
The cars have other differences, as well. The Mustang may go around a corner quicker, but it feels heavier and softer doing it. The damping just isn’t firm enough for a Performance package, and it affects your confidence until you get used to it. The Camaro, by contrast, is beautifully balanced and light on its feet. Although the spec chart shows only a 1 percent difference in weight distribution between the two, the Mustang, its engine sitting on the front axle rather than behind as in the Camaro, feels unsurprisingly heavier on the nose.
You can feel it in the steering. The Camaro’s, when the tires stick, has more feel to it. The Mustang turns in better, and although it has little feel, it offers three modes to dial in the right amount of weight for your driving style.
There’s also the matter of the shifters. Both cars use a six-speed manual transmission, but Ford has worked out a better shift linkage. The throw is just a bit shorter and crisper, and the decision to use a manual reverse lockout is laudable. In the Camaro, it’s all too easy to blow through the reverse detent when attempting a 3-2 downshift, resulting in frustration, cursing, and lost time.
Then come the little, practical things. Both cars have small trunks, but the Mustang’s is bigger and has a bigger opening. Neither car has real back seats, but the Mustang’s will hold bigger children than the Camaro’s. The Ford also has more than one USB port (and in a usable location, no less) and actual storage cubbies to put your stuff in. On the other hand, the Mustang has Sync. For all the usability and functionality improvements to Sync3, it still crashed and stayed that way for most of a day until Lieberman rebooted his phone, which he’d been charging and attempting to use Bluetooth phone and audio streaming with. Chevy’s MyLink, however, kept changing audio inputs; every time my Google Maps app played a voice prompt over the Bluetooth connection, it started playing music on my phone rather than the satellite radio station I’d been listening to. Fuel economy, ostensibly the reason you’re buying one of these four-bangers, is effectively the same on paper and in the real world.
Oh, and we took them to a racetrack, too. Yeah, yeah, I know. These are the four-bangers, and no one will track them, blah, blah, blah. We did, and you should, too. Both cars were a riot on the track, able to use all of their power all the time and benefiting mightily from lower curb weights and better balance than their V-8 counterparts. Of course, the Camaro was still handicapped by its tires, but you can fix that (read how HERE). As is, the Mustang won the day by 0.86 second at the Streets of Willow Springs, owing mostly to its stopping power and cornering grip.
“The [braking] response of the Camaro was so slow and inconsistent compared to the Mustang,” Randy Pobst said; he referred to the Camaro’s on-track braking more than once as “frightening.” Things didn’t get much better in the corners. “The whole turning phase is vastly inferior to the Mustang. The braking doesn’t give me as much entry grip as I want. The tires have less grip, more squirm, more slide, more slip angles everywhere. It’s less accurate and less fun.” Otherwise, though, he liked it. “Cornering speeds were lower, but it was a little bit more drifty under power, which I actually kinda enjoyed. … The Camaro engine is just more satisfying. It pulls stronger.”
The Mustang didn’t get off easy, either. “The engine felt lazy,” Pobst said. “I thought I felt the thing pulling power. Seemed worse on later laps. The oil temp came up right to the yellow.” It didn’t go like he wanted, but it sure did stop. “I absolutely love the brake response; it’s unbelievable how quick it gets to its max braking g. I can go so late on the brakes, way later than the Camaro. I think that’s a record for me braking as late as I did and still making it in many places around the course. It loves a trail-brake. It rotates just a little bit.” All that despite complaints about the weight.
Even with all the obvious differences, Lieberman and I found ourselves staring down a tie. “This is one of the more evenly matched comparison tests in recent memory,” he said. “I’m split 51 to 49 percent, and if I stare at either of the cars long enough, I can convince myself it’s the actual winner.” I felt the same. The Camaro was unquestionably more fun to drive, but it was kneecapped by its tires. The Mustang was the better all-around car, but its lethargic engine and extra poundage let it down. Even if the Camaro could give my old dream Firebird a run for its money on the strip and either pony could run circles around the Pontiac on a race track, neither quite felt like the obvious dream car in this test. Maybe it’s because all my dreams have eight or more cylinders, or maybe it’s because a lot more than 300 hp is attainable on a middle-class salary these days. Really, though, it’s a question of priorities. Dream cars are irrational. These two are logical alternatives that ask practical questions. How fast do you really need to go? How much money do you really want to spend on gas every month? And how many commutes are you really going to put up with that ride quality?
After a great deal of standing around staring at the cars and trading observations that started with “but what about,” we settled on a winner: the Mustang. It’s the better car in nearly every measure by some margin, and as much as we hate to lose a stoplight drag, there’s no arguing it’s got the Camaro licked everywhere else. A set of real summer tires for the Camaro would change everything, but Chevy doesn’t sell them, and the Camaro suffers for it.
Or, as Lieberman put it: “Not satisfied that dull tires are enough to sink the Chevy? The Mustang has a real handbrake. Winner!”
BE PREPARED: The Mustang has way better brake bite than the Camaro, so it’s best not to follow the Ford too closely.
Remember those funhouse mirrors that made you look wildly fat or super tall? That’s what the Camaro’s and Mustang’s speed graphs remind me of, with the Chevrolet’s virtually being a stretched-tall version of the Ford’s. Let’s start at the left edge of that plot. The Camaro clearly pulls the Mustang down the front straight, building a lead that it holds until Turn 3. But by that point, the exaggerated slowness of the Camaro in Turns 2 and 3 has completely squandered the gap; the Chevrolet faster-then-slower roller coaster is repeated during the remainder of its lap, but it’s a losing hand. The Mustang finishes 90 feet ahead. Then we swap the Camaro onto performance summer tires. Not surprisingly, the Camaro in Mustang shoes suddenly matches the Ford’s cornering pace. But it does even more: Those hastened exit speeds also carry onto the straights, adding 2 mph to its peak speed along Streets’ twin high-speed runs. Suddenly, the funhouse mirror is stretching the Camaro’s speed trace only up, which rewards it with a lap time of 1:25.75. The gap at the finish line? The deficit has turned into a 165-foot win. Maybe Chevy needs to make a call to Tire Rack like we did. — Kim Reynolds
|2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS (2LT)||2016 Ford Mustang(EcoBoost Premium)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged, I-4, alum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1,998 cc||138.2 cu in/2,264 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||275 hp @ 5,600 rpm*||310 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm*||320 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm|
|REDLINE||7,000 rpm||6,500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.3 lb/hp||11.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS||13.9-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 20 in, cast aluminum||9.0 x 19 in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/40R20 (95V) M+S Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric (run-flat)||255/40ZR19 (96Y) Pirelli P Zero|
|WHEELBASE||110.7 in||107.1 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.5/63.7 in||62.3/64.9 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in||188.3 x 75.4 x 54.4 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.4 ft||37.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,392 lb||3,622 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||52/48%||53/47%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||36.6/35.0 in||37.6/34.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.6/29.9 in||44.5/30.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.0/50.4 in||56.3/52.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||9.0 cu ft||13.5 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.9 sec||2.1 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.7||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||13.9 sec @ 101.0 mph||14.5 sec @ 98.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||112 ft||102 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.91 g (avg)||0.95 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.1 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)||24.2 sec @ 0.79 g (avg)|
|1.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||1:28.18 sec||1:27.32 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,750 rpm||1,800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$33,320||$32,540|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.0 gal||15.5 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/30/24 mpg||22/31/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||160/112 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/109 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.80 lb/mile||0.77 lb/mile|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||00.0/00.0/00.0 mpg||21.6/25.3/23.1 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|