Chevrolet unveils smaller, lighter and sleeker Camaro for 2016

2106 Chevrolet Camaro is introduced, with only two parts held over from prior model

Chevrolet has launched the sixth generation of its Camaro sports coupe, a counterpunch to Ford's all-new Mustang.

The two Detroit giants have been waging the pony car wars since the 1960s, and the battle remains just as fierce today. Their sales run neck-and-neck, and the automakers launch a plethora of high-horsepower special editions, each trying to one-up the next.

It’s an odd competition, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for the AutoPacific consulting firm. The cars are no longer big sellers; today's rivalry is more about brand image and bragging rights.

"They each sell under 100,000 cars a year, and they continually spend a massive amount of money and manpower tweaking handling and increasing horsepower to remain competitive with each other,” Sullivan said.

Automakers don't devote nearly that level of attention to much larger segments of the business, such as family sedans.

Chevrolet's latest salvo was unveiled Saturday at an enthusiast event in Detroit. The Camaro was first introduced in 1967 in a direct response to the introduction of the original Mustang in 1964.

Today, the Camaro holds the sales crown, but barely. Camaro sales rose 7% last year to 86,297, leading the Mustang for the fifth consecutive year. The Ford's sales were 82,635 last year, according to Autodata Corp.

The pony cars are more complicated to build than other segments because there are so many variations, often selling in small volumes.

“You have the choice of four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines,” Sullivan said. “Some versions are coupes and others are convertibles, and they all are offered with a variety of transmissions.”

All this takes place in a corner of the auto market where sales don't come easy.

“Coupes have limited appeal. Toyota dropped the Solara,” Sullivan said. “The Nissan Altima Coupe has disappeared, even the Scion FRS sales are sad.”

But the Camaro and its Mustang rival hold a special place in American car culture, said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum. They have become symbols of their respective manufacturers.

“The cars display a corporate attitude and the capability of the engineers and stylists when given a bit of free rein,” he said.

The cars signal that the companies are still populated by “car people who want you to care about the vehicle you drive and how you look in it.”

Mustang and Camaro owners have always cared deeply about what's under the hood. But today's versions have added smaller four-cylinder engines that once would have been dismissed by loyalists.

The last time Chevrolet tried to slip a four-cylinder engine under the hood of its Camaro sports coupe, the results weren’t pretty.

“No one was proud” of the anemic, 92-horsepower four banger, Camaro’s chief engineer Al Oppenheiser said of the attempt more than two decades ago.

This time, the base model Camaro four-cylinder will pack pack 275 horsepower, with a turbocharger that helps rocket the Camaro to 60 mph in less than six seconds. The car will achieve 30 miles per gallon in highway driving.

“There will be no excuses,” Oppenheiser said.

Small, powerful four-cylinders are the future in pony cars and other sporty cars. Ford reintroduced one to its Mustang lineup with the current generation model in 2014, and four-cylinder turbo motors also power sport sedans such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

That gives the Camaro team at General Motors the confidence that its new 2.0 liter engine – a modified version of what goes into a small Cadillac sports sedan – will be popular.

“This will do fine with the 'Fast and Furious' demographic,” Oppenheiser said.

He called it the “charmer” that fits nicely into a Camaro lineup that also includes a 335-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 and the massive 455-horsepower V8. All three engines are new to the Camaro line.

The new Camaro, which goes on sale near year-end, features an entirely new architecture. The only two parts that will carry over from the fifth-generation model are the iconic Chevrolet bow-tie emblem on the tail lamp panel and the SS badge.

It be built on a modified version of GM's Alpha car platform, which is already used by the Cadillac ATS and CTS models.

Overall, the Camaro shrinks from its current size – by about 2 inches in length and wheelbase and about an inch in height and width. That’s because the vehicle is now rolling on a leaner, smaller and stiffer platform.

But it squeezes the interior, especially the rear seat. Oppenheiser acknowledged the cramped rear, but noted that few Camaro buyers use the car as a family hauler.

The new styling features traditional Camaro design language, including the grille and headlight aperture that stretches across the entire width of the car. The smaller car gives the impression of a wider, more athletic stance, enhanced by a long snout, low roofline and short rear deck.

The new architecture gave GM engineers the opportunity to address one of the criticisms of the current model – it is a tad bloated. Overall, the total curb weight for Camaro is as much as 200 pounds less than the current model, depending on the engine choices.

That will pay off in handling, providing a faster, more nimble driving experience, Oppenheiser said.

Price information and certified fuel economy numbers have not been announced. The current Camaro starts at about $25,000 but can climb to $75,000 for the high-performance Z/28 model.

Ford invented the pony car when it introduced the Mustang in 1964. The Camaro was a response and forced Ford to rethink the Mustang. The companies have been in a punch-counterpunch stance ever since.

Camaro has recaptured the sales edge by doing “a lot of things right” Kendall said.

“They have the proportions right. They have a retro look,” he said. “It is an aggressive ready-to-rumble kind of car.”

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