2019 Chevrolet Camaro 2.0T 1LE First Drive: The Quick-Stepping 'Maro, Now With Less Pep
Track-day nuts on a budget who love turbo torque finally have a Camaro to call their own.
In the world of the Chevrolet Camaro, three little letters separate the true enthusiasts from the parking-lot poseurs: 1LE. First used back in the late Eighties as a way to bring the creaky third-generation car up to the standards of the Showroom Stock road racing series, it came back towards the end of the fifth-gen 'Maro's life as a way to bridge the gap between the SS and the ZL1 by slapping a bunch of performance parts from the latter onto the former. After the excellent sixth-gen Camaro arrived, GM surprised the world by revealing not one but two new 1LEs—one for V8-powered cars, the other for V6-equipped ones.
For the 2019 model year, Chevy is pushing that philosophy that much further. Along with the bevy of mostly-cosmetic updates GM steamed onto the Camaro for its mid-cycle refresh, the carmaker is also bringing the muscle car's track-oriented performance package to its least-muscular version: For the first time, Chevy will offer a 1LE version of the turbocharged four-cylinder 'Maro.
Apart from the smaller engine under the hood, the 2.0T 1LE package is almost identical to the one found in the V6-powered Camaro 1LE. The FE3 suspension from the burly Camaro SS and the V6 1LE makes its way onto the four-cylinder car, bringing performance-oriented tweaks like retuned dampers, larger-diameter stabilizer bars, and stiffer rear bushings and ball joints. To make the most of that added potential, the wheels are shod in 20-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric summer tires—245/40/20s up front, P275/35/20s in back. Brembo brakes—four-piston units up front, two-piston ones in back—help haul the car's mass down from speed, and additional engine, transmission, and differential cooling has been wedged in to help this 1LE handle the heat of track use.
One item that goes unchanged, though, is the power. The 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four still cranks out 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, which flows to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual (with no-lift shift capability) and a limited-slip differential. That's still enough ponies and torques to kick this Camaro from a dead stop to 60 miles an hour in 5.4 seconds, according to the folks at Car and Driver, but it's also a good 60 horses less than the naturally-aspirated V6 that, as of the 2018 model year, cost $1,495 more.
Chevrolet says it opened a can of "enhanced engine sound management" for the four-cylinder 1LE, but it was hard to note much of an improvement during our three-lap drive at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's short road course. To be fair, between the racing helmet and my red-mist desire to catch the Corvette Grand Sport leading us around the track, it was hard to take much stock of any noises beyond the occasional burst of tire squeal, but the little engine noise I was aware was less soul-stirring and more...salad-spinner.
However, if you're the sort who'd rather crank up Rage Against the Machine during hot laps to psych yourself up than listen to the engine's roar, you'll notice the biggest difference between the six-pot and four-banger comes in how they deliver the goods. While the V6 makes nine fewer pound-feet than the inline-four, the turbo motor—as is tradition—makes that twist earlier in the powerband, serving up all 295 pound-feet from 3,000 to 4,500 or so atop a broad plateau. On the small track Chevy released us on, that meant there was little reason to shift at all; apart from one or two second-gear corners, we were told the best method was to leave it in third the whole way through and let that hearty midrange do the work. I even left it in third for a one whole lap; while it was certainly slower, it never felt downright lethargic. Still, the turbo four's combination of a lack of character and lack of enthusiasm make it seem like something of an odd fit for a tuned-up, track-day-ready car.
hatBut beyond t, the 1LE kit doesn't feel at all out of place on the rental-lot Camaro. The car feels preternaturally balanced in the turns—weight distribution comes in at almost 50/50—and with one Rob Gronkowski-holding-a-fat-corgi less weight to grapple with than in the Camaro SS where the FE3 came from, it darts about with the immediacy of a wanna-be Porsche. (That said, our track drive was obviously limited to dry pavement, so I can't speak to how savage a ride those dampers and the like will deliver without the extra poundage of the eight-cylinder model.)
Indeed, all the 1LE bits serve to remind and reemphasize just how damn good this sixth-generation Camaro's chassis is, no matter what sort of engine sits under that boxy hood. I was strapped in like John Glenn in the Friendship 7 for my three laps—helmet fastened to a HANS device, body locked into a racing seat with a six-point harness that cranked my clutch leg into a position so awkward I was limping when I climbed out of the car. I was in a preproduction car, on a track I'd never driven before, with visions of pulling a Patrick George flashing repeatedly through my mind. But even in spite of that discomfort and unfamiliarity, in just three laps, I felt like I knew the car well enough to crush a styrofoam cup with any tire I chose.
Still, considering there's already a V6 1LE that likely doesn't cost much more (Chevy didn't announce pricing for the new model, but given the similarities between them, it seems unlikely the midrange 1LE will command much more of a premium of the four-cylinder one than the regular V6 'Maro does over the I-4 version), it's not hard to ask the question: What exactly is the point of this car?
The answer, of course, lies in the list of competitors Chevy flashed in front of us during a pre-drive presentation: Ford Focus ST/RS, Honda Civic Si/Type R, Hyundai Veloster R. Not in their body shapes or national origins, but in the engines under their hoods and the way their owners treat them. These are cars people buy not just to drive fast, but to make even faster. Tuning and tweaking is a part of life for many owners of hot hatches and cheap sport sedans—and as any good tuner knows, it's far easier to pull extra power from a forced-induction engine than a high-revving, high-tech naturally-aspirated motor like the 3.6-liter LGX V6 shared between the Camaro and several fancier models across the GM lineup. (In fact, the same engine found in a V6 Camaro can also be found in an $85,000 Cadillac CT6. How times change.)
Those cars all have at least one door too many for the style-conscious, however. And since the disappearance of the Hyundai Genesis coupe, the turner community has been somewhat lacking in an easy-to-mod turbo-four-powered coupe. Or, rather, they were...until the gang at Ford brought EcoBoost power to the Mustang (and then gave owners factory-approved ways to crank up the engine and handling). Granted, Chevy originally chose to aim the V6 'Maro against the turbo 'Stang, leaving the four-pot to serve as the budget engine for Budget and the like. But considering the rivalry between the two Detroit carmakers when it comes to their muscle cars, it was only a matter of time before Chevy's engineers started tearing apart the sportiest EcoBoost 'Stang while singing, "Anything you can do, I can do better..."
Bottom line, there's no downside to offering the 1LE package on the turbo-four Camaro. If nothing else, it'll hopefully make buying a car designed for road-course use (and better yet, one where the manufacturer won't void your warranty if something goes wrong while on track) a little cheaper than it was before, hopefully letting a few more people know the thrill of pushing a car to its limits. Still, unless you're one of those millennials who consider sporty cars with turbocharged fours "lit" and ones packing naturally-aspirated motors "um, sad"...in this writer's opinion, your track-day and canyon carving needs will be better served by stretching a bit further for the V6 1LE. Or, y'know, a Camaro SS.