It’s like déjà vu all over again, again. Yes, dear Motor Trend readers, it’s that special time of year when we trot out the latest pony cars from Detroit and figure out which one is best. For now. Because yes, we’ll do it again. Soon, too.
We’ve been doing this particular head-to-head challenge for 50 years, and you loyal readers have never felt compelled to tell us to stop. The occasion for this particular comparison test is Ford’s launch of the bigly refreshed 2018 Mustang. For the purposes of this story, we got our hands on the GT Performance Pack 1. Why not the recently announced P-Pack 2? Because Ford isn’t releasing it until May. Representing Chevrolet’s interests is the Camaro SS 1LE, unchanged since 2016. Both our tested cars came with a six-speed manual transmission, though the new Mustang is available with a 10-speed automatic.
Let’s first break down the carryover Camaro SS. The Chevy comes packing a stout 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 that pumps out 455 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of torque. 1LE is Camaro code for a track-oriented option pack. All 1LE Camaros come with a black hood, black mirrors, blacked-out other bits, and a manual transmission. The SS 1LE gets Magnetic Ride Control, GM’s trick eLSD rearend and five levels of Performance Traction Management (aka PTM), Brembo brakes, and sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3 tires. It also has a dual-mode exhaust and coolers for oil, the differential, and the transmission. Our car came with the optional Recaro seats and Performance Data Recorder, a nifty built-in camera system to help you work on your lap times. All in, this red Chevy will set you back $46,295, an $8,300 bump over the Camaro SS’ base price of $37,995.
For the first time in history, a production Mustang 5.0 displaces more than 5,000 cubic centimeters. The old Coyote V-8 displaced 4,951 cubes. Ford Performance changed out the cylinder liners, using the same plasma transferred wire arc process as the GT supercar. As such, the bore is now 93mm (up nearly a millimeter), and total displacement is 5,038cc. Because the bore is larger, the valves can be (and are) larger. The cylinder heads are new, as are the camshafts, the crankshaft, and the rod bearings. This new engine also revs 500 rpm higher to 7,500 rpm. The 2018 Coyote engine provides both port and direct injection, and because of the cooling effect of DI, the compression ratio is now a relatively lofty 12:1. As you’ve probably guessed by now, power is up, going from 435 to 460 horsepower (5 hp more than Chevy). Torque also is up by 20 lb-ft to 420 lb-ft (though 35 less than Chevy). The six-speed manual sports new gears, optimized for the engine’s healthier output.
The 2018 Mustang also gets updated and—according to my Instagram followers—polarizing new sheetmetal. Ford’s decision to take the Mustang global means that the car is subject to Europe’s restrictive pedestrian safety regulations, which often have an adverse effect on design. That’s the why the headlights are so tiny while the hood is so bulbous.
The coolest change to me is the big 12.4-inch instrument panel. It’s bright and readable, has different displays for different modes (the Track screen, specifically the way Ford made the tachometer look, is particularly good), and works well with the Mustang’s pleasant innards. Sadly, like too many Ford screens these days, there’s too much information displayed and/or something always prompting you to hit “OK.”
Ticking the box for Performance Pack 1 adds such features as a big wing; black aluminum wheels; Michelin PS4 tires; Brembo brakes; a dual-mode exhaust; a strut tower brace; a K-brace; stiffer front springs; a thicker rear anti-roll bar; a larger radiator; a Torsen limited-slip differential; retuned electric steering assist, stability control, and ABS; and “unique chassis tuning.” To even up things as much as possible, our test car had optional magnetic dampers, MagneRide in Ford-speak. Sadly, we asked for but didn’t get the available Recaro sport seats. Total price: $49,670, a $9,675 jump over the GT’s base price. Does the Mustang feel $3,375 more special than the Camaro? No. However, the Ford’s interior does look and feel about $2K nicer.
Before we get to the numbers, we should talk about each car’s inherent pony car credentials. Meaning that yes, when you’re sitting at the bar arguing with the jerk who owns the car you don’t, 0–60 mph is hella important. International bureau chief Angus MacKenzie calls that stuff “pub ammo.” However, out on the street, numbers really don’t matter all that much.
What does matter is what Jethro Bovingdon refers to as “cowboy science.” Roughly speaking, cowboy science means noise, burnouts, and nonoptimized drag racing. As far as which car’s V-8 barks better, the win goes to the Mustang. Both ponies have two-mode exhausts and eight pistons churning away on a crankshaft, but the higher-revving Ford makes much sweeter music. This is a notable improvement over the previous Mustang, which—let’s be frank—didn’t sound so hot. The Camaro’s exhaust note isn’t bad, but it’s not noteworthy (pun intended). The part that upsets me is that in some more than tangential way, the Chevy’s LT1 is related to the V-8 in the C7.R Corvettes. I’ve heard them run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and they are the best-sounding machines at the race. Imagine if rolling thunder got angry. So, Chevy tuners, a little more like that, please.
As for burnouts, the orange Ford literally, figuratively, and ever other way smoked the Chevy. In a way, this is actually good news for the 1LE. Here’s why: The Camaro can do about one, maybe two decent burnouts, and then the Goodyears get hot to the point where they “grip up,” to steal a term from Randy Pobst. It’s enough grip that 455 lb-ft of twisting force has trouble breaking ’em loose. This is slightly surprising.
I used to tell anyone who would listen to me that the best production burnout machine on earth was either the 2015 Jaguar F-Type R (it was rear-drive for one year only—future classic!) or any Hellcat. Then I drove a Camaro ZL1 and melted six sets of rear tires. Not joking.
In my fairly elaborate burnout experience, no other car comes close to the 650 lb-ft of torque and fury of the LT4 big dog Camaro. Why do I mention this? The SS 1LE comes on the same tires as the ZL1. (The ZL1 1LE gets even stickier R compound meats.) It turns out the ZL1’s additional 195 lb-ft of supercharged torque are quite necessary.
As for the Mustang GT, well, it represents one more reason to buy Michelin stock. The Ford is content to just sit and roast ’em. I should mention that although both cars come with line lock (a feature that disables the rear brakes to allow for easier burnouts), I’m both impatient and not too bright. I couldn’t get line lock to work, and after two attempts I stopped trying.
That brings us to “nonoptimized drag racing,” a term I made up. Basically it means leaving things such as GPS tracking gear and standardized measurements (like, say, distance) out of the equation and just seeing which car goes faster. To figure this out, Jethro and I headed out to El Mirage, a dry lakebed near Edwards Air Force Base. It was instrumental in the birth of both hot rodding and drag racing.
To the best of our cowboy science abilities, we marked off what probably was pretty close to a mile and went for it. The Mustang repeatedly beat the Camaro, showing 159 mph on its speedo to the Chevy’s 151 mph. The Ford was about four car lengths ahead each time, too. And by “each time,” I mean we did this about 30 times in a row. (Check out the video at Motor Trend OnDemand)
Why did the Ford win? Well, for one thing, the Mustang’s V-8 just loves to rev out. The faster it spins, the more power it spits out. For another, and we’ll explore this more in a second, we have the distinct feeling that the new Coyote is putting out more than 460 ponies. For its part, the Camaro sits on wider, slicker rear tires, and on compacted dirt, that just doesn’t have the same traction as the Mustang.
Then came time to leave cowboy science behind and get to actual science, as provided by our testing team. First of all, the Ford outporks the Chevy, 3,863 pounds versus 3,746. The two cars have identical 54/46 weight distribution. The 1LE wins the 0–60 sprint, doing so in 4.1 seconds versus the Mustang GT’s 4.4 seconds. By the end of the quarter mile, the Camaro is still in the lead but not by much: 12.5 seconds at 115.2 mph for the Chevy versus the Mustang’s 12.6 seconds at 115.1 mph. Road test editor Chris Walton, our straight-line guru, told me that were we to lengthen the race, the Ford would win because at that point the Chevy’s torque and traction advantage is gone, and high-reving DOHC horsepower takes over.
Like stated previously, we feel Ford is sandbagging the actual output. Why? My best guess is to protect the 526-hp GT350, which is still on sale. But who knows? On to braking, and here the Chevy wastes the Ford. The 1LE’s six-piston binders haul it to a dead stop from 60 mph in 93 feet. That’s world class. The GT, which also has six-piston calipers, needs 104 feet. Keep in mind that both cars are on similar performance rubber, and both have Brembos. Yes, the Ford weighs more but not that much more. The Camaro’s brakes are just better.
As is the 1LE’s handling. Around our figure-eight track, the Mustang managed a 24.0-second lap. That’s a fantastic time, especially because the 2016 Mustang GT needed 24.4 seconds, and the BMW M4 takes 24.1 seconds. So that’s good company. But by comparison, the Nissan GT-R NISMO, Porsche 991 GT3, and Porsche 991.2 Turbo S all dance the figure eight in a significantly quicker 22.9 seconds. I mention this because so does the Camaro. I’m still having a hard time processing that number, but it is true. The workaday Chevy runs even with the world’s elite performance cars in a true handling test.
For the record, the quickest time we’ve ever seen around the figure eight is 22.2 seconds, put down by both the Porsche 918 Spyder and the Lamborghini Huracán Performante. Meaning the Camaro 1LE is within spitting distance. When I asked our handling guru Kim Reynolds what he thought about the two cars after lapping them, he looked first to the Camaro then disparagingly glanced at the Mustang and said, “There’s about 4,000 years of evolution separating the two.”
Ouch. But that’s the feeling both Jethro and I got out on the road. The SS 1LE—which by the way placed fourth in our 2016 Best Driver’s Car competition—is an ideal back road warrior. Everything it does is sweet, from turn-in to midcorner to post-apex to whatever—the Chevy never puts a foot wrong, never misbehaves, and most certainly never understeers. But the grip is so high that even though the chassis is keen to, the car never oversteers—even with everything turned off.
The Ford? Look, ever since the Mustang went with an independent rearend, the GTs haven’t been set up properly. The lighter EcoBoost cars are better, and the Shelby GT350R handles about as well as anything on the road. But the normal V-8s? Not great. I had high hopes the combination of the 2018 refresh, the new Performance Pack goodies, and MagneRide would fix things. Nope. The car rolls over on itself and seems to not only understeer but also to try and oversteer at the same time. Like the front and back aren’t actually connected. Jethro kept pointing out that although the Ford felt bad going into a corner, once you were actually in a turn it was pretty much OK. “There’s a good car somewhere under there,” he said. I concur.
Then came the track. We took the two American icons out to Streets of Willow. Here’s the good news for Ford fans. The fastback GT laid down a 1:23.97 lap. That’s 0.24 second off the aforementioned M4 (1:23.73), just quicker than a Lexus RC F (1:24.08), and nearly three tenths of a second better than a 2015 Mustang GT Performance Pack (1:24.29). The bad news? The Camaro SS 1LE laid down a 1:20.67 lap, 3.3 seconds quicker. In other words, these two cars wouldn’t be allowed to race together. Different class doesn’t cover it. The list of cars the Camaro went faster than should embarrass some OEMs: Porsche Cayman GT4, 2014 Audi R8 V10 Plus, Ferrari 458 Italia. I mean, come on!
To put it bluntly, the Camaro is in another league, with legitimate supercars. A 2015 GT-R NISMO held the Streets record—1:19.07—meaning the gulf between the quickest car ever lapped at the track and the Chevy (1.6 seconds) was less than half the gulf between our two competitors (3.3 seconds). But then we got bored at lunch and Randy ran a lap in a Lamborghini Huracán Performonte. Result: new champ, at 1:18.73—making the Camaro the sixth-fastest car around Streets. Yet the Chevy still is less than 2 seconds off the pace of a hypercar costing six times as much. Dang.
The winner of this round? The Chevrolet Camaro 1LE. In my mind, it’s not close. Chevy has done the near impossible, transcended the genre, and turned a once provincial pony car into an honest to goodness world-class sports car. This $46,000 miracle punches so far above its weight that I’m in danger of saying weird things that could easily be taken out of context. Such as, if I were an engineer at BMW or even Porsche, I’d be clearing off my drawing boards.
Where does that leave the Mustang? Well, if you don’t care about measurable performance and are instead into the “cowboy science” side of things, you have your winner. However (and here’s the part I hate writing), in the ways that actually matter to car guys, the 2018 Mustang got its butt handed to it. For less money, Chevy stone-cold out-engineered Ford. And this is what that galls me. Not only should Ford have done a better job, but I also know they can do a better job. The Shelby GT350R—a car that’s every inch as awesome and breathtaking as a Porsche GT3—proves Ford has the knowledge to build a better car. Now it remains to be seen how much the forthcoming Performance Pack 2 closes the handling gap with that GT350 R and this Camaro SS 1LE. You can probably expect another Camaro/Mustang face-off for the answer.
|2018 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE (1SS)||2018 Ford Mustang GT (Premium)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||90-deg V-8, alum block/heads||90-deg V-8, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||376.0 cu in/6,162 cc||307.4 cu in/5,038 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||455 hp @ 6,000 rpm †||460 hp @ 7,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||455 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm †||420 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||7,400 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||8.2 lb/hp||8.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||14.6-in vented disc; 13.3-in vented disc, ABS||15.0-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||10.0 x 20-in; 11.0 x 20-in forged aluminum||9.0 x 19-in; 9.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||285/30R20 95Y; 305/30R20 99Y Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3||255/40R19 100Y; 275/40R19 105Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S|
|WHEELBASE||110.7 in||107.1 in|
|TRACK, F/R||63.0/62.9 in||62.4/65.1 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||188.3 x 74.7 x 53.1 in||188.5 x 75.4 x 54.3 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft||40.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,746 lb||3,863 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||54/46%||54/46%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.5/33.5 in||37.6/34.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||43.9/29.9 in||45.1/29.0 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.0/50.4 in||56.3/52.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||9.1 cu ft||13.5 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.8 sec||1.9 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||1.8||1.9|
|QUARTER MILE||12.5 sec @ 115.2 mph||12.6 sec @ 115.1 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||93 ft||104 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||1.12 g (avg)||1.00 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||22.9 sec @ 0.91 g (avg)||24.0 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)|
|1.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||1:20.67 sec||1:23.97 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,400 rpm||1,700 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$45,795||$49,670|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||8: 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/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.0 gal||16.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||16/25/19 mpg||15/25/18 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||211/135 kW-hrs/100 miles||225/135 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.02 lb/mile||1.06 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|† SAE Certified|