Power isn't everything. We cannot argue with the fact that the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is an immensely fun car to drive on both the road and track. But unless you have a closed course with a proper straightaway to unleash all 580 of those supercharged horses – despite the ZL1 being a rather easy car to manage in everyday driving – you'll really only be using that force to blast by slow-moving semi trucks and perhaps engage in ill-advised stoplight drag race tomfoolery on suburban streets. In both of those instances, all that power certainly feels nice under your butt, but in the end, you just end up looking like a total chotch.
The thing is that the more power you have at your disposal, the harder it is to wrestle with a car on winding roads or even out on a track. There's a beautiful simplicity that's experienced while wringing out a less-powerful car with superb steering and top-notch suspension geometry, and it's that logic that allows us to wholeheartedly love cars like the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S twins.
More to the point, this is exactly why we fell in love with the Mustang Boss 302. Ford took its delectable pony car and set out to fine-tune the chassis, suspension and brakes above all – adding a small dose of power into the mix as well – and in the end created a car that many of us would rather live on a daily basis with than the absolutely bonkers Shelby GT500.
Not to be outdone in the never-ending muscle car wars, General Motors has responded to Ford's Boss with this: the 1LE performance package available for the 2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS coupe. And while we can't yet say if we prefer it to the Dearborn Darling – we'd need some proper back-to-back time first – our day spent whipping the 1LE around Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan only affirms our belief that power is purely relative. Naturally aspirated or not, this is the Camaro we've been waiting for.
So, 1LE. It doesn't quite roll off the tongue with the same sort of punch as "Boss 302," but Camaro loyalists know that the alphanumeric designation indeed has deeper meaning. The third-generation Camaro added a 1LE handling package back in 1988 after Pro-Am racers complained about the car's lack of handling chops – specifically, its tendency to understeer. Like that old model, the vast majority of changes to this modern 1LE come in the form of upgrades to the SS' suspension and braking systems, along with beefier wheels and tires and a different final-drive ratio.
The Camaro added a 1LE handling package back in 1988 after Pro-Am racers complained about the car's lack of handling chops.
Visually, the only things that separate the 1LE from a standard SS are the matte black hood, rear lip spoiler, red Brembo brake calipers and the sinister black 20-inch lightweight aluminum wheels. As a staff, we've always been fans of the Camaro's design, despite the fact that its overt focus on styling causes a lot of interior functionality issues (we'll discuss that later). We like the fact that it's a Hot Wheels car come to life, though some of us feel that specific 1LE additions like that matte hood and rear spoiler are a little too aftermarket in appearance.
Where we still take issue with the Camaro, however, is inside. Ticking the 1LE option box doesn't get you a whole host of new interior amenities, but it does include the flat-bottomed, Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel straight from the ZL1. We like the feeling of the fuzzy stuff in our hands, and we really like the fact that it doesn't heat up like leather under the summer sun, but really, that's about all of the positive things we can say about the 1LE's interior. The rest of the cabin is still finished in black plastic with gray accents, the worst of which is found on the sides of the transmission tunnel and center console. It all just looks downmarket.
The high beltline and low roofline give you that sunk-in-the-bathtub feeling.
Furthermore, as with every Camaro, visibility is a major issue. The high beltline and low roofline give you that sunk-in-the-bathtub feeling from behind the wheel, and even for your five-foot, seven-inch author, there's a lack of headroom. Banging your head on the roof while getting in and out of the 1LE almost becomes second nature, but no less annoying. Taller drivers beware.
Once you are finally situated behind that new steering wheel, though, the 1LE is sure to impress. Unlike the Mustang Boss 302, Chevrolet left the engine largely intact, meaning the 6.2-liter LS3 V8 still pumps out 426 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. Because of the 1LE's performance orientation, high-capacity fuel pumps have been added, and the Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual transmission now benefits from a 3.91 final drive ratio (up from 3.45), as well as the same air-to-liquid cooling system as the ZL1. Furthermore, the excellent short-throw shifter from the ZL1 has been fitted, and do note, if you want the 1LE package, you'd better want the do-it-yourself 'box. Chevy won't sell you a 1LE with the six-speed automatic, and shame on you for even wanting one in the first place.
Chevy won't sell you a 1LE with the six-speed automatic, and shame on you for even wanting one.
There may not be any specific engine upgrades on hand, but that doesn't mean performance is in any way lacking. The LS3 V8 has a linear power delivery accompanied by a seriously excellent noise thanks to the dual-mode exhaust system. GM says the 1LE will sprint to 60 miles per hour in a very respectable 4.7 seconds, but we can't help but note that Ford's Boss 302 will do the 60-mph dash three-tenths of a second quicker. Then again, the Boss is also roughly 400 pounds lighter than the porky 1LE.
Straight-line stuff aside, the real magic is found underneath that flashy body. Let's pause for a moment and go over exactly what makes the 1LE a 1LE. Chevrolet has fitted larger stabilizer bars at both the front and rear (measuring 27 and 28 millimeters, respectively); higher-capacity rear axle half shafts; a strut tower brace; wheel bearings, toe links and rear shock mounts ripped from the ZL1; as well as model-specific monotube rear dampers, as opposed to the twin-tube dampers found on normal SS models. All that mumbo-jumbo basically means that while the 1LE weighs 3,875 pounds – 15 more than a standard Camaro 1SS – it manages to handle its heft with much, much greater poise.
There wasn't a single moment during our test where we wished for more power.
We spent the better part of a morning lapping Michigan's lovely Gingerman Raceway, our 1LE set up in Competition Mode with two quick clicks of the traction control button. Here, we were able to let the car's back end loosen up a bit and tell the electronic nannies to buzz off while we played, but even as we pushed harder and harder around the circuit, the 1LE never failed to hunker down and hold on in the corners. Keeping the car revving high in second gear and powering on through third and fourth allowed us to make the best use of the LS3's eight-cylinder grunt, and there wasn't a single moment during our test where we wished for more power.
The biggest compliment we can pay the 1LE is just how nimble it feels on the track, truly giving us the impression that we were driving a much smaller car. The body stays stiff through the corners, the front end nearly refuses to understeer, and unless you're going for the most hardcore experience, the rear end always stays where it belongs. This is a car that rewards smooth, precise driving. The electronic power assisted steering has a tendency to feel a bit vague on center, but things weight up the moment you spin it in either direction, providing solid feedback while turning. Don't hammer the brakes or jerk the tiller and the 1LE will happily carry a smooth line through a bend, the rear end stepping out only ever so slightly as you power out and set up for your next corner.
In order to properly praise this Camaro's handling, we have to give credit to the 1LE's rolling stock.
In order to properly praise this Camaro's handling, we have to give credit to the 1LE's rolling stock. It borrows lightweight black alloy wheels from the ZL1, measuring 20 inches in diameter, wrapped in sticky 285/35ZR20 Goodyear Eagle Supercar G:2 tires – the same ones found on the front wheels of the Camaro ZL1. This high-performance rubber becomes super sticky after you've warmed them up a bit, and the fat contact patch on the ground means you'll be hugging the apex every time.
The standard Brembo brakes with four-piston fixed aluminum calipers at all four corners provide confident stopping power with no signs of fade, no matter how many times we decided to brake late into a turn or slam the middle pedal while coming off the back straight at Gingerman to slow down for pit lane. Even after a full day of journalist use on the track, the 1LE test cars stopped with total assurance every time.
Pricing for the 1LE starts at $37,035 – that's $32,280 for a Camaro 1SS, $3,855 for the performance upgrades and $900 for destination. It's a respectable price point, and considering the fact that a Boss 302 stickers for $5,960 more, the argument for choosing the Chevy is pretty self-evident. Already own a Camaro and sad you missed out on the 1LE pack? Never fear – GM will be offering new goodies in its performance parts catalog that allows older SS owners to build their cars up to this new, wonderful spec.
The 1LE is perfectly poised to deliver outstanding performance without compromise.
And wonderful it is. This is indeed the Camaro we've always wanted without having to step up to the decidedly expensive and ridiculously powerful ZL1. We could easily live with the 1LE day in and day out, and we're curious to see how its better suspension tuning performs on the broken streets of Detroit during our everyday lives. With rear-wheel-drive muscle cars like this, having over 500 horsepower is often unnecessary, awesome as it may be. The 1LE is perfectly poised to deliver outstanding performance without compromise (well, except for that interior), and at the end of the day, it's the Camaro we'd own above all.