2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE First Drive: Best of both worlds

What do you do when you've got access to one of the deepest performance parts bins in the industry? If you're Chevrolet, you find yet another way to build a Camaro that can take it straight to the throat of rivals from Ford (the Mustang) and Dodge (the Challenger), and then present it to rabid buyers in the form of the surprisingly affordable 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE.

Even casual muscle car fans are likely familiar with those three characters appended to the Camaro's name, as the 1LE badge was revived for the fifth-generation version of the coupe that preceded the 2017 model after lying dormant for close to a decade. Originally inspired by a desire to dominate stock-class professional road racing in the 1980s, the 1LE promised a street-legal handling package that added substantial handling chops to a platform that was typically lauded more for its straight-line speed than its ability to go 'round a bend.

The current version of the Chevrolet Camaro, which debuted just last year, was already a formidable all-around sports car, having long ago shed its drag-only image. That being said, in a world where technology has increasingly democratized the ability to turn in lap times that would make the exotics of yesteryear blush, there is always room for improvement – and the 2017 1LE has managed to push its way to the front of the pack through the judicious application of GM's engineering smarts and a warehouse full of bolt-ons cribbed from even-faster street and track versions of the Camaro.

The crux of the entire 2017 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE effort rests on the fact that the coupe itself is kind of like a life-size Lego kit, allowing each version to borrow the best bits of past and even future efforts in order to create the desired mix of tarmac terrorization. Want the electronically-controlled rear differential from the upcoming supercharged Camaro ZL1 monster? You got it. How about moving the FE3 suspension from the SS to the six-cylinder car? No problem – you can do that too.

The presence of a V6 Camaro 1LE effectively doubles the model range for 2017, with Chevrolet bowing to the suggestion from its very vocal customer base that maybe it would be nice to have a budget-friendly track-day option, too. Of course, there are several key differences between the V6 and V8 (SS) versions of the Camaro 1LE, with most related to the substantial gap in both weight and power that exists between the cars.

The Chevrolet Camaro V6 1LE (available in LS and 2LT trim levels) differs from the entry level by way of its Brembo four-piston front calipers, limited-slip rear differential with 3.27:1 gearing, the previously-mentioned FE3 suspension upgrade, a track cooling package, short throw shifter, dual-mode exhaust system, and unique 20-inch forged aluminum rims that are wrapped in Goodyear F1 rubber. The SS 1LE, on the other hand, gains the phenomenal Magnetic Ride Control suspension system in FE4 trim (with up-rated springs and swaybars), electronic control over its (3.73:1) rear diff, extra-sticky Goodyear F1 Supercar tires (also 20-inches in diameter), enormous six-piston front calipers and four-piston rears, and of course a short shifter and dual-mode exhaust setup of its own. Both cars can easily be identified by their blacked-out hoods, special curved rear spoiler and front splitter, and available Recaro seats.

Aside from the extra cooling on offer, the engines and six-speed manual transmissions of both the V6 1LE and SS 1LE remain untouched. That's not to say that acceleration is unaffected, as the more aggressive gear ratio for each vehicle slices a few tenths from the sprint to 60-mph (4.2 seconds for the SS and 5.2 seconds for the V6, making the latter actually a just a smidge quicker than the previous SS).

It does mean, however, that the chassis blitz thrown at either car is best appreciated on a closed road course rather than out on the street. Although the empty desert highways that surround Pahrump, Nevada offered ample opportunity to raise the revs, it wasn't until the afternoon session at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch that the true benefits of the 1LE package revealed themselves.

Spring Mountain's dusty confines include several different track layouts, with my time spent on a free-flowing 2.1 mile circuit that connected hairpins to 100-mph straights to plunging right-hand turns. Having driven stock versions of the V6 and SS Camaro on the same loop just a few days before, I was primed and ready to see where the 1LE improved on its baseline.

I was happy to discover that the Chevrolet Camaro V6 1LE was a much more sporting companion when driven at eight-tenths than when dealing with canyon traffic. While the 335 horsepower offered by its 3.6-liter motor looks good on paper, to really take advantage (and tap into its 284 lb-ft of torque) it's necessary to wind the engine out and avoid straying from the first four ratios of its gearbox. Given that it's much easier to plan shift points in a racing environment than it is when trying to overtake traffic up-hill on a mountain pass, Spring Mountain provided a better venue for exhilarating in the excellent grip afforded by the car's suspension.

It's hard to argue with the V6 1LE's ability to hug the asphalt even when negotiating the sharpest of corners or the most jarring of transitions from braking to acceleration. The flat attitude offered by the FE3 dampers and shocks helped the coupe imparted the kind of confidence required to push hard on an unfamiliar layout, and never once did I catch the 1LE off-guard (in sharp contrast to the less-composed standard V6 on the same course).

As good as the V6 LE might be – and GM is pushing it as direct competitor to the Ford Mustang GT in terms of overall track performance – the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE is easily the eye-brow raiser between the two models. This is a car with aspirations far beyond the muscle set, with its sights fixed securely on the German luxury coupes with letters like M, S, and AMG prominently attached to their names.

The extra 250 lbs that the 3,747 pound Camaro SS 1LE has over its V6 sibling melt away with a simple push of the accelerator pedal, as 455 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of twist from its 6.2-liter V8 annihilate whatever gap exists between you and the vehicle in front of you on the front straight of your favorite local track. Even better is the physics-defying bubble gum stick of its Eagle F1 Supercar tires, which combines with the almost supernatural abilities inherent in the car's magnetic dampers to offer exceptional control whether accelerating out of a corner or diving into a braking zone. The car's 5 levels of Performance Traction Management (accessible via the Track driving mode) also allow you to erase or enhance the amount of interference from the Camaro's no-fun police to your liking, adopting a belt-and-suspenders approach to what is already a very accessible level of performance.

For $32,895 V6 Camaro fans can finally land themselves a respectable amount of the Chevy Performance Parts catalog at a sizable discount versus just ordering a la carte from a dealership. Stillm even though it may boast a loftier starting price of $44,400 ($6,500 above the entry-level 1SS), the V8 version of the Chevrolet Camaro 1LE is definitely a bargain for track rats who can't quite see themselves behind the wheel of the pricier Corvette Grand Sport. Whether this same gearhead cohort is simultaneously cross-shopping alternatives like the BMW M4 or the Jaguar F-Type is beside the point, really: the real take-away is that a comfortable daily driver that can also deliver the goods when you get the stopwatch out is no longer the exclusive province of high end metal, and indeed, hasn't been for quite a while.