It’s rare, in my experience, for the stars to align and grant a journalist like myself with two similarly-equipped cars that compete in the same segment on subsequent weeks, but that’s just what happened recently when a Bright Yellow bundle of joy landed on my doorstep just a week after I handed back the keys to an EcoBoost Mustang. Happenstance, or divined by the manufacturer fleet gods? The Mustang-versus-Camaro battle has waged on for decades, but it seems especially prescient these days: both pony cars are better and more competitive than they’ve ever been, and at the same time to boot. Either way, a comparison was in order.
Both of my test cars were delivered with turbocharged four-cylinder engines. While now common in everything from mid-size luxury sedans and crossovers to penny-pinching hatchbacks, this is uncharted water for domestic muscle car enthusiasts. Sure, there was the turbocharged Mustang SVO of the mid-80s, but that car held only niche appeal when it went on sale. The Camaro has never had a turbo four wedged under its snout. So how do they get on with just four chambers under the hood?
The surprising answer is: inconceivably well. The fours in both of these cars feel like natural pairings to the spry-handling, modern chassis that both of these former brutes are now built atop. The Mustang’s four feels quite a bit more potent than the Camaro’s, which is understandable given its on-paper advantage. The character in which the EcoBoost delivers its power hews closer to the turbo tradition; a bit of lag, then a torrent of torque that you can ride to just about a grand short of redline. Shift well shy of the redline for maximum effect, and repeat. An accurate, tightly-spaced manual gearbox makes harnessing the EcoBoost’s power that much more enjoyable. In short, it’s a cohesive and satisfying powertrain.
Unlike the Mustang, which positions its turbo four powerplant as an upgrade over the standard-issue V6, the Camaro’s 2.0T is the base engine of the lineup, with a 335-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 serving as the next step up the totem pole. That helps explain the power deficit, as well as some of the difference in the two car’s bottom lines (though this latest Camaro gets pricey in a hurry with options). The Camaro’s four feels like an entry-level powerplant, as well. It’s not gruff in nature, mind you; in fact, it might be too smooth. It lacks the Mustang’s gut-punch of torque, as well as its signature wastegate chatter and distinct whistle under boost. Rather, the Camaro sounds and acts more like a naturally-aspirated four. GM’s developed-in-house eight speed automatic is as smooth and intuitive here as I’ve experienced in its products elsewhere, but as a luddite, my choice would still be a manual.
Mechanically, this 2016 Mustang was identical to the car I drove last year, meaning it was a equipped with the $1,995 EcoBoost Performance Package, which brings numerous handling and cooling fortifications for the track. Firmer springs and swaybars, a 3.55 limited-slip differential, black 19×9″ alloys with summer tires, a larger radiator and unique software tuning for the stability control, electric power steering and ABS round out the list of differences over the standard EcoBoost. The Camaro was equipped with a similar package, of sorts, although the more hardcore performance packages are saved for the higher-level V6 and V8 models. Still, for the relatively paltry sum of $485, I’d happily tick the box for our tester’s Brembo front calipers and upgraded cooling, time and time again. 20″ wheels, more show than go, and a few other appearance options comprise the $1,950 RS package, and round out our car’s handling-related upgrades. One issue I did find was that the back window of both cars, especially the Camaro, aren’t the biggest. This is usually fine but makes reversing quite difficult if you’re not used to the cars. Of course, you can just go to an auto store and buy a reversing camera to solve this issue but it definitely feels like something that was overlooked by both manufacturers.
The effort GM took to downsize and lighten this latest Camaro’s Alpha platform is immediately apparent the first time you point it into a corner. The steering is possessed of a weight and speed that feel natural the first time you flick your wrists, and the front end responds right-now. Cornering attitudes are flat, and overall grip levels high, in spite of our car’s all-season tire setup. The price to be paid for this handling precision is a somewhat crashy ride over expansion joints and potholes, particularly from the front suspension. It’s possible this is also attributable to the rubberband run-flat tires wrapped around our tester’s 20s, but either way, the Mustang rides better.
The EcoBoost doesn’t handle appreciably worse than the Camaro, either, although it doesn’t peel itself into corners quite as eagerly. It’s still an adept handler, and quite capable in its own right, but the real story is the Mustang’s newfound refinement. Though we’re not driving a GT, the current car is definitely a “grand tourer”, something that could not be said for the truck-like ride of the previous generation.
In Ford-speak, our Mustang’s “Premium” trim level adds various interior niceties, including heated and cooled leather chairs, dual-zone climate control, an upgraded 9-speaker stereo and a myriad of trim upgrades, and definitely makes the interior a much nicer place to be, although whether that sentiment alone is worth the $4,000 cost of entry is something that you’ll need to let your wallet decide. The $1,795 201A package of this car adds further niceties in the form of a 12-speaker Shaker Pro Audio system, blind-spot monitoring, and a memory system for the seats and mirrors.
Similarly, the Camaro “2LT” seen here adds Bose audio, heated and ventilated seats, auto-dimming mirrors, dual-zone climate control, an 8-inch touchscreen and greater option availability over the 1LT base model, for a $4,100 premium. But while both are well-equipped, it’s the Mustang that feels more upscale. Though both cars feel a bit like a coal bin when configured with black leather, the Mustang’s “Premier Interior Trim” touches ($395) lift it a bit over the Camaro’s cave-like cabin, made darker by those thick A-pillars. Though better than the last car, the new Camaro still lacks the Mustang’s forward visibility. A downward-canted touchscreen and ill-placed A/C vents are other ergonomic foibles. Happily, assembly and material quality is way up over the previous generation, and even feels a touch better than the Mustang for the money.
Styling is a hotly contested category, particularly among cars of this type, and I’ll be the first to admit that my opinion here probably means very little to folks cross-shopping these two cars – their minds are already made up. That said, the Camaro’s generally been the better-looking car of the two throughout the years (and I say that as a former Mustang owner), and not much has changed. Though the EcoBoost looks quite purposeful, hunkered down tight over black-painted wheels, the new Camaro’s creases and angles look quite fetching, particularly in our tester’s shade of bright yellow.
Somewhat surprisingly, neither of these hometown heroes is a cheap date anymore. Far from it, in fact. In V8 trim, either car will crest $40 grand in short order with any options at all, while these well-optioned four-cylinders both cost the thick end of $36 grand, give or take a few bucks in either case. The Mustang carried a higher sticker, but still managed to feel like the slightly better value thanks to a multitude of creature comforts.
The previous, fifth-generation Camaro was a bright spot at the end of a dark period for GM. Despite the fact that it was heavier than it should have been and possessed a Fisher Price interior that was nearly impossible to see out of, it looked the business and, in V8 form anyway, went like stink. It sold like hotcakes, and deservedly so. This new car has improved in every measurable way over the previous gen, and in a few objective measures too – it’s a great car.
And yet, of the two vehicles sampled here, it was the Mustang that stole my heart. It feels all-of-a-piece and fully realized. Sure, it’s not without its flaws – the EcoBoost is still no replacement for the glorious Coyote V8, and there are a few materials in the otherwise snazzy-looking interior that feel a bit questionable. But its refined nature and relative value make it a better-rounded offering for those that not only want something sporty and focused, but comfortable, practical and upscale enough to justify a $500-plus monthly payment.
While not truly a fair comparison – a V6 version of the Camaro would have been a better match for our Mustang, and may have even won out – in the battle of the four-cylinder pony cars, it’s the Ford that feels like the most well-rounded option.
2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost
Base price: $30,110
Price as tested: $37,540
Options on test car: EcoBoost Performance Package ($1,995), Equipment Group 201A ($1,795), Adaptive Cruise Control ($1,195), Navigation ($795), Over-the-top Racing Stripe ($475), Premier Interior Trim ($395), Enhanced Security Package ($395), Reverse Park Assist ($295)
Powertrain: 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive – 310 horsepower, 320 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 24 MPG
2016 Chevrolet Camaro Coupe 2.0T
Base price: $26,695
Price as tested: $35,615
Options on test car: 2LT Package ($4,100), RS Package ($1,950), 8-speed automatic transmission ($1,495), MyLink audio system w/ Navigation ($495), Brembo brake/Cooling package ($485), Bright Yellow paint ($395)
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive – 275 horsepower, 295 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 23 MPG