Review: 2019 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE 2SS Drive It Like You Stole It

More than once, I’ve wondered if the Camaro SS 1LE was the car I should’ve bought. In fact, after several frustrated attempts to acquire a used Mercedes-AMG GT S, Porsche 911 GT3, or Lotus Evora 400, I nearly did purchase an SS 1LE. Sweetened by GM’s New Year’s incentives, the SS seemed to be the best blend of a kid-friendly, comfortable daily and track-ready sports car. But then a black AMG GT S appeared on Vroom.com, its sleek sex appeal and hydraulic steering won my love, and I wrote a check for the Mercedes. Still, I wonder about the alternative universe in which the Camaro SS was my new car…

This is why I’m incredibly excited about today’s drive in the 2019 Camaro SS 1LE 2SS. As you already know, the Camaro SS packs GM’s excellent LT1 engine, a 455 hp/455 lb-ft V8 plucked from the C7 Corvette Stingray. The 1LE package upgrades the cooling, brakes, and suspension for the rigors of circuit racing. And the 2SS trim adds niceties like heated and ventilated seats, ambient lighting, a head-up display, blind-spot monitoring, and soft-touch materials on the doors and dash. None of these luxuries are strictly needed at the track, but they are appreciated if you daily drive your SS 1LE.  

New and configured like my tester to the nines, the Camaro SS carried a +$51k price tag. Two years and 11k miles later, CarMax offers this car for $46k. Blame the crazy mid-2021 car market for the lofty residuals…

There’s one option on today’s SS 1LE that might spoil my day at the track: the sunroof. The overhead glass does a great job of brightening the Camaro’s pillbox cabin—and making it a nicer place to spend time—but it cuts into the already cramped headroom. My helmet touches the ceiling in this car. Drivers over 6-feet tall should avoid the sunroof or risk racing with a severe crick in their necks!

When you buy a used car, you inherit the prior owners’ idiosyncrasies. Sadly, the last owner’s aesthetics don’t match my own. The wheels are accented with a thin strip of (peeling) red tape, the door cups are protected with (also peeling) carbon vinyl, and plastic vent slats have been glued onto the rear side windows. Thankfully, these tacky tack-ons can all be removed.

More expensive to fix is the 2019 Camaro’s front bumper, which is punched out with Chevy’s controversial “Flowtie.” This gouge in the Camaro’s nose was so unpopular that GM redesigned the bumper for 2020. I find it so ugly that I’d pay extra for a 2018 or 2020 Camaro!

Finally, there’s the rubber sin. CarMax fitted new, but decidedly not track-ready, Michelin Pilot Sport All Season 4s upfront to, ahem, “match” the Pilot Sport 4Ss outback. Boo! The mismatched rubber will corrupt the car’s balance (and is not as sticky as the OEM Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3s).

But I have to give CarMax some kudos. They recently rolled out a 24-hour/150-mile test drive program that I intend to enjoy. Mount Hamilton is within striking distance of the car lot, and it’s exactly where I’m heading!

My first 10 minutes in the Camaro SS 1LE reacquaint me with its city manners. Even though the 1LE is Camaro’s track package, the magnetic ride suspension has an amazing breadth of ability and delivers a surprisingly livable slow-speed ride. The SS 1LE turns mountains to molehills and molehills to (polished) marble.

The 6-speed manual transmission is also on my side. The stubby microsuede shifter moves decisively through well-defined gates; I can easily tell when I’m leaving one gear and entering the next. The clutch pedal is light and—when combined with the auto-blip shifting—makes rowing through gears in traffic a breeze. (Sadly, the 1-4 skip shift frequently activates and is quite intrusive.) 

And the engine—oh the engine! It’s punchy with the immediate response of the finest naturally aspirated mills and the torque of an electric motor. Jump onto the throttle, and the SS pulls away with a howl and a roar that turns your drive into an event. I can’t see why you’d ever buy a Camaro with anything other than the LT1 V8.

You may scoff at my promotion of the Camaro as a daily driver/commuter due to its compromised visibility. Yes, the outward visibility is bad: like a panel truck, you use the wing mirrors to see what’s behind you. But, as the owner of a Mercedes-AMG GT S that shares the same shortcomings, I can tell you that you adapt to the limited visibility. Lean on the side mirrors and the 2SS’s blind-spot monitoring, and the Camaro is workable in the city.

I gas up and then hit the highway for the short transit to Mount Hamilton. The route is paved with concrete slabs, and the Camaro SS proves itself a surprisingly relaxed cruiser. The magnetic ride suspension and the Recaro seats work together to soften the impacts from the expansion joints. (I’d wager the SS 1LE is much more comfortable on road trips than my Mercedes-AMG GT S.) The big V8 is happy to lug along quietly with the flow of traffic. Its mellow roar reminds me that the Camaro SS is a shark swimming among minnows.  

I exit the highway and start my ascent of Mount Hamilton. The higher up the mountain I climb, the lower my opinion of the SS 1LE gets. Stretching its legs on a good road, the car should be shrinking around me, feeling nimble and punchy. Instead, Track mode’s artificially heavy steering is accentuating the car’s 3700 lb curb weight and giving my upper body a workout.  

Due to the tightness of the road, I’m exclusively using second gear, yet the power feels thin. The 6.2L engine has a nice low-RPM wallop (perhaps a trick of eager throttle programming), but the thrust quickly wanes, leaving me wondering, “where’s the torque?” after 3k RPM. And the joy I remember from skipping prior non-1LE Camaro SSs along the edges of adhesion is not found here. The SS 1LE’s widened tires—285/30R20 front and 305/30R20 rear—forbid tomfoolery with the vehemence of a 19-century chaperon. The SS 1LE is neither as quick nor as playful as I remember!

As I summit Mt Hamilton, my phone vibrates with a text from CarMax, “Your test drive is over. Please make your way back to the store.” Wait, what? I text back a reminder that I booked a 24-hour test drive and continue down the mountain’s backside.

The downhill drive gives the V8 ample opportunity to churn in the overrun. I feel like I’m staging a Chinese New Year’s parade: a constant cacophony of firecracker pops ricochet out of the SS’s tailpipes. The Camaro SS is only second to the Jaguar F-Type for antisocial, obnoxious exhaust tuning. I enjoy the theatrics in short doses, but I wish there was a button to silence the overactive display when stealth was prudent.

The pavement on the backside of the mountain is rougher, but the SS 1LE is nonplussed. Its body stays level through the tight corners, a wonderful trick considering how supple the ride is over the bumps. I feel occasional nervous jitters from the wheels through the steering and seat, but I never experience a loss of grip. Track mode’s extra stiff tuning is probably to blame for the twitching tires. But since the ride is so good, I haven’t reverted to a softer shock mode.

It’s a 1,800 ft descent to the valley below. Like a cactus, the upgraded brakes don’t wilt under heat; my confidence is high as I rush down the grade. Unlike a cactus, the brakes are never spikey or sharp; they engage mildly at the top of the pedal and quickly add bite as I apply pressure. The Camaro SS 1LE is one of the few sports cars that comes off the factory line with pads, rotors, and calipers fit for aggressive track work. For me, it’s a compelling reason to own a Camaro SS 1LE; I have no appetite for swapping pads before track days!

When the road levels out at the base of the mountain, I regain reception and my phone jingles with a string of texts. “Special paperwork is needed for the 24-hour test drive. We need you to return now.” Crud. Will CarMax report the Camaro stolen? That’s a headache I don’t want! “I’ll head right back, but I am an hour away,” I reply.

I’ve been gone for two hours, so I’ve got work to do. If CarMax thinks the Camaro is stolen, I might as well drive like it! I adjust the Performance Traction Management to Race (the most aggressive setting) and charge up the mountain.

My newfound aggression brings the V8 to life. Finally, I’m accessing the higher registers of the rev range. As the pistons fly with increasing fury, the throttle response becomes pinpoint sharp. (Now I realize that turbocharging has dulled my AMG GT S’s reactions.) Above 5K RPM, the power crescendos, and a vicious thrust builds.  This is the LT1 V8 that I remembered! This is a great naturally aspirated engine.

The 6-speed’s incredibly long ratios make it hard to keep the V8 revved high on such a tight road. Running in second gear, I need a lengthy straight to push the tachometer needle all the way to the right. I occasionally touch 6k RPM, but since second lasts to 78 MPH, I never hit the 6,600 RPM rev limiter.

Even though I’m charging through the hairpins, the SS 1LE feels resolutely stuck to the pavement. The rear tires occasionally chirp as I exit a turn, but the Camaro drives slot-car straight. Considering that the factory fitment Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3s had even more traction than the replacement Michelins, the 1LE really was set up to be explored on the track.

Back at Lick Observatory, I try and fail to slip quietly past the star-gazing researchers. I wish I may, I wish I might, turn off the Camaro’s burble tune tonight. Sadly I can’t, not even in the engine’s mildest Tour mode.

Past the observatory, I resume my charge, but my flight from the wilderness is soon impeded by traffic. I won’t waste my SS 1LE test drive stuck behind an SUV! Instead, I double back and repeat my favorite section of Hamilton’s western flank as the slower cars drain into the valley.

Up and down the grade I go. Golden sunlight floods under the oak trees’ gnarled branches and backlights the dry blond grasses. I’m having a fantastic evening while simultaneously feeling guilty about destroying the twilight’s peaceful silence with the Camaro’s brassy bellow and pyrotechnic pops. (The only kindness the Camaro SS extends to nature is to scare wildlife off the road before it comes roaring around the corner.) Maybe on a race track, I could enjoy the SS’s downshift woof and rising staccato howl with a clear conscience.

It takes me an hour and ten minutes to get back to CarMax. As I drop off the keys, the sales manager apologizes for the mix-up and asks if I’d like to sign for a 24-hour test drive now. No thanks, three hours with the 2019 Camaro SS 1LE were enough to know I won’t be purchasing this car today.

Yes, the Camaro SS is a fantastic do-it-all commuter/track car. Its performance, rugged durability, practicality, and comfort are unmatched at $46k used or even $51k new. I would love to have it as my daily whip! But it doesn’t trump the Mercedes-AMG GT S and CTS-V wagon that are my current rides, so the Camaro SS 1LE keys go back to CarMax.

Postscript

As I drive away from CarMax, I begin an unfair bumper-to-bumper comparison of the Camaro SS 1LE and the Mercedes-AMG GT S. (See below.) The two cars trade punches, but ultimately it is the sense of occasion (read: gorgeous styling) and vibrant steering that gives the GT S the nod in my book.  Especially the steering.  It is rich Godiva chocolate to the Camaro’s Hershey’s, er, chalk.

Bumper-to-Bumper: Camaro SS 1LE vs. Mercedes-AMG GT S

  • Front-end: Both cars have fantastic front-end grip and minimal body roll. The GT S turns in more eagerly thanks to its lighter steering resistance and faster steering ratio. But the SS 1LE’s 285/30R20 front tires are 20mm wider than the GT S’s, so the 1LE could have more grip.
    Tie
  • Brakes: Research on the forums suggests the 1LE’s brakes are track-ready out of the box, whereas the GT S’s steel brakes need cooling and pad upgrades to keep from fading. (I’ve been okay on stock GT S hardware so far, but I’ve been driving less taxing tracks.) Both cars are completely capable in the canyons.
    Win: Camaro
  • Engine: When fitted with the sports exhaust, the Camaro’s LT1 sings glorious (and varied) songs up and down its rev range. The naturally aspirated V8 has the immediate reactions of an electric motor yet climactically builds power to the redline. On the other hand, the GT S barks a monotone baritone belt at all times and delivers as much thrust at 3k RPM as it does at 6k RPM. I thank the twin turbos for the GT S’s greatly superior thrust, but blame them for the slightly dulled throttle response. I also appreciate that the GT S can be run quietly, without overrun burbles, while the SS 1LE cannot.
    Tie
  • Chassis: Both cars have rock-solid bodies that let their suspensions do their best work. But the Camaro SS 1LE’s magnetic ride control is far better at delivering a comfortable ride. The GT S rides firmly, with jitters, no matter what mode it’s in! Both chassis are capable and confidence-inspiring at the limits. Both condone track driving.
    Win: Camaro
  • Steering: The steering in the GT S ceaselessly hums with tire and suspension feedback. It’s as smooth and slick as a mayonnaise-coated cucumber, yet as loquacious as an inebriated African Grey parrot. Both cars are free of tram lining, but the GT S’s light steering resistance and quick ratio can make it flighty at highway speeds. The Camaro SS 1LE’s steering has commendable pace and feel…for EPAS. Bumps and some road texture bubble up through the helm. But the steering resistance is overly heavy in Sport and Track modes.
    Win: GT S
  • Transmission: Now I’m really comparing apples to oranges. The Camaro’s 6-speed manual is stout and satisfying, with tight throws and clear gates. Its rev-matching program eases the burden of downshifting under heavy braking and even makes stop-and-go commuting a breeze. The GT S, on the other hand, uses a snappy DCT for lightning shifts and is equally adept at (automatically) picking gears on a racetrack or swapping cogs in traffic.
    Tie
  • Cabin: The 2SS is the Camaro’s luxury package, and it adds cooled seats, ambient lighting, a pleather glove box covering, padded door cards, and blind-spot monitoring. Yet, the Camaro is far from luxurious: Hollow plastics litter the doors and dash, the crotch-high vents and tilted navigation screen are awkward, and the homely steering wheel won’t win any contests. The seats are mostly comfortable…unless you want adjustable lumbar support, which I did. In contrast, the GT S has a gorgeous interior that’s dripping with fine leather, aluminum, glass, and carbon fiber. But it’s dated: there’s no HUD, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, and the infotainment system is low-resolution. Its seats are highly adjustable but also firm and cramped. Still, it’s a luxury car experience in the GT S and a rental car experience in the Camaro SS.
    Win: GT S
  • Rear-end: With good tires in the drive wheels, both cars are locked to the pavement and easily handle their copious power outputs. Their e-differentials make mincemeat of twisty roads. They are trustworthy steeds that won’t suddenly spit you sideways.
    Tie
  • Cargo capacity: The Camaro’s small trunk can be enlarged by folding down the rear seats. (Or you can just throw the luggage on the back seats!) While its trunk can’t swallow a full-size spare, it can be loaded with a jack and a large toolbox. The GT S can’t even fit the toolbox! You’ll have to unpack the essential tools and lay them in the GT S’s shallow trunk if you plan on torquing your lug nuts at the track. Back seats? Ha! The GT S has none.
    Win: Camaro
  • Exterior styling: The Camaro is wedgy and aggressive, a clear statement of mean-tempered power. The GT S melds aggression with elegance, evoking the iconic sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s yet reminding you of AMG’s current might. Random strangers will send kudos and questions at the GT S, while the Camaro will mostly receive disapproving scowls from pedestrians with bleeding eardrums.
    Win: GT S

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