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War, revisited: Camaro SS vs Mustang GT test-drive comparo

Ross Ballot June 19, 2017 All Things Hoon, Featured 16 Comments

It’s been referred to as war, a heated half-century long battle with roots deeper than those of just about any automotive fight out there. It’s Mustang vs Camaro once again and here it’s not about numbers, but rather a non-professional opinion, the impressions and take-aways of a normal enthusiast after driving the prominent pony-turned-sports cars that roam the dealer lots and streets of 2017. The Camaro SS, in its sixth generation, is a shockingly great sports car comfortable enough to daily. The Mustang takes aim as a fantastic grand tourer with the muscle to back its macho looks.

Read as many reviews as you want, watch as many videos as you can muster, and it’s still a shock to experience for yourself just how far the Mustang and Camaro have come.

This is an astonishingly good pair of rear-wheel-drive, V8, row-it-yourself coupes. They’re similar in general description, yet different enough to have appeals all their own. Which is better where? Which would you want to attack a track with? Which would you want to Cannonball across the country? Which might I be pursuing to replace my WRX? You’ll have to read on to find out, but know this: the current generations of Mustang and Camaro are both pretty damn fantastic.

Just about everybody interested in cars, and very many of those who aren’t, can relate to or tell a story about their experience with a Camaro or Mustang. Myself, having passed on both and purchased a Challenger R/T a few years back, can say I know them fairly well, especially having spent time in both since. That said, things have changed quite a bit since I was cross-shopping the Big Three’s muscle machines. Introduced for 2016, the newest Camaro sports GM’s Alpha chassis and, in SS form, the potent 6.2L LT1 powerplant. In the other corner sit the sixth generation of Ford’s Mustang GT, all new as of 2015, now sporting its first full-model-lineup independent rear suspension, and an evolution of the much-loved Coyote 5.0L V8. We can talk about statistics, backgrounds, press junket jargon, and so on forever, but none of those actually matter until you walk up to the car, open the door, put your ass in the seat, feet on the pedals, and hit the road. How do the Mustang and Camaro stack up when you actually drive them? Amidst my travels and searches for a replacement for my WRX, I found out just how the Camaro and Mustang are the same, different, and completely satisfying in the quality of how well they drive.

Note: this is my own personal opinion (duh); YMMV. Also note that while close, this isn’t a one-hundred-percent apples-to-apples comparison as the Camaro was a nearly-fully-loaded 2SS ringing in just a few thousand shy of $50k while the Mustang was a base GT with the Performance Pack, asking price just over $33k. That said, at the heart of each was a V8, rear-drive, and manual transmission. I drove the cars only two days apart, so my thoughts were fresh in mind when going from one to the other and, as always, I went in completely unbiased.

On the outside
For better and for worse, the 6th gen. Camaro is more of an evolution of the 5th gen rather than a true revolutionary design. In its transition from 5 to 6, Chevy’s sports/pony/muscle car lost some of its blockiness, instead becoming a bit more rounded and finally much less concept-car derived. While that proved positive for the front, with the nose becoming pleasantly aggressive by use of smaller headlights, it turned the rear into a somewhat bland slab of metal and plastic that’s simply short on details. Up front is the opposite though, as it’s now sleeker and plays well into the car’s new-found sports-car motives.

The Mustang, well, you know with complete certainty that it’s a Mustang. Ford’s S550 body might just be the best looking ‘Stang yet and, though the butt is a little droopy, overall it’s a gorgeous car that has aged well thus far and that draws the eye whether parked or in motion. Angular headlights, a steeply sloped roofline, and a shape that seems extremely wide and low make the Mustang a serious looker. In the color combo I drove, bright red paint with black wheels, it screamed for attention, rightfully garnering my stares and accompanying drool.

The Mustang is more evocative, more classically styled. The Camaro is more purposeful, but more cartoonish. Pick your poison. It’s not that I dislike the Camaro’s new body, it’s just that, to my eyes at least, it pales a bit in comparison to the stunning ‘Stang.

On the inside

Surprise, surprise: you still can’t see shit out of the Camaro. But hey, you knew that walking up to it. Greenhouses don’t get much smaller than this, and that’s no more clear than the second you sit yourself in the relatively claustrophobic cabin. Getting away from the obvious, the rest of the interior is perfectly fine for what it needs to do. The driver’s seat is supportive yet bolstered nicely, the steering wheel is meaty and small enough to not overwhelm the little bit of real estate it has to claim as its own without blocking one’s forward vision entirely, and material quality is drastically improved. Rear seating is best served for those freshly out of a car seat but no more than a year past that point, and there isn’t exactly much in the way of storage, but overall it’s a fairly well done interior that’s so far past the generation of the car it replaced that they hardly feel related aside from the gauge cluster.

After years of criticism for being cheap and lackluster, the Mustang’s interior is, finally, worthwhile of being attached to the corresponding model’s powertrain. But while the interior might be all-new it is supremely familiar, instantly recognizable as the innards of a Ford ponycar. There might be a plethora of black surfaces in the base GT, but material quality is way up, the shifter is exactly where you want it, the steering wheel is just the right amount of meaty (though still too large– which you can remedy with a GT350 wheel), and the seats are comfortable and, crucially, equally supportive. Some have said the seating position is somewhat “strange,” and I’ll agree with that, but you have a commanding view of the road out over the hood that just isn’t there with the Camaro. Likewise, the back seat might be usable for people rather than just for objects, but only slightly more so than the Camaro; if you want a big V8 American coupe with a usable set of rear seats, buy a Challenger. All in all the Mustang’s interior is a huge leap forward, a genuinely good layout with actual materials that feel good to touch, and a setup that’s easy to navigate and drive from. Stepping it up to Premium trim takes it to nearly luxury car status. Well done, Ford. “Ground Speed” on the speedo sure is tacky though.

It’s no secret that, aside from the visibility, the interior is the most unloved part of the Camaro. That’s not the case with the Mustang though; rather, that of the ‘Stang is a much better, a truly good place to spend time. You sit in the Camaro to drive the car and for that reason alone, but you actually like sitting in, and would be happy to spend a longer amount of time inside, the Mustang.

On the move

Getting going in the Camaro is easy. The electronic parking brake is unfortunate, but clutch uptake is appropriately weighted, and slotting the shifter into gear is easy as American Pie. What struck me as strange was the force with which the gas pedal springs back against one’s foot; it’s not overwhelming, but it’s noticeably more so than that of the Mustang. This also gives off the feeling of much more sensitivity, and subsequently less control for the first few seconds at least. Off-idle throttle response gives you immediate awareness of the torque available down-low, and reminds you with every time you coast and then dip into the gas pedal that GM’s V8 continues to shine in its low-RPM performance.

And shine it does: there’s so much snap, so much response that you get out of the LT1, that it feels dramatically more willing off-idle and instantly ready to push you back in your seat than the Coyote V8. There’s power seemingly everywhere, and it’s always ready to send the car flying forward towards the horizon. The icing on the cake is the NPP dual-mode exhaust, a magnificent invention that no eight-cylinder Camaro, or sports/muscle car for that matter, should be without. In comfort-oriented modes the car is quiet and composed, but flip the switch to a mode encouraging sporty driving and the exhaust lets all eight cylinders sing to their hearts’ content. It’s the best, most fun single option I’ve ever experienced on a car.

Speaking so highly of the Camaro’s powerplant should in no way diminish the character of the Mustang’s heart; they’re simply different animals. Down low the Coyote is a bit mellow, a tad flat as opposed to its Chevrolet counterpart. But get out of the bottom-most revs and the Mustang feels like it has a more linear buildup, a more casual progression of speed. Desperate for a more free-flowing, louder exhaust, the Coyote’s intake noises fill the cabin while the overly-muffled sounds of the motor make it seem as if it’s quietly crying out for the ability to yell. Seriously, the GT is too quiet stock, nearly to the point that it detracts not only from the engine’s potential for OEM greatness, but from its ability to make you want to drive hard. Get over that though and you’ll find yourself wringing out the five-liter all the way up to its lofty redline, mesmerized by how quickly it builds speed once it enters the meat of its powerband. It’s a hell of an engine that’s suited well to the car, but needs an aftermarket exhaust system to fully realize how great it is.

Is one engine better than the other? It’s hard to say. Nearly impossible to do so, actually. Stock-for-stock, the LT1 with NPP gets the edge if for no other reason than the engine is more willing to play and that the dual-mode pipes give the motor just that much more aural character…in stock form, at least.

On steering and handling (what you can experience on the street, at least)

There’s a tightness, a hands-connected-directly-to-the-front-end feeling, in the Camaro that you don’t get in the Mustang. The Chevy willingly darts whichever way you point it, immediately going where you tell it upon first movement of the wheel, more so than the seats can manage to hold you in place for, and in a manner that quickly confirmed my beliefs that the newest Camaro is as much a sports car as it is a muscle car. Feedback through the steering wheel is in abundance, and the effort required to turn the wheel (which is surprisingly heavy at times) is matched nicely to the chassis and nature of the powertrain.

Ford didn’t get the steering quite as right as did Chevy. Different modes for the steering weight do make a difference, but only when under load and when pushing the car past what I’d call “normal driving.” Yet even in its sportiest setting, if you come around a corner hard, the Mustang’s front end gets very light and the feel that’s transmitted to your fingertips gives off an artificial sensation. Fortunately the IRS does a hell of a job not only helping to eat potholes and uneven road surfaces, but to handle better than I thought it would. The Chevy corners better, but the Ford does everything smoother.

Bottom line: Camaro out-handles Mustang, simple as that. Which confirms the theory that the Chevy has worked its way more towards the sports car side of things than has the Ford. The Mustang does handle well, though the Camaro has just gone that much further to focus on cornering.

On price and value

At nearly $50k, the Camaro SS I drove was getting up there in terms of price. We can talk all day and night about how expensive cars are these days, but when you compare it to some of the other “sporty” options out there in a similar price range, the Chevy really does hold its own…in terms of performance at least. Fifty-grand is a lot of money for a car sharing the same platform as one that starts just over $25k, and you see it in some of the material qualities and in shortcuts taken to hit a price point. But if most of the money went into the engine, transmission, and chassis, it’s money well spent; the Chevy might get expensive quick, and might be more costly than a comparable Mustang, but it doesn’t feel like it’s fighting a class above its own weight. Find one in the high $30ks and it’s a massive amount of car for the money.

With an asking price of around $33k, the Mustang GT with Performance Pack seemed like a pretty good value. It did everything well, from cruising comfortably at speed to ripping aggressively through the gears, giving the impression that it’s more well-rounded than is the Chevy. It’s not without drawbacks though, as the base car’s center stack looks properly rental-grade, and some of the materials feel like those you’d find in a Fiesta. But that said, $33k feels like a good price for something of this comfort and caliber performance wise, at least on the new market.

On my other general impressions and the bottom line

I can’t stress this enough, but the Camaro SS feels like it has progressed into a car that’s heavily focused on its driving dynamics above all else, and by a large margin. While the interior is decent when looked at in a vacuum, what you come away remembering is the way the engine reacts to throttle inputs, the way the steering tightens up and lets you know what the front end is doing, and the way the chassis dances with you when you blast through an on-ramp at super-legal speeds. And, mind you, none of these takeaways are from time at a race-track, but rather from a simple test drive. The Chevy really is that good dynamically. It’s a shame the styling ultimately results in driving something that’s hardly more than a two-seater plus a shelf. I wanted to love it, but found myself only loving the powertrain.

Conversely, the Mustang feels properly laid back compared to its rival. Not that it isn’t a fun and fast, because it’s certainly both, but the Ford has a much more Grand Tourer-esque nature to it. It’s a much better cruiser, something that would be a much more comfortable and enjoyable place to spend time on a long road trip, but it’s not quite up to the dynamic standards of the Chevy. Get past that though and you can see that the Mustang really has evolved into a fantastic do-it-all sports-meets-GT-car, something you’d want to drive cross-country in and hit every track you pass along the way.

It’s amazing how far the the Camaro SS and Mustang GT have come. When not long ago the pair were fighting to break 300 horsepower and struggling to make cases for themselves, today’s “muscle cars” have become genuinely great cars in not just how they drive but also at being cars rather than just toys. Chevy has done an outstanding job making the Camaro SS into a vehicle that has an appeal all its own as a high-performing sports car even in spite of big brother Corvette. It’s a car that not only draws glances but outperforms what most people would even guess it capable of. Meanwhile, Ford gathered whatever it took to make the Mustang a fantastic GT car with performance roots and focus, and in finally including proper independent rear suspension they built something that’s not only enjoyable to hoon, but that’s enjoyable when doing mundane driving as well. It’s found a spot right in the middle between the performance-focused Camaro and the comfort-centric Challenger, and just might have made itself the best all-arounder in doing so.

And that’s why, although some of you will undoubtedly disagree, the Mustang GT is my preference between itself and the Camaro. As-is, Ford’s famous coupe stands as an outstanding example of how a car can evolve to not only uphold its heritage and to pay homage to its ancestors, but of how a car that I once passed over can change in one single generation to become something not only truly worth driving, but likely of worth owning. The Chevy feels like a great performance toy, but the Mustang manages to always feel special. And for that, I love it. Actually, I love them both. If you haven’t driven the Camaro SS or Mustang GT, you need to. Immediately. They’re so good that you’ll be absolutely blown away. In my case, the Mustang just happened to be the one that did so to a greater degree.

It’s so good, I just might buy one.

  • JayP

    One of the Father’s Day discussions my son and I had over the weekend was the pro-con of the S550 vs the S197. Sorry, no Camaro discussions.

    • Ross Ballot

      Stay tuned, that’s the next piece I’m working on…

      • JayP

        This should be interesting.
        I looked at it from the shade tree mods. SRA is so easy to work on…

        • Ross Ballot

          True, but it isn’t easier to live with…matter of preference

  • Fred Talmadge

    I wonder how many people actually shop these two? Or like me they have an emotional attachment to one or the other and go with that?

    • Scoutdude

      I think the majority of purchasers don’t shop both, they go in wanting a Mustang or a Camaro and pay little attention to the competitor. I know for my Mother In Law who just purchased a Mustang Convertible that was the only car for her. The only thing up for consideration was the color, otherwise she was set on a V6 Convertible with Automatic.

    • Zentropy

      I was raised on FoMoCo products and still own two from the 60s, but if the Camaro had a (much) bigger greenhouse, a more livable interior, and less cartoonish exterior, I’d give it the nod over the Mustang. The chassis and steering are vastly superior to the Ford’s, and I’m more into handling and feedback than outright power these days. That, and as much as I appreciate the Mustang finally adopting an IRS, I still prefer the body of the fifth generation car. The new one looks good in the rear but too much like a Fusion up front.

    • ptschett

      I cross-shopped these with the Challenger in 2010, once the 2011 Mustangs were out; the Mustang ended up as my 2nd place choice and I rejected the Camaro because it just wasn’t as practical as the other two. When I decided to replace that Challenger in 2015 it was a Challenger/Charger contest.

    • Ross Ballot

      I’d be very curious to see the stats on that. A few years back I personally cross-shopped the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger before (regrettably) buying the Dodge.

    • neight428

      I actually bought a 2014 Mustang GT, but didn’t seriously shop the Camaro. It wasn’t really an emotional thing, just figured that whatever upside the driving dynamics would have had, they wouldn’t have made up for the compromises in the design caused by styling I didn’t care for in the first place.

  • Maymar

    From a purely superficial rationale of sitting in both in the dealer showroom, the Camaro would have to be just absolutely spectacular, just streets ahead of the Mustang, to put up with the bunker cockpit. Especially since it’s not 1998, and the Camaro isn’t significantly more stylish than the Mustang. Granted, I also don’t live somewhere where the roads are all that curvy, but the upright, cheaper, and perfectly competent Ford does what I’d want it to do better than the Camaro.

  • wunno sev

    i rented a Camaro for work a few months back and was actually shocked at how decent it was. it felt solidly-built, it didn’t feel nearly as heavy on the road as i expected, steering was great, even the V6 and eight-speed auto were pretty decent. shattered my expectations – though i’ve always been a Ford man, for no particular reason besides personal history, the new Camaro was a surprisingly good experience.

    but it’s such a fucking stupid car. it’s a cartoon. the moment i realized i had to spin the bezels on the vents to change the fan speed and air temperature, i knew i could never own a Camaro. driving a pillbox with the angriest eyes and the cheesiest interor styling of any car on sale today…the Camaro just doesn’t know how to carry itself. it’s still designed for man-children and actual children. the Mustang has finally gotten over its retro-styling decade and now looks like a mature product. this Camaro looks better than the previous one by a mile, but put it next to the Mustang and there’s no contest.

    when you choose to drive a sports car, you’re deliberately putting yourself out there and opening yourself up to judgment. i do not want to be judged as a guy who wanted a Transformer and settled for a fast car. don’t even start with the “if they judge you you didn’t want to be friends with them anyway” bullshit. image matters. perceptions matter. even more than that, i personally want to like the look of the car i own. and as much as i’m a fan of what GM has done with the Camaro…..man, i just couldn’t.

    • Ross Ballot

      I too rented one (albeit unintentionally) a few years back. Agreed on the steering and even the six-cyl., but otherwise…I couldn’t like it all that much. It was a pleasure having it on the canyon roads of Colorado rather than the Corolla/Jetta I was supposed to have, but every time I think about trying to fit my luggage in the trunk — and having to put half of it in the back seat — I want to bash my head on the closest solid object.

      • wunno sev

        man, i dunno. i think limited practicality is sort of a given in this class. they’re sports cars, and a comically small trunk opening is something i’m willing to put up with. (really, it was more of a bottle than a trunk.)

        but one thing i’m not willing to put up with, in particular when shopping for something like a Mustang or Camaro, is not looking cool. the total lack of self-awareness in the Camaro may be charmingly innocent, there may (ironically) be some down-home authenticity in its corporate-contrived machismo, but it is just not cool.

        i don’t know how other people feel about the styling; a lot of it probably overlaps with personal history, social class, and all kinds of other shit that would be better suited to a handwringing fifteen-page New Yorker piece on muscle car preference. but it’s hard for me to picture anyone picking the Camaro over the Mustang on the basis of looks.

        • Ross Ballot

          You make good points.

          I question the whole “looking cool” thing. It’s totally in the eye of the viewer, yes, but “cool” can take on so, so many different things that it’s hard to pin down what form it *should* take for sports car. Example: the Camaro is probably “cool” in the eyes of both children (and adults) who have watched the Transformers movies, as well as “cool” in the eyes of people who have owned Camaros in the past, and new owners alike. The Mustang has a different “cool” to it altogether, a more refined, traditional appeal. Where the Camaro goes wrong, for me at least, is in the resulting compromises that come from the attempt to “look cool.” Horrible trunk opening included.

    • Maymar

      I’m still waiting on the 70.5 styling getting the retro treatment, as an upright breath of fresh air compared to the angry plastic toy interpretation of the ’69 we get now