Over the Rainbow: the Camaro 1LE
Never Going to Be the Same
The 2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE was the first car I ever drove on a racetrack. At GingerMan Raceway in Michigan during the summer of 2012, before 1LEs were delivered to dealerships, Chevrolet hosted a slew of national automotive press and me, a 25-year-old intern and ad-hoc journalist for GM’s internal website, all evaluating this new performance Camaro where it most felt at home. Snaking around completely open, slightly rolling hills, the 11-turn road course was perfect for my first experience.
I tried to soak up every word that came out of the development engineer who took me out for my orientation lap, knowing that as soon as he finished talking, he would exit the car, and I would be navigating this 400 horsepower track weapon by myself. Yet, listening is different than doing; I just about spun the car completely around exiting turn 3 on my first lap. To my credit, I at least kept all four wheels on the asphalt and the shiny side of the car up. Clutch in. Start it back up. Try again.
At the end of the evaluation session, I was directed back into the pitlane by flag-waving track workers. I remember standing by the car, peeling my helmet off my balaclava-obscured face, sweat down everything and everywhere, my hands not comfortable being still, a bass choir of V8s from the idling 1LE fleet almost encircling me, the wind cooling me down and reminding me of my location in Midwest America. The logistics manager of the program--someone who started working for General Motors at a younger age than I was then--made a proclamation as he lit up another cigarette. “Mr. Martin,” he said, “You’ve got that look. You’ve been bit. The snake got you. You’re never going to be the same.” An umpire calling it as he saw it come in over the plate.
Since that day, I’ve driven more than 30 vehicles on seven different US racetracks at high speeds. BMW Ms. AMGs. Audis. Cadillac Vs. Jaguars. Fords. Alfas. SRTs. More of the Cheverolet Performance family. A Nissan GTR. Miata’s, Minis and more. Front-, rear- and all-wheel drive. Front- & mid-engine. Four-, six-, eight- and ten-cylinders. Naturally aspirated. Turbocharged. Supercharged. Each one a different square in my metaphorical automotive enthusiast quilt, delivering a new, unique color to the patchwork of my experiences. However, I have never fully re-experienced what I felt that first time in the summer of 2012 on that asphalt-tattoo in that eastern Michigan field.
The capability of the 1LE is partially to blame. In a crowded line-up of excellent driver’s cars, the 1LE is one of the best.
"A Track Delight"
The 2013 Camaro 1LE first proved itself against the competition at Car and Driver’s 2013 Lightning Lap, an annual “speed-a-palooza” where C/D staff “set benchmark lap times for the sickest new sheetmetal” at the 4.1-mile road course of Virginia International Raceway. Lightning Lap is an annual, consistent test, administered by non-professional drivers with unmodified street cars, simulating real-world results. Regular people, regular cars, the fastest lap.
Virginia International Raceway--the closest thing to the Nurburgring in North America, just shorter and with Mountain Dew in the vending machines, according to C/D--exposes the weaknesses of a performance car like a black light exposes lint on a dark wool sweater, making it the perfect USA racetrack for this sort of test. If a car is fast at VIR, it will be fast anywhere.
During the 2013 Lightning Lap, the $37,000 Camaro SS 1LE achieved a faster lap time than the 2013 Audi RS5 and the 2013 BMW M5/M6, despite starting prices of about $70,000 and $100,000 respectively and all the power and tech that accompanies that kind of money. The Chevy was also faster than the 2013 Jaguar XKR-S, the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca edition, the 2012 Porsche Cayman R, and the 2013 Porsche Boxter S--a list of serious cars. Also, the 1LE was only less than a second behind the Ford Mustang GT500, which had 200 more horsepower and a starting price of about $55,000. However, C/D writers admitted that had they not screwed up during one section of the 1LE’s lap, not even the 50% more power would have kept the more expensive Mustang in front of the Camaro.
For only $3,000 more than what the average American was paying for a new car when this Camaro debuted, any man, woman, or driving-certified non-adult could park, in their own garage, a daily driver capable of delivering performance from cars priced at up to almost $100k more. That’s like getting iPhone 11 Pro performance at an iPhone 8 price.
And Chevrolet even backs track-use in the 1LE warranty. If something about the car were to break while using it at VIR or any other track or drag-strip as intended, Chevrolet has you covered. Unheard of.
But, honestly, most people haven't heard of the 1lE. Unless you were into SCCA Showroom Stock road racing in the late '80s (or are a New Yorker who lives on 72nd St. and needs to get to Brooklyn by subway), the alphanumeric combination of "1," "L" and "E" wouldn't mean anything to you. According to ChevyHardcore.com, "1LE" was a dealer RPO code available to a limited number of third- and fourth-gen Camaro shoppers who knew exactly what they wanted .
"Initially, the 1LE package wasn’t even listed as an option," said Lou Ruggieri in his ChevyHardore.com piece "An '80s Party That Lasted 30 Years: The History of the 1LE." Chevy was particularly concerned about customers thinking they wanted a track car, and once they experienced just how jarring extremely stiff springs and thick anti-roll bars can be (among other things), they made it so that a savvy customer could only get the secret package by first ordering an IROC-Z with either a 305 or 350ci V8, and then opt for the G92 code..., then check the box for the G80 RPO code..., and then mention that they didn’t want their car coming with air-conditioning, which would be the password for the 1LE. We assume this was all done whilst wearing a decoder ring as well."
Maybe it was for wanting to save the casual Woodward cruiser from accidentally buying a race car that motivated Chevrolet to follow tradition. I don't remember a single advertisement--web, TV or print--dedicated to the 2013 1LE and its virtues. Positive press, such as Car and Driver Lightning Lap, was all there was or would be for "buzz."
How is the 1LE so good?
The fifth-generation of the Camaro, on which the returning 1LE was based, already had a powerful engine in the 426-hp LS3 V8. What it didn’t have was the upgraded and finely-tuned chassis, brakes, transmission, tires, and various cooling systems to allow the driver to make the most of the power under the hood. At high speeds, the fifth-gen Camaro was hard to steer. Not really made for speeding through the squiggles; cruising Woodward Ave. and racing stoplight to stoplight was more of its scene.
That’s why when Chevrolet introduced the Camaro ZL1, the older brother of the 1LE, in 2011, Chevy reset the goalposts and paved the way for the return of the 1LE.
Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser said the ZL1 was more supercar than sports car (or even muscle car). “The Camaro ZL1 delivers supercar performance and technology in the sports-car segment,” said Oppenheiser. “For sheer power, the ZL1 delivers more horsepower than a Ferrari 458, more torque than an Aston Martin DB9 V12, and a better power-to-weight ratio than a Porsche 911 Carrera GTS.”
Oppenheiser continued: “The Camaro ZL1 also features exclusive chassis and traction technologies to offer the best of all worlds – including balanced handling for the track, acceleration for a drag strip, and the comfort of a daily driver.”
The ZL1 has always performed well in Lightning Lap, tying an Audi R8 V10 Plus in 2013, the new Acura NSX in 2017 and besting the 2017 Ford GT and 2018 Ferrari 488 GTB in 2019. Again, it is the most powerful and most capable production Camaro EVER. So why is the 1LE better than the ZL1? The power increase and the tech advancements of the ZL1 are expensive. And most Americans can’t afford a $55,000-$70,000 starting price on a 2+2 coupe, even if one uses the car on a daily basis. Also, it’s easy to get into trouble in the ZL1. (I was there for that one.)
However, much of the hardware and software in the ZL1 that improved the driving dynamics was transferred to the 1LE, like a little brother wearing the older brother's hand-me-downs a year later. But I think this time the little brother wore it better. The ZL1 upgrades and the dedicated tuning changed the character of the naturally aspirated Camaro SS, making it more track capable and fun to drive, without the burden of the additional power or the higher MSRP, that most Americans can use or afford, respectively. Again, Lighting Lap is the pudding where some proof can be found - "the 1LE was only 1/10 of a second slower than the Ferrari 458 through the uphill eases." And the other buff books and car sites agreed with the Car and Driver.
The new 1LE looks the part, too. A matte black hood, black wheels and black front- and rear-aero bits contrasting against the body color convey the car’s purposefulness, the same way a front grip and a short barrel denote certain intended down-to-business uses of a home defense 12-gauge. When you see one, you'll know; it doesn’t do hush. The exterior design, especially the matte black hood, makes the 1LE easy to spot in a Camaro lineup on CarGurus. If you see a Camaro with a black hood and black wheels online or on the road, ‘1LE’ is a safe bet.
Back in 2013, I was told by a friend at Chevrolet that the 1LE development car was nicknamed “Yellow Jacket.” The black performance additions to that particular development car’s yellow body reminded the engineering team of Bumblebee, the popular yellow and black Camaro protagonist of the Transformers franchise, except the 1LE looked even “more aggressive” to the team, according to the friend.
But the 1LE was and still is an affordable Camaro, priced within the reach of normal Americans who live in normal suburban subdivisions of America’s finest B cities. Small business owners, construction workers, nurses, middle managers, military service men and women, parents, coaches, and church and civic leaders could afford this car. These public-school alumni, fans of local sports teams, and Wal-Mart patrons would not feel out of place at the dealership, signing the papers and snacking on the free popcorn given to them by the sales guy in the slightly oversized polo and khakis.
The Camaro 1LE is amazing, because it punches way outside of its class while not forsaking the every-person. It’s the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of the automotive world: strong, entertaining, approachable, and enjoys enough self-confidence to wear a unicorn t-shirt and fanny pack without care. And you can find tons of gently-used 1LEs on CarGurus right now for about 20% off the initial MSRP. But you have to sort the listings by "Worst Deals First" in order to find them, either CarGurus doesn't really know what it has, or isn't really built to help you find it...or both.
The 1LE package was so effective that Chevrolet added the optional performance make-over across the entire sixth-gen Camaro lineup, which was already built upon the superb Alpha platform of Cadillac V-Series fame. On the sixth-gen Camaro, you can get the 1LE on the four-cylinder, the V6, and the V8 SS of course. Even the mighty supercharged ZL1 received 1LE treatment, making ‘the most’ even more. I’m sure the planning meeting for the sixth-gen 1LE was like looking in the cupboards and the fridge for any and every Camaro on which to spread the 1LE Nutella. All punch way outside their classes, all have matte black hoods.
Other manufacturers, such as Ford, still haven’t truly mastered an all-inclusive performance offering at an average American price point. In 2018, five years after Chevrolet debuted the 1LE, Ford released its second iteration of a performance package for the Mustang GT and beat the 2017 1LE by one second at the 2018 Lightning Lap. A $6,500 upcharge over the base GT, gives you chassis stiffening, retuned suspension, aero, and super sticky tires. However, Ford did not include a differential cooler, and after a few laps, the car overheated. Car and Driver couldn’t overlook this during 2018 Lightning Lap, “…with no differential cooler, the rear axle overheated EVERY time we took the Mustang out, often in as few as three hot laps, and even with easy laps staggered between them.” (emphasis my own) Why is the 1LE so good? The car is a guarantee of precision and consistency granted to anyone and everyone, not only to the critics, dilettantes, and professionals.
That means it's for me. And you, too. This car blows minds on any road or race track OOTB, and maintenance is as easy as finding the nearest Chevrolet dealership, of which there are more than 3,000 across all 50 states.
If Happy Little Bluebirds Fly...
The average American spends 19 full 24-hour days each year in cars. Nineteen days. That’s not an insignificant amount of time. Before 2012, I spent those days as most, getting from point A to B and sometimes that goal was held up by traffic. However, at Gingerman Raceway, next to a line of red and black, and yellow and black, and white and black Camaros, I strangely lived black-and-white Dorothy stepping from her Kansas porch into the full Technicolor of Oz after being thrashed in the tornado. My tornado had a V8 engine, and it took me right over that rainbow. I couldn’t go back, even if I wanted to. But, I didn’t want to. And still don't.
Maybe that's why I bought a right-hand drive twin-turbo wagon from Japan, to stay in the Technicolor, to live a dream. There are many kinds of cars one could use on a Dorothy-esque trek of self-discovery and enlightenment. Anything that shows up to Lightning Lap is a pretty good candidate, but you don't have to spend Porsche Panamera Turbo S money.
Need wheels for your trip over? Might I suggest the 1LE?