If you’re reading the title and “1LE” sounds familiar, that’s because it was a special options package from way back in 1988. And if you do remember the old 1LE, you probably may very well want to forget about it like the rest of the world has and move on to this newer, much more exciting version. Today’s 1LE is a performance package added onto the SS, and it fits neatly in the lineup between the aforementioned and already fast Camaro SS and the ludicrous Camaro ZL1. In fact, the 1LE is basically a mash-up of those two Camaros. While it’s a package tacked onto an SS, many parts in that package are either inspired by or taken directly from the ZL1, Chevrolet’s contender against the Shelby GT500. The 1LE’s direct competition, meanwhile, is the outgoing Boss 302 Mustang. While I wish I had both rival pony cars to compare, I certainly had more than enough American muscle to play with. And with the long, flat stretches of Houston ahead of me, I had more than enough playground as well. Traffic permitting.
The 1LE package gets you a lot both inside and out, and it only sets you back an extra $3,500, keeping it around forty grand. It’s also a pretty serious bundle of goods. GM seems pretty proud of the fact that this package was put together with road racing in mind, and it’s not just talk. 1LE’s are getting after it and apparently doing pretty well in the SCCA’s Touring 2 Class. Now, though, back to the road car. First up are the looks. The alien green and highlighter orange you saw on a lot of Camaros during those first couple of years weren’t doing the car any favors. In a more grown up color like white (don’t worry, you can still get the 1LE in bright yellow or red), it looks quite nice. Still bulging and powerful and a bit hooligan-ish, but nice. It has attractive creases that curve up and run down either end of the hood and back to the tail, a simple but well-executed front fascia, wide hips at the back and cool quad taillights. It also strikes a good balance in its styling, being able to resemble the first generation Camaros of the late ‘60s without being a shameless copy at the same time.
The one problem I would run into with doesn’t really have anything to do with the shape itself, just how common a sight the Camaro is. As has long been the case with Mustangs and Camaros, they’ll sell in large numbers and everyone from sixteen-year-old girls to men in the throes of a midlife crisis will want to be behind the wheel of one. In that regard, though, the 1LE has an answer. It’s distinguished from run-of-the-mill Camaros by several features, starting with awesome 20 x 10-inch ten-inch aluminum wheels inspired by the ZL1 and finished in black. There’s also a front splitter, which, along with the rear spoiler and in keeping with this car’s road racing interests, is functional. Most noticeable, however, is probably the matte black hood. It’s a wrap, but it still looks great and really makes the 1LE stand out.
Stepping inside, there are more goodies to make this car feel special, the best of which is the flat-bottomed steering wheel from the ZL1. This, along with the ZL1 short-throw shifter, is covered in sueded microfiber. These were nice to the touch and gave good grip when cornering hard or downshifting. I couldn’t help but want to strap on some racing gloves for the full experience. I also couldn’t help but wonder how worn out these bits would look after a couple years of sweaty hands, but no matter. For now, they’re great. The rest of the well-done interior is like other Camaros, and I really liked the twin-pod gauge layout with deeply set speedo and tach. The 1LE also, like the SS, has the 7-inch touch screen with the MyLink system, and even my often technologically impaired brain could pretty much figure it out, so that means everyone can. Overall, the cockpit is a nice place to do the business of driving and comfortable enough for long trips or daily commutes. Rear visibility isn’t great out of that small, steeply sloped rear window, but other than that there’s not really much to complain about. It’s an American interior that defies the stereotype by not feeling cheap (but not exactly premium, either), and though a more “road-racing-inspired” cockpit would have been nice, the neat steering wheel and shifter will likely be enough raciness for most people in the day-to-day world.
Credit where credit’s due, the 1LE’s performance can cash the check that its looks are writing. To get the numbers out of the way, it makes 426 horsepower and 420 lb/ft of torque driving through a Tremec six-speed that, like the ZL1, has an air-to-liquid cooling system attached, again with the track in mind. Sixty should come in around four and a half seconds, the quarter mile in around thirteen, and top speed well north of 150. It’s all impressive stuff, especially when you remind yourself again of how much this thing costs, and actually driving the thing produces a few more surprises. Just pulling out, even on the pickup truck-saturated roads of Texas, this car feels big. Not huge, and probably not as big as one might think, but big nonetheless. It is a 3,900 pound car with four seats and a 6.2 liter V-8, after all. That said, it still manages to feel like a taut, eager machine in most respects.
Another characteristic that sticks with you after the first couple of minutes is the sound, mainly that there’s a lot of it. The 1LE has a vacuum-actuated dual-mode exhaust system that switches between quieter notes for everyday driving and an aggressive sound under hard acceleration which, let’s be honest, is the only kind of acceleration you’ll ever want to do. The exhaust arguably gets even better, though, after you lift off the gas. Each and every time you lift, it lets out the deep crackles and pops that we all want out of our muscle cars, but sadly don’t always get.
Back to that bit about hard acceleration, it’s a real treat for the ears as well. It leaps ahead from a stop, then tears and snorts its way down the road while staying planted before the inevitable stop when you’re once again treated to those crackles and pops escaping out the back. Doing this between the lights, even at safe speeds, is simply a blast and exactly the kind of thing anyone would want out of cars like this. I felt like I could do it all day, and I pretty much did. There was time in there for some driving on a couple of twisty roads, however, and the 1LE didn’t disappoint there, either. It always felt very solid on the Goodyear Eagle Supercar G2 tires (straight off the ZL1) and the monotube rear dampers, changed from the twin-tubes on the SS (not that I could tell a difference), and slowing before any bends was a cinch with the SS’s four-piston Brembos.
After cracking off a downshift with the very fun to use close-ratio six-speed, turn-in was surprisingly sharp, and of course the punch out of a corner thanks to the torquey V-8 and the 3.91 final drive (up from the SS’s 3.45) was just some more icing on this black and white cake. It all just doesn’t feel as loose as similar cars of the not too distant past. The tail feels like it’s going to do what you want it to do (although you could probably still lay down some serious rubber if you really wanted to), and it’s easy to see why this car would do well in SCCA racing. Yes, it’s big, but it’s well sorted, tractable and relatively agile while still being a usable daily driver. It’s a good car for people who like lots of performance, and a great car for people who want lots of performance at a bargain.
The Camaro 1LE was a really good move for Chevrolet. It takes some of the good stuff about the ZL1, which is otherwise a little too extreme for most people, and adds it to the already good Camaro SS to make it that much better. The combination of distinctive looks, relative rarity, and that emphasis on road racing means that many years from now these could be pretty collectible, as well. For now, however, they’re a nice deal for big, loud, American fun on the highway, the back roads, and the occasional track day alike. I can’t say that I’m swayed from my personal preference for the more sophisticated sports cars of the European breed, but it’s hard to blame somebody for choosing one of these black-hooded 1LE’s. Unless of course they chose the comparable Mustang, but then again there’s no real wrong decision there. In a stroke of serendipity, a shining white Boss 302 did actually pull right up next to me at a red light, with plenty of straight road ahead. Its driver couldn’t help but look over and let out a couple of revs, but I resisted the temptation. It doesn’t take a stoplight grand prix to realize that this is thoroughly respectable, utterly likeable car.