SOUTH HAVEN, MI – Eight months into 2012, the rivalry between the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang is as fierce as ever. Each nameplate has won the monthly U.S. sales crown four times this year in WardsAuto’s Middle Specialty car segment.

The redesigned and resurrected Camaro outsold the Mustang by 7,500 units in 2010 and by nearly 18,000 units in 2011. When the Mustang managed to pass the Camaro in May, June and July of this year, the folks in Dearborn, MI, may have thought the tide had turned for good.

Not so fast. Camaro topped Mustang deliveries by 288 vehicles in August, giving Chevy a 900-unit edge for the year and setting up the next four months for a wide-open-throttle sprint to the sales finish line.

A steady flow of new variants for each respective brand has fueled the popularity of muscle cars, and GM has two new Camaros to amp up the competition: The drop-top version of the 580-hp ZL1 arrived two months ago, and the track-intended 426-hp 1LE is trickling into showrooms now.

Likewise, Mustang deliveries got a boost from the arrival last year of the Boss 302 and this year’s Shelby GT500, which pays tribute to the recently deceased Carroll Shelby with a segment-stomping 662 hp.

The seriousness of the rivalry was apparent last November during the Los Angeles auto show when Chevy was unveiling the ZL1 convertible. Ford stole some of Chevy’s LA thunder by announcing the outrageous horsepower rating of the new GT500, which tops the ZL1 by 82 hp.

Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser was not amused, nor was he disheartened.

“We’ve spent the last several months saying, ‘time will tell,’” Oppenheiser tells WardsAuto at GingerMan raceway here during a media drive of both the 1LE and ZL1. He remains proud of the Camaro for its halo effect on the Chevy brand.

“The car stands on its own. We’re proud of its track performance and how it handles on the street,” he says. “Several months later, we feel vindicated that everything we said back in the fourth quarter is true: We balanced the best in performance and technology in the ultimate sports car for this segment.”

Oppenheiser says the Camaro’s most valuable weapon in the battle with Mustang is its independent rear suspension, which gives the Chevy superior ride and handling when compared with the Mustang’s outdated solid rear axle.

But the ZL1 gets marked down for carrying a gas-guzzler tax of $1,300 with the manual transmission and a whopping $2,600 with the automatic. Despite its towering output, the GT500 has no such premium.

Through gritted teeth, Oppenheiser says it doesn’t bother him that the ZL1 faces a gas-guzzler tax while the GT500 does not. “For this segment, among the top 10 reasons why people buy a performance car, No.23 is fuel economy,” he says.

His comment is confirmed on the 63-mile (101-km) route, much of it along rural backroads, from downtown Grand Rapids to the track here. The manual-equipped convertible ZL1 manages 14.9 mpg (15.7 L/100 km) going to GingerMan, and the identical rating is achieved with an automatic transmission on the return trip.

Like many convertibles, the ZL1 exhibits slight cowl shake, but the problem is minor.

Engineers set a top priority to correct the Camaro’s propensity to understeer, and generally succeeded. Electric power steering is standard on the ZL1, and it’s new on all ’13 SS models. V-6 Camaros carry over with hydraulic power steering.

The improved steering is more noticeable and appreciated on the 1LE, the other Camaro variant that is considerably less expensive (starting at $37,035) but ideally tuned for weekend trips to the track.

The ’13 1LE carries a $3,500 premium over a standard Camaro SS and comes with an exclusive close-ratio Tremec 6-speed manual transmission that uses a liquid-to-liquid cooling system for track use. An automatic transmission is not available.

The 1LE also comes with a strut tower brace for improved steering feel, 20-in. wheels, more robust stabilizer bars front and rear and more tunable monotube rear dampers in place of the twin-tube jobs standard on the SS. Combined, these features help the 1LE achieve lateral acceleration of more than 1 g.

GingerMan Raceway demonstrates GM’s strides in solving the Camaro’s understeer problem as the car transitions smoothly from turn to turn with unexpected agility.

The Camaro 1LE’s naturally aspirated 6.2L LS3 small-block V-8 provides more than adequate motivation. Its 426 hp and 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) of torque sounds symphonic as it blazes through this track in third gear, willfully teasing the redline.

Electronic stability control keeps the caution flag actively raised, but two clicks on the ESC button puts the car in competition mode to allow subtle drifting through corners. When the car has been pushed beyond its handling limits, the ESC will intervene fully to avoid loss of control.

On the outside, the 1LE is distinguished by a front splitter and rear spoiler – which help reduce aerodynamic lift at high speeds – as well as a matte-black hood and 10-spoke black wheels derived from the ZL1.

The ’13 ZL1 convertible serves as king of the Camaro lineup with a starting price of $60,495 (including $900 destination charge), a $5,345 premium over the coupe.

The convertible shares its running gear – the supercharged LSA 6.2L V-8 and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions – and prodigious 556 lb.-ft. (754 Nm) torque rating with the coupe that went on sale in April.

But the salable production cars driven here exhibit egregious fit-and-finish unbecoming a car in this price range.

True, GM spent more money for a soft gray suede-like material with distinctive red stitching on the face of the instrument panel, but the bottom edge is poorly aligned with the adjoining trim, leaving large unsightly gaps on several cars at the event here.

The problem extends to the bezel surrounding the center stack, which fails to hide additional gaps that are in plain view of the driver. Inexcusable.

With the soft top up, the ZL1 convertible also comes with a fair amount of wind noise, moreso on the driver’s side.

When the top is down, too much of its internal hardware, including the rails, is exposed in the compartment behind the second-row seats, although a tonneau cover is available to improve the aesthetic. In fairness, the new Shelby GT500 convertible suffers a similar plight.

For these reasons, the Camaro 1LE is the better value, and it’s fully prepared for weekend track obligations, to boot.

Is the modern muscle-car era drawing to a close as corporate average fuel economy standards require fleet averages of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) in 2016 and 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) in 2025?

Hard to say, but Oppenheiser sees the government mandate forcing auto makers to balance their fleets. “Theoretically, it means when we project how many Volts we will sell, that will determine how many V-8s we can sell,” he says. “When trucks and Camaros can get fuel economy in the upper 20s and low 30s, that helps the overall picture.”

The new reality of CAFE puts Oppenheiser’s team in a tight bind. “We hear this from consumers all the time: They don’t want us to take away the cylinders in their performance cars. They want us to be better at the smaller end,” he says.

“At some point, either we price V-8s to control the volume, or we pull cars from the portfolio or look at reducing cylinder counts. If you start doing lower-displacement engines and smaller cylinder counts, you’ve got to ask yourself, is that really a Camaro?”

Muscle-car lovers need to brace themselves for the potential departure of these gas guzzlers.

The time to buy might be now.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

'13 Chevy Camaro SS 1LE
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger coupe
Engine 6.2L LS3 OHV V-8, all-aluminum with cast-in-place iron bore liners
Power (SAE net) 426 hp @ 5,900 rpm
Torque 420 lb.-ft. (569 Nm) @ 4,600 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 103.25 x 92.0
Compression ratio 10.7:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 112.3 ins. (285 cm)
Overall length 190.4 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 75.5 ins. (192 cm)
Overall height 54.2 ins. (138 cm)
Curb weight 3,860 lbs. (1,751 kg)
Base price $37,035
Fuel economy 16/24 mpg (14.6-9.8 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Mustang Boss 302, Boss 302 Laguna Seca, Dodge Challenger SRT8
Pros Cons
Understeer addressed Porky curb weight
Does Camaro legacy proud Will muscle cars survive CAFE?
Great value Sadly won’t see enough track time