American V8 warfare: Chevrolet Camaro SS takes on Ford Mustang Bullitt
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Think for a second about how much cars have changed in the last 51 years. We've seen comprehensive advancements in safety, power-train refinement, and seats designed specifically to gently blow cold air onto our buttocks.
Over that same period, two manufacturers have pushed each other to perfecting that most imperfect of platforms; the two-door, rear-wheel drive, V8-powered performance car.
The all-out war between the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang has been something that New Zealanders have been forced to merely spectate from afar. Until now, that is.
This is the Chevrolet Camaro 2SS and Ford Mustang Bullitt — pictured not in sunny California or the Motor City of Detroit, but instead on a backdrop of a Waikato b-road.
They’re here, guys. They’re finally here.
The Mustang has been sold locally for a few years now of course in various model forms. The Camaro, on the other hand, is a fresh sight indeed. Just one model is slated for New Zealand — the 2SS. And perhaps the first elephant in the room to negotiate before going any further is its $104,990 price-tag.
Internet commenters in their traditional shoot-first-questions-later style have been quick to dismiss the price of the Camaro — fuelled somewhat by the fact that you can get a Mustang GT for a dime under $80k.
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The difference here comes down to simple economies of scale. Ford produces thousands upon thousands of right-hand drive Mustangs out of its facility in Flat Rock, Michigan, for the UK, Japan, Australia, wee little New Zealand, and several other left-driving countries.
The Camaro on the other hand doesn’t have the same luxury. It arrives as a complete left-hand drive machine at HSV’s Melbourne plant, where it gets stripped back to the firewall and beyond.
Each piece that comes off is bagged and tagged, the full wiring loom is effectively flipped upside down, a freshly made dash and 356 other RHD-specific bits go in, parts from the original car go back on, and out the door it goes.
In total, each Camaro conversion takes 130 work hours. They’re only making 550 of them in this first run — 38 of which are set to come to New Zealand. Small numbers, larger price.
In some ways, that price makes it a more suitable rival for the Bullitt than the Mustang GT. With the swagger of Steve McQueen himself, the four-wheeled homage rolls into the equation with a price of $93,490.
Changes over the Mustang GT include all of the visual ties made iconic by the film of the same name; 19-inch Torq-Thurst wheels, badge deletes, chrome tinsel, green stitching, a cue-ball gear-knob, and that signature Dark Highland Green hue.
Let’s talk numbers.
The Bullitt’s 5.0-litre Coyote V8 gets a 6kW power bump over the standard GT by virtue of an open-air induction system, larger 87mm throttle bodies, and the Powertrain Control Module from the Shelby GT350. This results in 345kW at 7000rpm and 556Nm at 4600rpm, sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual.
That’s more power than the Camaro, but less torque. It sources its thrills from a larger 6.2-litre LT1 V8 that generates 340kW at 6000rpm and 615Nm at 4400rpm, paired with an eight-speed automatic. This engine is the successor to the much loved ‘LS’ family, and it’s undeniably a beast.
The Camaro hits 100km/h in 4-seconds flat, six tenths quicker than the Bullitt Mustang. Top speeds between the pair are said to be separated by just 3km/h — 262km/h in the Mustang, 265km/h in the Camaro.
That tit-for-tat exchange continues throughout almost every element of these two cars. Take their interiors for example.
The Camaro has the better, lower seating position and a much higher spec (including heated/cooled seats and cross-traffic alert), but the Mustang has a cabin formed out of better materials and about twice the visibility.
This helps make the Mustang the more usable car by far. Lighter steering and a more generous glass-house make it much easier to drive. The back seats have more legroom, too (getting into the Camaro’s rear seats feels like child birth in reverse).
Neither right-hand drive conversion is perfect, but ironically it’s HSV who have done the better job here. Both cars neglect to reverse the centre arm rest — resulting in the driver’s elbow landing precisely in the cup-holder unit.
The Camaro’s only other foible is the indicator ‘tick tock’ sound effect coming from the left-hand side, while the Mustang’s (arguably larger) infraction is it’s mounting of the bonnet release in the passenger-side foot-well.
To separate these two cars in any meaningful way, you need to drive them. And it’s here that they project two surprisingly different personalities.
I won’t beat around the bush here … the Camaro feels like the quicker car almost immediately. More torque from its higher-capacity engine makes its performance more accessible more often. The eight-speed automatic reacts sharply on upshifts (especially when being prodded), but can be hesitant with rev-matching on downshifts.
Cornering is where it shines in particular, feeling much more dynamic and sophisticated than the Mustang. Both cars sport a limited-slip diff and independent suspension on all four corners, but the Camaro feels much more planted and confident — especially when using the throttle to aid mid-corner rotation.
Heavier, more precise steering and a shorter, less flexible rear tyre sidewall (275/35 Goodyear Eagle ZR20s versus the Mustang’s 275/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S) could be part of the how and why.
The Mustang on the other hand feels less grown up, less serious. Its steering is much lighter and suspension much more forgiving in this company. It means that you need to truly hustle it in order to match the Camaro on a twisty road.
Its six-speed manual is a far cry from the snickety precise units you might find in a Civic Type R or MX-5. It’s workmanlike, with a longer and less clicky shift action.
But the feel through the clutch pedal sees more consistent than previous Mustang 6-speeds, and it comes with rev matching capabilities — perfect for scaring the tonsils out of other motorists at intersections (not that we’d condone that kind of thing, obviously …).
Perhaps the biggest difference mechanically is how the two cars deliver their power. While the Chevrolet’s LT1 explodes off the line, Ford’s Coyote requires you to take it to its screaming 7400rpm redline to squeeze the most out of it.
The improved induction breathing apparatus means that the Bullitt is more eager to hit redline than ever before, and the subsequent engine note sounds much more musical and rich than the parping and popping LT1.
Swirling all of these elements together makes picking a victor incredibly difficult.
My head picks the Camaro. To be honest, it picked the Camaro quite early on in the piece.
The amount of grip and capability is greater in the Chevrolet. Leaping from apex to apex, it feels like the car that's done the most to further the 'muscle car' formula. There are plenty of far more expensive, far more sophisticated sports cars on the market that it would proudly embarrass on a twisty road.
But my heart picks the Bullitt. It’s a charmer, a traditionalist. From the moment you set off, it feels like the more authentic muscle car here. It requires more input and risk-taking from the driver to match the Camaro’s corner-carving pace. But, in some ways that makes it the more rewarding, more satisfying car — one that’s easier to live with to boot.
Both are exceptional machines, and buyers who aren’t divided by brand lines would likely be extremely happy having either one parked in their driveway.
But there has to be a winner. And today, by a whisker, it’s the Mustang.
2018 Ford Mustang Bullitt
Pros: Beautiful sound, usability, improved 6-speed manual, price
Cons: Not as agile, no automatic (but who cares), standard GT arguably better value
2018 Chevrolet Camaro 2SS
Pros: Transformers looks, LT1’s torque, the better driver's car, RHD conversion well executed
Cons: Cramped cabin, visibility, no manual, price