Camaro SS: All Out Bonneville Unlimited Speed Test
As featured on CAMARO5 HOMEPAGE
Ok, so we wouldn't exactly call this one a fair race based on factory specs, but nevertheless it's a fun look at how these two hot American muscle cars perform with their speed limiters removed and unleashed on the Bonneville Salt Flats for some top speed runs! Popular Mechanics recently undertook this unique challenge. Read their results below:
Camaro SS vs. Mustang GT500: All-Out Bonneville Speed Test
Bonneville's stark, flat and seemingly endless salt surface has made it the country's unofficial temple of speed. It's also the best place to find out the real top speed of two iconic muscle cars.
It's a question to gall anyone who loves fast cars: What's the point in driving a high-powered machine when a Prius can easily surpass the highest speed limit in the land? The annoying thing is, the maudlin pragmatists who look at a Porsche 911 GT2 and say, "Well, that guy's just going to get a lot of speeding tickets" are mostly right. In terms of performance, our cars have outgrown our roads.
You can go to a dragstrip and get a good run through the lower gears; you can go to a road course to exploit the limits of a car's chassis and brakes. But top speed is a different matter. Even a four-cylinder Mazdaspeed3 breaks 150 mph. Cue the chorus of downer realists: So where are you gonna do that?
Bonneville, that's where.
The bonneville salt flats, home of every land-speed record worth having, is a destination that all gearheads need to visit at least once. I've never been there. But as luck would have it, PM auto editor Larry Webster has wrangled a permit for the salt on a rare day when nobody else has it booked. All I need is a car.
Or better yet, two cars. I arrive in Ann Arbor, Mich., to meet the screaming-red weapons with which I'll assault the salt. For this mission, we selected two of America's feistier machines, the Chevrolet Camaro SS and the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. With 426 hp under the hood of the Camaro and a full 540 horses propelling the Stang, these are definitely two cars that should put on a good show on the salt.
There's only one problem: The Mustang and the Camaro have 155-mph electronic speed limiters. And running into a 155-mph speed limiter on the Bonneville Salt Flats would be like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and leaving only pleasantly full. If we're going to drive 1700 miles to go flat-out in Utah, we want to fully answer the question, what'll she do?
Hence, a few days earlier, Webster brought the cars to Lingenfelter Performance Engineering in Decatur, Ind. Lingenfelter, in addition to its more involved performance packages, sells portable engine-computer reprogrammers. Plug them into the Mustang and Camaro OBD (onboard diagnostics) ports, and a few seconds later the cars forget they ever had a speed limiter.
Suitably modified, we depart Ann Arbor. I've recruited my friend Murph, who is happy to drive muscle cars to the Salt Flats. I'm behind the wheel of the Mustang, Murph's in the Camaro. We've got multiple bags of beef jerky, walkie-talkies and three days to get to Bonneville.
It's quickly evident that getting to Bonneville while resisting Bonneville-esque velocities will test our restraint. Our path takes us through Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, states that offer a lot of room to run. We're barely out of Michigan when a Subaru STI comes charging up on the GT500's bumper. While there are scenarios where an STI will trump a GT500--a wet autocross track, a winter rally stage--I can say that straight-line third-gear acceleration is not one of them. Subaru dispatched, I slow to the speed limit and hope that nobody with a badge witnessed my little moment of weakness. Save it for the Salt Flats.
Early in the trip, we trade cars, and I soon bond with the Camaro, while Murph is happy to stick with the Mustang. You don't learn much about cars like this on the highway, but we do agree that the Camaro is more comfortable, thanks to its softer suspension. On one choppy section of highway, Murph radios, "These expansion joints are giving me a nice kidney massage." In the Camaro, I'm comfortably numb.
As we make our way west, we meet curious bystanders wherever we stop. Everyone wants to know where we're going with these two red muscle cars. A guy named Andrew, on tour with a band called the Fall of Troy, gives us CDs. An entrepreneurial trucker hands us bottles of American Shine car-wash concentrate. And a gentleman in Wyoming gives me a little keepsake--a $140 speeding ticket.
This happens on the third day, when I pull off an exit for a rest stop soon after leaving our hotel in Laramie. As I wait for Murph at the bottom of the exit, a state trooper drives down the ramp and turns on his lights. He approaches the window, tells me I was doing 90 mph in a 75-mph zone and asks for my license. "Don't worry," he says, "I'll get you out of here in a minute." I sit in the car and ponder how I was speeding and stopping at the same time.
The trooper doesn't ask why a Mustang GT500 and a Camaro SS from Michigan are convoying through his fair state. All he cares about is writing the ticket as fast as possible and getting back up to his position, where 5 minutes later he pulls over a fresh victim. On one hand, I'm angry that I didn't see him. On the other, maybe this is cosmic penance for the 30,000 miles I have spent behind the wheel of a Camaro without one speeding ticket. I was overdue. Also, I could say that my ticket amounts to one dollar for each mile per hour I was traveling shortly before he bagged me. (In Wyoming? Possibly.) So it's kind of a bargain when you look at it that way. And hey--a speeding ticket en route to a place with no speed limit? Thank you for the delicious irony, Wyoming Highway Patrol.
As we make our way into Utah, a new problem is brewing. We're not planning to hit the salt until tomorrow, but Mother Nature has other ideas. When we pull over for a break, Murph is frowning at his iPhone. "The forecast is calling for rain tomorrow," he says. "Maybe even snow."
This is unacceptable news. I'm not driving 1700 miles to find out that Walley World is closed. So we have two options: Gamble that the forecast is wrong, or try to get there before dark and hope that nobody else is using the salt. I'm a pretty terrible gambler, so we decide to make a push for the flats.
The salt comes into view. Or, more accurately, swallows up the highway. While the land-speed area is north of the interstate, the sprawling bright emptiness of the salt is everywhere. Just before the Nevada state line, we exit I-80 and take a desiccated two-lane toward the edge of the salt. Somewhere out there are the faded pair of parallel stripes that demarcate the race course.
It seems unbelievable that this place exists in modern America. I expected a gatehouse, a fence, someone to come out and frown at the cars and tell us that our tires' valve stems are out of compliance and that we'd need to come back with proper paperwork.
But there is no gate, no fence, no tech inspection. We have the permit, filed through the Bureau of Land Management, but there's nobody here to see it. In fact, the only other humans in this alien landscape are a distant fashion model and a photographer. The model is wearing a wedding gown. I pick up the walkie-talkie and caution Murph, "Once we get past 170, we're gonna have to keep our distance from the bride." Personally, I like to maintain at least a mile of separation from matrimonial fashion shoots during instrumented top-speed testing.
We're in a race against the encroaching rain clouds and the fading daylight, so we head directly to the course. The race groove reaches out over the horizon, smoother than the surrounding salt, as if the countless passes by land-bound rockets have ironed its creases. I still feel like we're about to do something wrong, so we set up our base camp deep out on the salt. Nobody driving past on the highway will happen to see us, because we're hiding--behind the curvature of the Earth.
With the Mustang parked, I plug in our GPS-based VBOX data logger, put on my helmet and race suit and head out in the Camaro to get a feel for the course. The salt offers more traction than I had expected. I stop and drop the clutch, and the Camaro lays black stripes before hooking up and getting on its way. Bend the car into a wide turn, and the tires squeal. I've heard the salt be compared to a wet road, but I'd say it's more like worn asphalt when the oil is weathered away--granular but grippy, the world's loneliest parking lot.
Heading down toward the far end of the course, I push the Camaro to about 140 mph and find it completely stable. I make a U-turn and decide to give it the business. If it's okay at 140, I reason, it'll be okay at 170, or whatever velocity I attain once I push into the performance zone unlocked by the Lingenfelter boys.
There's just one problem. As I try to upshift from fourth gear to fifth--up and to the right--the shifter balks. I coast along at 140 mph, trying to slot the shifter into gear, but it's having none of this. Have I discovered a Camaro performance foible, transmission synchros that get grouchy at autobahn speeds? Actually, no. After I slow down and carefully guide the shifter into fifth gear, I realize that the problem isn't the Camaro. It's me.
I'm so jacked up on adrenaline, and so afraid to mistakenly hit third gear, that I was muscling the shifter past the gate for fifth gear. And the next gear over from fifth is not seventh. It's reverse. Happily, I can report that the Chevy Camaro SS will not let you shift into reverse at 140 mph.
Once I calm my nerves, I turn around for another pass and get a clean shift into fifth, the top-speed gear (the sixth gear on both the Camaro and the Mustang is there purely for highway fuel economy). The Camaro easily hits 170 mph, but from there the last few miles per hour creep up in tiny increments. I'm pressing so hard on the gas that my right leg is quivering. But when the VBOX reads 174.4 mph, that's all she's got. The car is completely benign--no wandering, no scary front-end lift. The blunt Camaro is docile even when I squeeze hard on the brakes. I concede that Chevy's muscle car isn't perfect, but it's mildly amazing that when I say, "The Brembos easily hauled it down from 174 mph," I could be talking about either a $300,000 Ferrari or a $32,000 Camaro.
With the Camaro in the books, it's time to turn to that unholy handful of supercharged Mustang. I head back toward our base, and as Murph comes into view, I slow down so that I'm not barreling up on him like a maniac. But it seems like it's taking forever to get there. I glance at the speedometer and discover that I'm still doing 130 mph. This place definitely alters your perception of speed.
Back in Decatur, the Lingenfelter dynamometer revealed that this particular Mustang put down 489 hp at the rear wheels, so every bit of its advertised muscle is accounted for. I leave the stability control engaged, and small bumps in the salt trigger subtle traction-control interventions up to about 100 mph. Fortunately, once you break into the really high speeds, the Mustang is just as glued down as the Camaro.
The GT500 is unique in that its speedometer is actually calibrated to a number commensurate with the car's abilities. A stock GT500 is limited to 155 mph, so it makes sense that the car's speedometer reads only to 160. Given that every hot-rod hatchback now has a speedometer that reads to Mach 10, the delimited Mustang offers a rare opportunity: the chance to pin the needle. Which it does, with extreme prejudice. At 160 mph, this thing still has a long way to go. In fact, at the 15,000-foot mark, where the Camaro was touching 170 mph, the Mustang is already at 180. And still pulling.
While the Camaro ran into a wall of aero drag at 174.4 mph, the GT500 bumps up against its redline, supercharger screaming, at 184.7 mph. The late Ford GT, with sleeker bodywork but only 10 more horsepower, is good for 200 mph, so it seems logical that the Mustang has a few more miles per hour to unlock. Given longer gearing, I'll bet this thing could hit 190. Still, I'm impressed: If you had this car on the autobahn, you could pull up behind a Porsche 911 (top speed: 180 mph) and flash your headlights in the international signal for "get out of my way, slower car." That's a rapid Ford.
With nightfall creeping over the mountains, I sneak in a few more runs. It's not every day that you're alone on the Bonneville Salt Flats with nearly 1000 hp at your disposal, and I intend to make the most of it.
I don't better my initial speeds, but my continued Salt Flats research does produce additional valuable information. For example, did you know that the Camaro SS lets you set the cruise control at 159 mph? It's true. Although, when I set the cruise at 159 mph, the VBOX says I'm actually doing 165 mph. Besides that discrepancy, I find that the car lurches in an unsettling manner when you cancel the cruise control. Typical rough-around-the-edges Camaro, I suppose, stepping on its own feet every time you want to cancel the cruise control at 165 mph.
The fact that a Camaro is even capable of such a thing is properly amazing. And the Mustang, while expensive relative to the Chevy, is a bargain compared to the six-figure purebreds it can outrun. It seems unfeasible, on the face of it: You can take two attainable American muscle cars, drive them 1700 miles, run more than 170 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, then get back on the highway and drive to Los Angeles in reasonable comfort and without any mechanical complaint. The Camaro even managed 22 mpg on the highway. The Mustang? Well, you can lead a horse to a gas pump, but you can't make it drink less than a gallon every 19 miles.
Our modern automotive lives are defined by their restrictions, the lure of speed always tempered by the reality of traffic jams and insurance premiums and points on our licenses. Even our muscle cars have speed limiters. That's why the Bonneville Salt Flats are so glorious. Because no matter how beat-down you get by the entrenched web of radar guns and speed bumps, you can still get a fast car and go to Bonneville. You can put on a helmet. And you can crack a V8 throttle wide open and hold it there, reveling in the continued existence of a place where the only limits are horsepower and the horizon.