The 4th generation Camaro is often overlooked as an option for those hunting for a performance car on a reasonable budget. Running from 1993 to 2002, the 4th generation Camaro offered a big improvement over its 3rd generation predecessor. The new wave of small block Chevy V8 engines, courtesy of the LT1 and later the LS1, brought muscle car horsepower back to the Camaro. For the first time, the V8 motors were mated to an available 6-speed manual transmission.
Chevrolet continued to offer the 1LE option, a no frills track orientated package with a significantly improved suspension, until 1999. And thanks to the return of the SS trim plenty of performance options were available with the trim from ‘96 to ’02.
Sure, the interiors are not particularly attractive or of decent quality. With no independent rear suspension, a curb weight of 3,400lbs, and a 101 inch wheelbase, the Camaro is not moving around a road course with agility of a Miata. With that being said though, for between $8,000 – $14,000, a quality 4th generation Camaro can end up in your garage. Once there, the platform offers plenty of opportunities to improve handling, braking, and horsepower through well-known aftermarket brands.
This guide will take you through the years of the 4th gen Camaro, focusing on key performance and durability progressions, and hopefully a step closer to finding the right car for you.
THE EARLY YEARS
The heart of the new generation of Camaro is the LT-1 engine, a pushrod V8 providing the Z28 trim with 275 hp at 5,000 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 2,400 rpm. The power output was a big jump from the outgoing 3rd generation Camaro which produced 230 hp in 1992. The LT-1 debuted a year earlier with the 1992 Corvette, but just like the Corvette, the early years of these LT-1 powered cars are generally the ones to avoid.
The LT1 most notably introduced the Opti-spark ignition. The Opti-spark relocated the distributor to the front of the motor, just behind the water pump, and while it brought many advancements to the ignition system, it also became a sore spot on the LT-1. The Opti-spark was prone to collecting moisture inside the unit. The moisture interferes with the optical sensors and it loses the ability to properly to distribute spark, leaving the engine running rough or not running at all. Placing the Opti-spark underneath the water pump, which has its weep hole right near-by, was a precarious decision by GM engineers. If the Opti-spark does fail, you would have to completely remove the water pump to replace it.
1994 brought little design change to the Camaro, though a couple mechanical improvements were made. The model year introduced R134a refrigerant based air conditioning, which is what is still used in modern cars. With it, you at least have the ability to easily service your A/C system which is a nice luxury to have for the hot summer months. Additionally, the ECU would now use a Mass Air Flow (MAF) sensor to measure incoming air flow instead of the speed density set up used in ’93. The MAF setup provides better adaptability to street driving conditions. At the gauge cluster, the typeface now goes to white from the famous yellow lettering of the 1993 cluster.
In 1995 though, Chevrolet introduced a slightly revised Opti-spark design for the LT1, which featured a venting system that placed a vacuum line between the distributor housing and the throttle body. The passing years have shown that the updated design is more reliable than the earlier version, which otherwise distracted from a great motor. Be aware though that 1995 and newer Opti-spark used a different cam drive, timing chain cover, and electrical harness than the ’93 and ’94 model years so don’t expect to swap the newer vented model too easily into an earlier year car.
1996, THE RETURN OF THE SS
After a 24 year absence, 1996 marked the long awaited return of the SS badge to the Camaro. 1996 was the only year that the Camaro was referred as a Z28 SS, commemorated by a uniquely numbered plaque placed right behind the shifter. The car’s left the Quebec factory as a Z28 and were sent to SLP Engineering in New Jersey to perform the SS alteration package. The base SS package included a beautiful cold air induction hood, performance air intake, 17” x 9” ZR1 style (5 spoke A-mold) wheels with 275 wide tires, larger front sway bar, and some other goodies like a Z28 SS key fob and SS graphics. Additional options included a Hurst shifter, performance exhaust, 3.42 limited slip differential, and an engine oil cooler.
A fully optioned Z28 SS, especially with the limited slip differential and engine oil cooler, sets the Camaro up to be a very capable performance car making 305 hp and 335 ft/lb of torque. The 275 width tire size offers plenty of performance tire options at a very reasonable prices for someone looking to do some autocross or road course driving. In 1996 only around 2,200 SS optioned cars were produced, so finding one can be a little tough. The cars came with an SLP Z28 SS Alteration build sheet, a SLP data sticker on the driver door, and a SLP installed options sticker on the passenger door to identify the car’s build.
1996 also ushered in OBDII engine controls and dual catalytic converters on all models. The revised exhaust design provided an additional 10 horsepower boost that brought the Z28’s horsepower to 285. Having OBDII is a nice advantage over the earlier model years as makes engine diagnostics and data logging much easier, with most scanners and tools costing very little.
1997 did not bring much change mechanically to the Camaro but it introduced an updated interior with a redesigned dashboard. The gauge cluster now featured a digital odometer. On the exterior, the taillights were updated to a tri-color design. The taillight turn signals were now amber, instead of red as they were in previous model years. The SS optioned cars, though the alterations were still performed by SLP Engineering, were no longer referred to as the Z28 SS. The numbered interior plaque was removed and replaced with a smaller Camaro SS badge right above the radio. The SS options and horsepower rating remained the same, though production was increased to 2,950 cars.
The Camaro’s 30th anniversary was celebrated in 1997. The 30th Anniversary models were available to Z28 and SS models, featuring an Arctic White exterior color with Hugger Orange stripes, white painted wheels, and white leather seats with 30th Anniversary embroidery. A very limited number of 30th Anniversary SS cars came with the LT4 engine, used the year before in the final model year of the C4 Corvettes with a manual transmission. The rare 100 cars with this option made 330 hp and 340 ft/lb of torque, making it the fastest (and most expensive) Camaro in the generation so far.
1998, TIME FOR A REFRESH
In 1998, the Camaro received a significant mid-generation refresh. Most notably, the LT1 motor was now replaced by the new LS1 motor which had debuted with the 1997 Corvette a year earlier. Still a 5.7 liter pushrod V8, the LS1 bumped the Camaro Z28’s horsepower from 285 to 305. The LS1 had finally rid the Chevy small block of the Optispark ignition and now introduced the much more reliable individual cylinder coil pack ignition. The LS1 also featured an all-aluminum block, rather than the cast-iron block of the LT-1, making the new engine lighter and easier to cool.
The SS option provided 320 horsepower, a bit short of the Corvette’s 345 horsepower with the same engine due to a more restrictive intake and exhaust. The LS1 alone is a huge advantage in purchasing a 1998+ Camaro compared to the 1993-1997 model years. The LS1 is capable of big horsepower, aftermarket parts support is huge, online resources are plentiful, and the engine is very DIY friendly.
Chevrolet began doing the base SS alteration package in house this year. The car would only be sent to SLP Engineering if the additional upgrade options were ordered with the car. An SS ordered without any of the additional options would no longer have any of the SLP stickers on the door jambs or the SLP build sheet. The cars sent to SLP to have the options installed would still bear these documents. You will often find these 1998+ SLP cars referred to as a “Camaro SS SLP”. SLP options still included a performance exhaust, Bilstein performance suspension, high performance differential, embroidered front floor mats, and also now introduced chrome plated ZR1 style wheels.
On the exterior of the 1998 Camaro, the front end was updated with a new bumper, hood, fenders, and headlights. The inset, individual rectangular headlights of the 93-97 model years gave way to a one piece composite housing that sits flush with the hood edge. The Z28 now came standard with 17” wheels. The tricolor taillights remained from the 1997 update. The interior also remains the same from the 1997 update.
The V8 Camaros also now came with larger brakes in 1998. The front rotors increased from a 10.9 in diameter to an 11.9 in diameter while the rear rotors increased from an 11.5 in to 12 in diameter. Joining the larger rotors was now also 2 piston calipers at the front axle compared to single piston calipers in the 1997 and earlier models.
Overall, the 1998 mid-generation refresh created a much sharper performance car.
1999-2002, LITTLE UPGRADES TIL THE END
1999 marked the last year the 1LE performance option was available for the Camaro. The suspension package included adjustable Koni shocks, stiffer springs, stiffer suspension bushings, a 32mm front sway bar, and a 21mm rear sway bar. 1999 also added a Torsen differential to the Z28 and SS trims. Sadly, only 66 cars were produced with the 1LE option and a manual transmission in 1999, making one of the most track ready optioned Camaro pretty hard to find.
Not many upgrades or changes were made to the Camaro from here. Sales of the Camaro had been in a steady decline since 1995. The Mustang was handily outselling the Camaro by this time. The end was going to be near for the Camaro, it was evident.
In 2000, a newly designed 4 spoke steering wheel replaced the 2 spoke design that had been used since 1993. The new steering wheel was much more attractive and also featured button controls for the radio at the thumb positions. Several color options were dropped for the 2000 model year, and then Sebring Silver was dropped for 2001 year. In 2001 though, all LS1 Camaro’s received the LS6 intake manifold from the Corvette Z06 which was good for a 5 horsepower bump in engine power. The SS would now boast 325 horsepower, with a couple more horses still possible if the SLP performance exhaust was optioned. Manual transmission cars also received an upgraded clutch slave cylinder design and a LS6 clutch.
2002 marked the final year for the 4th generation Camaro, and ultimately the last model year until the Camaro was launched again for 2010. 2002 was also the 35th Anniversary of the Camaro, so naturally an anniversary edition SS was launched for the occasion. The 35th Anniversary Edition SS all came in Bright Rally Red with silver racing stripes, two tone polished aluminum and black 17” wheels, and plenty of oval anniversary edition badging and goodies.
Any 6-speed Camaro Z28 or SS would make a great, budget friendly, choice for a weekend sports car or track car. Ultimately though, sticking with 1995 or newer model year provides the updated OptiSpark for the LT1 and a more serviceable air conditioning system. If exterior or interior styling has little or no part to your preferences, the 1998-2002 LS1 Camaro’s are undoubtedly the best choice for performance. They just aren’t as cool as 1996 Camaro Z28 SS.