USD $22,805 - $36,775
0-60 mph in 4 seconds
Body Style: Convertible, Coupe
6.2-liter supercharged LSA V-8 engine
550 horses (at an estimated 6100 rpm)
550 pound-feet of torque (at an estimated 3800 rpm)
When I first heard rumors that Chevrolet was going to produce the 2012 Camaro ZL1, I thought, “Fine, G.M. is building a Camaro with a supercharger and more horsepower. Big deal.”
Now I’ve driven it and I know better: defining the ZL1 solely by its extra power is similar to saying that Dennis Rodman is famous just for his rebounding ability.
There’s quite a bit more to the story.
Adding a supercharger is only the first step in making a ZL1 out of a workaday Camaro SS. If you want to do it Chevy’s way — that is, create a car that will stand up to the output of a deep-breathing V-8 — you’ll need to install a new clutch and flywheel, along with improved synchronizers for better shifting of the 6-speed manual transmission. Then upgrade the differential and axle shafts. And brakes and antiroll bars.
Next, throw in a performance traction control system and Magnetic Ride Control shock absorbers — and tweak the bodywork in a wind tunnel so it generates downforce at higher speeds.
Voilà! That’s most of it.
In short, wringing 580 horsepower from a 6.2-liter V-8 is relatively easy. Creating a Camaro that laps Germany’s Nürburgring in a Porsche-hounding seven minutes and 41 seconds is not.
While the ZL1’s styling is as subtle as an anvil falling from the sky, its performance is defined by Chevy’s attention to nuance. That might sound counterintuitive, given that we’re talking about a monster Camaro whose LSA V-8 (a close cousin of the 638-horsepower LS9 in the Corvette ZR1) pushes it to 0-to-60 times in about four seconds flat.
But a day of driving during the press introduction at Virginia International Raceway here — a fast, challenging road course near the North Carolina border — revealed a Camaro that evokes blue-ribbon sport coupes like the BMW M3. Except that the ZL1 surely gets around V.I.R. much quicker.
The handling of the current-generation Camaro SS has always been characterized by understeer, the tendency for the front tires to lose grip before the rears, causing the front end to push wide in hard cornering. Understeer makes a chassis benign and predictable, but it’s not exactly fun.
“Understeer is irrelevant for 99 percent of drivers, because they’ll never push hard enough for it to be a problem,” said Tony Roma, engineering manager of the ZL1 program. “But for the other 1 percent, it was a big issue.”
So the ZL1 got a different layout for its antiroll bars, which gives the car lively, neutral handling, and in similar form trickles down to 2012 SS models. Call it voodoo chassis-nomics.
At the racetrack, Chevy had a car propped up to show off the cleverness underneath. There was a lot to take in, but I was immediately intrigued by what looked like miniature shock absorbers on the suspension control arms. These turned out to be wheel-position sensors, part of the ZL1’s Performance Traction Management system.
Conventional traction control systems detect a loss of grip and then reduce the engine’s torque or tap the brakes. The ZL1 aims for a predictive approach. If, say, you’re going full-throttle through a corner and the front tires hit a bump, the system will start cutting torque before the rear wheels arrive at the bump, saving you from a lurching half-slide followed by a scolding computer intervention.
The suspension is a partner in this exercise, processing input from the sensors 1,000 times a second (which means that at 60 m.p.h., the ZL1 “reads” each inch of road). The Magnetic Ride Control shock absorbers make the most of this information, instantly adapting their responses to the circumstances.
I put all of that wizardry to the test on the track, a great place to remind yourself how little you know about driving. I rode with Mr. Roma to reacquaint myself with the course; on the first lap the driver behind us went into a corner too hot and skidded into the grass. They weren’t joking about spicing up the Camaro’s handling.
For my turn at the wheel, I set the traction management system to mode three, which firms up the suspension and dials back the traction-control intervention but retains the safety net of the stability control electronics. The next two settings progressively banish the electronic nannies, culminating in mode five, in which the electronic handling aids are shut off. In theory, this is much like Ferrari’s F1 Trac system, which lets the driver decide the extent of the car’s computer-aided heroics.
On the track, Performance Traction Management functions like Ferrari’s system, letting the driver use full throttle when exiting corners while the computer precisely metes out torque. The Ferrari system is no doubt slicker, but hey, I just compared Camaros to Ferraris. Raining frogs are imminent.
This Camaro is one of the rare road cars that generates aerodynamic downforce. At 150 m.p.h., the ZL1’s vented hood, flat underbody and rear spoiler help it to produce 65 pounds of downforce. It doesn’t sound like much, but at the same speed a Camaro SS is contending with 200 pounds of aerodynamic lift. Trust me, rocketing through the Climbing Esses section at V.I.R. you’ll appreciate the difference.
I’m sure some buyers will confine their track time to dragstrips, where the original ZL1, a limited-production — and barely domesticated — 1969 model earned its reputation. G.M. says that the 2012 version’s 556 pound feet of torque will help it to pound out quarter-mile elapsed times in the high 11-second neighborhood on the factory tires.
But this car is really built for road courses, and it would be a shame to condemn it to a life of quarter-mile runs.
For a big car, the ZL1 dances. You can wrestle a 426-horsepower Camaro SS around a track at respectable speed, but the ZL1 behaves as if it were born to be there. Instead of plowing through corners, the rear end is willing to step out and point the front end into the turn. I’ve driven an M3 on this track, and the ZL1 really feels like a big BMW M car. Call it the M6’s American pen pal.
The überCamaro also costs nearly as much as an M3, which brings me to my caveats. Is USD $54,995 too much for a Camaro? (Don’t forget to add the $1,300 guzzler tax for the manual transmission model or $2,600 for the automatic.) That’s a question only you and your wallet can answer. But I will say that for your money, nothing else with a back seat can approach the ZL1’s thundering performance.
The other smirch on the ZL1’s report card is its weight: 4,120 pounds with the manual transmission, some 241 pounds more than a Camaro SS. The ZL1 weighs so much because it’s built to survive the severe abuse that will inevitably be heaped upon it. The huge differential, for instance, has a cast-iron housing and its own cooler. The optional 6-speed 6L90 automatic transmission is the same one used on G.M.’s heavy-duty pickups. The brakes are enormous — 14.6-inch front rotors with six-piston calipers, 14.4-inch rear rotors with four-piston calipers.
If Chevy charged $100,000, the ZL1 could have been built with lighter materials, but at this price, improving durability will add pounds.
While the ZL1 doesn’t feel heavy, its corpulence is evident in the E.P.A. fuel economy ratings: 14 m.p.g. in town and 16 highway for the manual transmission, and 12/14 for the automatic. An offensive lineman pushing a tackle sled builds up an appetite, you know.
Given the tenuous nature of G.M.’s survival a few years ago, it’s faintly amazing that Chevy now builds a muscle car capable of lapping the Nürburgring hot on the heels of a machine like the Porsche 911 Turbo. Call the ZL1 heavy, call it expensive, but don’t call it just a Camaro with a supercharger.
Skull & Bones