When many people fantasize about being an automotive journalist, I’m willing to bet they don’t envision late nights in the office drinking bad coffee and filling out TPS reports, transporting protein shakes to and from the refrigerator for the boss, fighting to get on board a plane with your camera equipment intact only to sandwich yourself between two large sweaty and flatulent gentleman in coach, traveling to the same five tracks for a good case of heartburn and sunburn, and then trying to cram five days worth of photo shoots into three days only to rinse and repeat four weeks later. But, on rare occasions, fairy tales do come true and you almost have to pinch yourself. I packed a ‘chute and grabbed a flight to Grand Rapids, Michigan where GM hosted a two-day launch of the 2013 Camaro 1LE and ZL1 Convertible. In an instant I realized that I was literally sipping beer next to Tony Swan (long-time Car and Driver editor) as well as writers from virtually every other significant media outlet, and the many GM engineers that brought the fifth-gen to life including Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser. I was sharing a side of mashed potatoes with Mark Dickens (1LE Performance Manager) and Steve Padilla (1LE Ride and Handling Engineer), and one of them squirted me in the eye with a lemon. And I didn’t mind.
It seemed an appropriate second baptism of sorts, for someone that’s been around the block a few times and can hardly call themselves clean anymore – having been tainted with the skepticism that comes with age. Born again in Camaro enthusiasm I took to the track the next day, cruising from the plush hotel to Gingerman Raceway in a 2013 Camaro ZL1 Convertible. The ragtop produced the typical added wind noise on the highway (when up), but was not obtrusive and unbearable by any means. I had no problem hearing the navigator’s directions, and he seemed to be speaking at a normal volume. Considering my poor hearing, I’d say that was quite the litmus test. At first I left the 6L90E-equipped ZL1 in full auto mode, but halfway through the drive I clicked it over to manual over-ride. For spirited driving it shifts surprisingly fast, but when every 100rpm is crucial (like at the drag strip) the little bit of lag time will have you bouncing off the rev limiter before it catches up with your demand. The chassis lost some stiffness (over the original coupe design), which is evident across major abrasions, like railroad tracks, in the Sport mode. But when the Magnetic Ride Control is set to the Touring mode, the softer shock settings make all the difference for a smooth riding machine. As you can imagine, the power supply was substantial though not at all overwhelming, unmanageable, or unruly.
After several turns off the highway and many backcountry roads we arrived at Gingerman Raceway, and a fleet of 1LE’s awaited us. During our driver’s meeting I was recalling the presentation from the previous night when Al Oppenheiser and Mark Dickens explained how the 1LE actually came about. The “Yellow Jacket” development car, which was actually in attendance for the event, was a 2010 SS model outfitted with aftermarket wheels and larger, stickier tires. It also had a roll bar, racing seats and harnesses because it was a test mule that endured many hot laps in pursuit of an improved suspension design. While (we) hot rodders tend to think in terms of sway bar diameter, Steve Padilla and company were calculating roll resistance based on sway bar shape, length and attachment points. Thus the FE4 suspension was born (new for 2012+ models). For the ZL1 this design was taken a bit further to account for increased horsepower by adding more rear grip and larger rear tires, and of course Magnetic Ride Control. Though GM says the standard FE4 suspension performs exceptionally well, the 1LE was created for that last 2% that want a track performer. By changing the sway bars (aka stabilizer bars) and going to monotube rear dampers (SS uses twin tube), and borrowing production ZL1 parts, the engineers were able to get GM to sign off on a cost effective model that competes directly with the Ford Mustang’s Boss 302 Laguna Seca iteration. And by compete we mean smash on for $10,000 less.
While comparisons to the Boss 302 are only academic at this point, lap times from one test at VIR versus GM’s in-house testing, what I can tell you from screeching the tires around Gingerman is that the 1LE is one of the most balanced and composed fifth-gens I have ever driven. Even with aftermarket sway bars and lowering springs, a 2010-2011 SS is no match for the 1LE. The sticky, 285mm Goodyear Supercar tires are just what this car needed to aid turn-in, while the sway bars get rid of that overwhelming understeer and keep the car planted all the way through the turn. In comparison, the old SS felt much more like you were fighting the car to take a consistent line around the track. Meanwhile the 1LE goes where you point it, holds the line (GM says it will hit 1G), and then smoothly tracks out to the point where you can nearly take your hands off the wheel (at turn exit) on Gingerman. Between the electric steering and the change in suspension geometry, the steering feels much more consistent and the feedback has increased substantially. The only way to get out of shape in the 1LE is to come in too hot and do something stupid mid-turn, thankfully that wasn’t me. The 3.91:1 gear helps keep the standard LS3 engine in its powerband, as does the wider gearset of the MM6 TR6060, in fact we used 3rd gear the entire track and there was enough torque to pull out of the slower turns. In case you are wondering, the MM6 is stronger than the standard SS TR6060 (M10), and is also used in the 505-horse Corvette Z06.
Since we only hit about 100mph on the back straight, it is a little difficult to say how much the added aero elements on the 1LE actually helped, but it is reassuring to know that they are there. The same could be said for some of the other added elements such as the ZL1 wheel bearings, toe links, rear shock mounts, and fuel pump. All of which were added as the result of the added grip from the Supercar tires. We ran the gas tanks down to empty and never had any hint of fuel starvation. The D-shaped steering wheel, also borrowed from the ZL1, was yet another contributing factor for making the 1LE so enjoyable to drive. It was easy to get the wheel into a comfortable position that would not contact your thigh, especially during heal-toe downshifts. Some may not be a fan of the flat black wheels and vinyl wrapped hood, but it seems appropriate on a track car (destined for brake dust and rock chips) and I dug it. Whether you are planning to enter SCCA competition or simply have a weekend car for open track days, the 1LE is a great overall package. The 426-horse LS3 is substantial enough to make the car fun, aided by the proper gearing, and the handling is perfect right out of the box. In fact, Chevrolet Parts is offering all of the suspension parts to convert your own car to 1LE specs now.