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.
But of course, for those of you that aren’t track rats, the ZL1 Convertible could be a much better fit, which is what we finished our day in. With the top down I cruised to Lake Michigan and got a suntan (okay it was a light burn). For an hour or so, I fantasized about a life that didn’t involve getting up at 5am to drive to the track, getting filthy changing tires and brake pads, losing a gallon’s worth of sweat, and then driving home at the end of the day exhausted and struggling to stay on the road. In this fantasy my significant other was riding shotgun with an ear-to-ear grin, no griping about another weekend away from home, and maybe there was even a little one or two on the backseat buckled in and ready for the beach. When I pulled out to pass a slow-moving truck or to make a left onto the four-lane road, there was never a concern whether the ZL1 would have enough power to make it. The 6L90E worked its way through the gears effortlessly as I reached down to manipulate the new My Link radio, and crank up the satellite radio which has no problem competing with wind noise. Though the buttons have an odd feel, it is easy to navigate through the options (a huge improvement over the previous radio). And occasionally I look up to admire the handsome new mirror, modeled after the one in Al Oppenheiser’s ’68 Camaro.
Perhaps the best thing you can say about any convertible, which is true of the ZL1, is that aside from the wind noise with the top down it is rare that you are reminded that it is actually a convertible. Clearly the engineers did not take lightly the task of designing the most powerful convertible GM has ever made. “Four strategic reinforcements enhance the already-stiff body structure to quell the cowl and steering wheel shake common in convertibles.” Those reinforcements include braces for the strut tower, transmission support, underbody tunnel, and a front “X” as well as a stiffer cradle and underbody “V” braces. Internal to the body are reinforcements in the A-pillars, windshield header, hinge pillar, and rocker panels meant to improve noise and vibration issues as well as to combat the aforementioned “unwanted ride and body motions.” For those of you who can’t fork out $59,545 for the ZL1 ragtop, take comfort that some of these improvements have been passed down to the SS model as well.
I will admit that at times I can be a little biased as a fan of GMs and the new Camaro, but both cars make a great case for turning your nose up at import and domestic competitors. As a hot rodder it is hard to admit, but they even make a great argument against modifying your 2010-2011 SS. As much engineering as some companies have put behind their products, it really is hard to compete with the budget and time that Chevrolet has put into its products. The 1LE is a turn-key open track car that is completely dialed-in and easy to drive, and the ZL1 ‘vert is a 580-horse beach cruiser with a full warranty. It is hard to find fault with either. And of course, if you find yourself wanting more, you know we’ll have plenty of great ideas for you.
- Larger 27mm front, 28mm rear (solid) stabilizer bars
- Monotube rear dampers
- Strut tower brace
- ZL1 black 20x10 front, 20x11 forged aluminum wheels
- Goodyear Eagle Supercar G:2 285/35ZR20 tires
- ZL1 wheel bearings, toe links, and rear shock mounts
- ZL1 high capacity fuel pump with additional pickups
- Tremec TR6060 “MM6” transmission, trans cooler, 3.91:1 rear gear
- 1LE specific matte black front splitter, rear spoiler, and hood
- ZL1 flat-bottom steering wheel, suede microfiber trim, short throw shifter
- Starting Price: $37,035
*SS features apply except where noted
- Engine: 6.2L V-8 (LSA), 9.1:1 compression, aluminum block and heads, forged crankshaft and connecting rods, hypereutectic pistons
- Power Adder: Eaton 1.9L TVS supercharger, air-to-water intercooler
- HP: 580 at 6000rpm
- TQ: 556 at 4200rpm
- Transmissions: TR6060 6-speed manual (3.73:1), 6L90E 6-speed automatic (3.23:1)
- Suspension: double ball joint, multi-link strut front with direct-acting stabilizer bar, progressive rate springs and Magnetic Ride Control; 4.5-link independent rear with progressive rate springs over shocks, stabilizer bar and Magnetic Ride Control
- Brakes: Brembo 6-piston, two-piece 14.6x1.26-inch front; 4-piston, single-piece 14.4x1.1-inch rear
- Wheels: forged aluminum 20x10 front, 20x11 rear
- Tires: Goodyear Eagle Supercar G:2 285/35ZR20 front, 305/35ZR20 rear
- Price (as tested): $66,125