The gearbox is in Fourth, the throttle is buried to the firewall, and I’m rocketing uphill toward a blind right-hander. The thrust is unreal, and all I can see ahead is a windshield full of gray sky. Then you remember: The new 2014 Chevy Camaro Z/28 is equipped with “Flying Car Mode.” Really. For a moment I wonder: Will I get frequent flyer miles for this?
Somewhere in the Performance Traction Management system of the new Camaro Z/28 is Flying Car Mode. This way, if you’re on a track somewhere and you get airborne, the car will keep accelerating when you land. This is the first time it’s been used in an application without magnetic ride. On a 30-degree February day at Barber Motorsports Park, it’s not the flying part I’m concerned about, but the landing.
As you get closer to the top of the hill, you see part of the track’s timing tower. “Just aim the car at that,” instructed Mark Dickens, Chevrolet’s director of Performance Variants, Performance Parts and Motorsports Engineering—he’s also an accomplished race driver with an extensive SCCA background. If he has that much faith in the Camaro Z/28 with me behind the wheel, well, the gas pedal will remain pressed to the floor. After you crest the hill, you can feel your stomach bottom out. As long as you remain pointed toward the tower, you’re golden. The new Z/28 lands perfectly, and I let it drift out to the edge of the track. No muss, no fuss, just pure adrenaline rush.
That’s what the newest, most expensive street Chevy Camaro ever is about. It’ll do whatever you want, whatever you’re capable of on a racetrack, and then some. With the new Z/28, Chevrolet fears nothing. When we got the invitation to drive it at the Birmingham, Alabama, track, the email said, “Bring whatever you want for comparison.” Anything? Yes, anything. Some of the motoring scribes brought Porsche 911 turbos, another a Nissan GTR—that all-wheel-drive, twice-turbo’d beast with a reputation for spanking Ferraris. While those are serious rides, whom the heck do we know that owns something like this? Instead, we made an inquiry to the American Street Car Series, and got hooked up with Brian Finch and his 1971 Chevy Camaro g-machine. Like the Camaro Z/28, Brian’s second-gen employs LS7 power, but one that exhibits severe ’roid rage. Not content with a mere 505 hp, the Kurt Urban Performance–built plant churns out an asphalt-torturing 660 horses at 7,200 rpm and 605 lb-ft at 5,800.
Underneath the white machine are the best parts from Detroit Speed, JRI remote reservoir four-way adjustable coilover shocks, a Viper six-speed gearbox, and six-piston, 14-inch Baer brakes at each corner. This car is no joke—and Brian’s raced and autocrossed it all over the country. He finished Fourth in the ’13 Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge in Las Vegas, yet the car’s so docile and reliable, Brian had no qualms about driving it three hours from his home in Tennessee to Barber. No trailer, no tire swaps, no problem.
As for the new Chevy Camaro Z/28, Chevrolet’s thrown everything it’s ever learned about track performance into it, and then some. For dampers, it went to Formula 1 supplier Multimatic. When testing at Germany’s Nürburgring, the Multimatic people could get feedback from the drivers and laser-drill new shocks on the spot for installation and further evaluation. The Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve system in the shocks regulates the oil flow for more control. They’re lighter than the magnetic ride shocks used in the ZL1 (and Corvette), and gave the engineers more tuning capabilities at the limit.
It marks the first time Multimatic’s high-performance DSSV damper technology has been made available in a “volume” production road car application. All DSSV dampers employ a pair of proprietary self-piloted spool valves to provide highly accurate suspension control. Fluid flow through the spool valve’s ports can be mathematically modeled, and their shape fine-tuned, to achieve a desired damper Force/Velocity (F/V) characteristic. Various motorsports tuning techniques were utilized in combination with the analytically driven damper characterization to fully optimize the Z/28 suspension, including multi-post shaker rig testing, driver-in-the-loop simulation, as well as road and track evaluation.
For brakes, they stepped up to Brembo carbon ceramic rotors for the ultimate in repeatable stopping power. These things are preposterously large—15.5 x 1.4 inches front and 15.3 x 1.3 inches back—and provide enough stopping force to launch your sunglasses off your face. And they’ll do that time and time again without fading. Compared with conventional brake discs, drivers experience a 10 percent increase in friction coefficient, and system operating temperatures 5 percent below the average of cast-iron brake discs. The carbon ceramic discs are paired with monobloc aluminum calipers (six-piston fronts and four-piston rears), designed specifically for weight savings and drag reduction. The first time I braked for Turn 1, they slowed the Z/28 so hard I had to accelerate again to reach my turn-in point.
Even the legendary LS7 engine in the ’14 was not immune to tinkering. The bottom end was fortified with Pankl forged connecting rods and Mahle forged pistons. For the first time in a Chevy Camaro, there’s a dry-sump oiling system to keep everything lubricated in the high-g-load environment the engine will live under (max rpm is 7,100).
The engineers so sweat the details that even the Bow Tie emblem in the grille was altered. Using a Dremel, it was hollowed out to provide 2.5 more cubic feet per minute air to the radiator at speed. It is known within the engineering group now as the Flow Tie.
The wheel bead seats are mediablasted to keep the tires from slipping on the rims during braking and cornering—it’s a racing trick necessitated by the car’s outlandish grip and stopping power. (It’ll pull 1.08 g on the skidpad, and 1.5 g during braking.) Speaking of the tires, they’re 305/35R19 Pirelli Trofeo R models all around. The treadwear is 60, so it’s pretty much a DOT-legal race tire. They definitely like a lot of heat to perform at their peak, which took a couple of laps on this subfreezing track. But once they came up to temp, hang on.
As for Finch’s rollers, they’re gorgeous Forgeline CF3C Concave rims (18x11, 18x12) wrapped in BFG Rival tires (315/30 front, 335/30 rear). The treadware rating is 200, giving the new Z an advantage, but this is what Brian competes on, and they’re excellent tires. After our track day, he simply drove three hours home back to Tennessee with no concerns about the weather. Brakes are 14-inch Baers, with six-piston calipers behind each wheel.
ON THE TRACK
Climbing into the Z/28 provides all the best and worst of the fifth-gen Camaro. The Alcantara-covered steering wheel and shift knob give you lots to hold on to, the optional Recaro seats are a revelation, and the pedal position is great for heel-and-toe downshifts. Then you put your helmet on, and must adjust the seat bottom and back so you can drive without your head being pressed into the roof.
Once you’ve found an acceptable driving position (and you can) and the tires are warmed up, you’ll find yourself doing things you never imagined doing in a stock Camaro—ZL1 or otherwise. The combination of the LS7 engine, 6060 six-speed, and 3.91 gears is straight out of hot rod heaven. Every gear change is cause for celebration—the level of grip so high, the average driver won’t be able to use it all.
Barber Motorsports Park is 2.38 miles and 17 turns of pure fun. Eighty feet of elevation changes, blind corners, diving turns, climbing turns—you name it—and the Z/28 ate up all of it. It’s an automotive roller coaster, and it takes a lot of skill to extract optimum lap times. But in the Z/28, you felt there was nothing it couldn’t do, even with the cold track surface. Chevy provided SS Camaros equipped with the 1LE handling package for a comparison—itself a heck of an open track machine in its own right. Where we were braking at the third or fourth marker in the 1LE, we could extend this to halfway between one and two in the Camaro Z/28. Those carbon ceramic binders are the size of pizza trays, and no one could get them to fade.
We thought Chevy would be hard pressed to improve on the handling of the ZL1 with its Magnetic Ride shocks, but the company’s done it. The Camaro Z/28 corners flatter, rotates better, and sticks like Velcro. Every system was maximized with one goal, to go around the track faster. The LS7’s power is distributed to the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential featuring a helical gearset, rather than traditional clutch packs. This allows the driver to apply more power and get through corners faster by continuously adjusting the torque bias to maximize available traction. Even the ABS helps, invisibly intervening to make the car turn better.
Barber is a Third- and Fourth-gear track in the Z/28, and you can’t get enough of it. The LS7 sings a beautiful song through its dual-mode exhaust. Brake, turn, upshift, downshift. The fun never stops. The electric power steering is delightfully direct, light for parking and around-town gymnastics, but precise on track.
No matter what your skill level, the Camaro Z/28 can make you a better driver. There are enough levels of electronic sophistication to save your bacon should you do something wrong, yet all that can be turned off for the expert driver.
Finch’s self-built g-machine has no such subsystems. Think of this as going from an older F1 car, with all sorts of driver aids, to a Sprint Cup racer. Brian, an IT manager and owner of finchperformance.com, spent time on track dialing in the shocks and rear brake bias, so when we got behind the wheel, his warrior was definitely ready for action. The differences between the two machines were startling from the minute you fired up the old F-body. It was loud and untamed. The new car is just that—all new—so there are no rattles, odd buzzes, unusual smells, etc. Even decontented, you could drive the Z/28 from Maine to California and never be uncomfortable.
But the ’71, it’s a real hot rod. Slam the door and it makes that unmistakable hollow sound second-gens are famous for. You strap yourself in with the four-point harness and familiarize yourself with the controls. The Pro Car 1100-series seats hug you tight. In contrast to the stubby shifter in the 21st century Camaro, to your right is a tall shift handle attached to a Viper T56. The steering is lighter in the ’71 and lacks some of the feel of the newer model, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it.
Brian warned us there was something wrong with Second gear, and sure enough, the T56 was now a five-speed. Didn’t matter. As with the fifth-gen, all we needed at Barber were Third and Fourth. Power from the Kurt Urban plant is beyond impressive. The older car is about 300 pounds lighter than the new one, and has at over 100 more horsepower. That made acceleration explosive. (The 4.11s in the Tru-Trac-equipped 9-inch further helped in this regard.)
Once we put the fact we were flogging someone else’s car out of our mind, we really got into it. It certainly takes more effort to drive the ’71 Chevy Camaro fast than the ’14, but who cares? That might actually be a positive. You’re way more involved. You sweat more and think more. The LS7 bellows as you accelerate. The Baer binders do a remarkable job of hauling you down from 125-plus mph as you enter the corners, though the pedal lacks the positive feel of the newer car. There’s also less feedback, but on the plus side, there’s no sign of fade.
As I got a rhythm going, I couldn’t help but marvel at the job Brian’s done with his car. In its previous life, he built it into a pro streeter. He got hooked on pro touring after competing at his first autocross at a Goodguys event, and he’s never looked back. The F-car was perfectly balanced, a magnificent dance partner. I worked harder in the old Camaro, but the rewards were there.
Ultimately, the new Z had 2.11 seconds a lap on Finch’s flier, with a best of 1.39.91 versus 1.42.02 in the classic. GM’s Mark Stielow, one of the fathers of the pro touring movement and the Z/28 Performance Manager, actually went 1.37.10 in the new car (though only 1.42.99 in the white Camaro).
So the new car is faster (from what we hear, it beat all the high-end imports, too), ergo the question gets down to price. The Z/28 is $75,000, including destination. To replicate Finch’s car, he said it would cost…$75,000. He got his car at auction years ago for only $320 and did nearly all the work himself. Unless you already have a second-gen, you’ve got to factor in a whole lot more greenbacks—and you still won’t have those unreal carbon ceramic brakes or factory warranty. You won’t have to do a ton of bodywork or replace rusty panels. Ultimately, the new car is both cheaper and faster on track.
After driving both, Brian came away seriously impressed with the Z/28. It’s daily driver-capable, the optional air conditioning only adds 52 pounds, and unlike his ‘71, there’s nothing to dial in. In the new Z, all he had to do was buckle his seatbelt and drive.
“For the casual weekend racer, the Z/28 is the way to go,” Finch said. “It’s a racecar with a warranty—who doesn’t want that? If you don’t want to deal with the harsh ride, the noises and smells of an old car, or you don’t have the time to deal with fixing things, the new car is perfect. You go to the track, adjust your tire pressures and go.”
Old versus new. It’s an argument that’ll never be settled, but Chevrolet keeps making compelling arguments in the favor of new.