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.