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2017 Camaro ZL1 Tested on the Road, Track, and Strip

The Most Powerful Camaro Ever Debuts 10-speed Transmission

Brandan Gillogly Jan 12, 2017 0 Comment(s)
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With the fifth-generation Camaro, Chevrolet changed the meaning of ZL1. While it originally stood for a limited-production, dragstrip terror that carried the biggest, baddest engine from the Corvette, the modern version added impressive levels of road course capability and daily driver comfort while leaving a bit of the horsepower on the table. The 2017 ZL1 now brings every bit as much power as the top dog Corvette while also introducing a new, world-class transmission along with an improved chassis to create an all-around driver's car that excels in any environment.

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With more power and the potential for even higher speeds than the 5th-gen, Camaro engineers designed the 2017 ZL1 to control airflow, maximizing cooling and minimizing lift. The front fascia's large main grille opening and two outboard inlets direct 130 cubic meters of air per minute through the grille openings. That's about 4,600CFM.

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All of the bodywork forward of the A-pillars is unique to ZL1, including the front fascia, wider front fenders, and a new hood with carbon fiber center section. Even the cut line is different on the new hood, so don't try swapping it onto an SS.

The last ZL1 had a 580hp 6.2L LSA V8 that was similar to the Corvette's LS9, but with a smaller displacement supercharger. Now the 2017 ZL1 brings the same 650 hp as the top dog Corvette. From the throttle body to the main caps, the ZL1's LT4 powerplant is identical to the V8 found in the C7 Corvette Z06. The differences are the ZL1's unique tri-Y exhaust manifolds and wet sump oiling system. Camaro's slightly taller stance, compared to the Corvette, allowed for a traditional oiling system that provides ample oil control even during prolonged high-G maneuvers.

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An upgraded supercharger lid and larger charge cooler bricks are carried over from the 2017 Z06 to keep the charge air cool during prolonged track sessions.

Harnessing the LT4's 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque are two transmissions unique to the ZL1. A six-speed, Tremec TR6060 manual is standard. It uses new gear ratios matched to the ZL1, and its rev-match feature allows for quick downshifts on the track without upsetting the balance of the car. However, the optional 10-speed 10R90 automatic is the star of the drivetrain. Shifted using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles it's impressive, left to its own devices it's spectacular. Its shift programming is just spot on. Granted, we've been big proponents of the 8L90 found in the Camaro SS and all versions of the Corvette, and not just because of how the six-speed auto it replaced tended to sap the fun out of most sporty vehicles where it was used. While the eight-speed has close gear spacing that punctuates full-throttle romps with a satisfying crackle on upshifts, the ten-speed's even closer ratios and faster shifts come with a more staccato bark and help wring the most power out of the LT4. Of course there are also efficiency benefits to the new 10 speed, it was the performance capability that the Camaro team focused on. The 10R90 helps the ZL1 run 0-60 in 3.5 seconds, two tenths quicker than the in the manual even though the Tremec hits 60mph in first gear.

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Head-Up Display is standard on ZL1, as are the Recaro sport seats.

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An all-new Tremec TR6060 has gears optimized for the ZL1. The 10R90, a $1,595 option, was engineered to fit into the same space as the 8L90, which was designed to fit in the same space as GM's 6L80.

On the Street

Compared to the SS, the added weight of the ZL1 was hardly noticeable. With a curb weight under 4,000 pounds, the ZL1's 650 horses are each hauling around less mass than the 707hp from the burly Hellcat. The 2.0L turbo RS model we drove back-to back with the ZL1 was a bit livelier when darting around town, but the ZL1 definitely doesn't feel porky. The latest iteration of Magnetic Ride Control is standard on ZL1 and, like the 1LE, begins with a Tour mode that is slightly firmer than the standard SS.

Even in Tour mode the steering is nicely weighted and the 10R90 operates seamlessly when daily driving, allowing the LT4 to loaf around in 9th or 10th gear at highway speed. It keeps from hunting for gears and shifting unnecessarily by holding gears momentarily when lifting off the throttle. If the transmission notices that the car is ascending a grade it will hold gears longer. When descending, the trans will downshift to help maintain speed without relying on the brakes. If pushed hard while in Tour mode, the trans will shift down several gears at once, which is also accomplished by tapping and holding the downshift paddle, which will drop to the lowest gear possible. It can make the 10-3 shift in one operation, transforming from a docile cruiser to spring forward with all 650 lb-ft of torque from the V8 in a moment's notice. Credit Jeff Trush, lead calibrator for the ZL1 10-speed, for nailing the integration.

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Forged aluminum wheels with 285/30ZR20 and 305/30ZR20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3 tires give the ZL1 a purposeful stance.

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The rear wing is unique to ZL1, and was designed to work in tandem with the front splitter to reduce lift. By about 60mph the body's lift is countered for neutral handling.

Each driving mode brings with it specific tuning for the steering, throttle, shifting, and the standard dual-mode exhaust. If aggressive driving is the plan, Sport and Track modes have it covered. Either of those two modes unlock the performance shifting algorithms that are set at three levels. In order of aggressiveness, Performance Algorithm Lift (PAL) holds gears longer and enables rev-matching downshifts. A quick full-throttle stab is all it takes to engage. Next is Performance Algorithm Shifting (PAS), the medium level, which is enabled when higher levels of cornering are detected. Finally, during all-out track driving, the highest level of PAS will engage to hold shifts to redline and downshift aggressively to keep the engine near its maximum power. In spirited canyon driving we were able to use PAS and forget about using the paddles.

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Third-generation Magnetic Ride Control uses dual electric coils in each shock. Adding current changes the rate the magnetorheological fluid moves past the coils, allowing for quick changes in the damping rate. While the SS may be cushier in its softest setting, the ZL1 is still Camaros' top grand touring model with power to spare.

On the Track

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If you're wondering if 10 speeds are too many, the answer is "No". The Camaro development team programmed the transmission to work seamlessly on its own. In Tour mode under light throttle, 9th and 10th gear come only at highway speeds. We used seven of the ten gears on Willow Springs, which is a fast track. Camaro ride and handling engineer Drew Cattell used eight when he clocked his impressive 7:29.60 Nurburgring lap time, as the 10R90 shifted into 8th at 170mph.

Chevrolet invited us to try the ZL1 at Willow Springs. With no experience on "The Fastest Road in the West" and 650hp of capable sports car to wring out, things could have gone badly. We planned on working our way up to the ZL1's limits bit by bit. Starting with a six-speed version of the ZL1, we took three laps in Track mode with the Performance Traction Management set to Dry. Formerly called Competition, this is the second most strict of the performance traction modes. As the modes become more and more lenient StabiliTrak, which uses braking to limit yaw, will intervene and can also reduce throttle. For mostly a third-and fourth-gear track, Willow Springs has long corners that the ZL1 was able to handle at triple-digit speed and the brakes kept delivering after repeated corner entries required scrubbing 40-50mph. As we moved to the 10-speed ZL1 our confidence grew. Focusing only on braking and turn-in points and letting the auto do the shifting, our speeds increased. On the fast sweeping turns, the steering wheel told us we still had traction to spare, yet thoughts of running off turn nine at more than 80mph kept us grounded.

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Massive front rotors, at 15.35 inches in diameter and 1.42 inches thick, are the same size found in the fifth-generation Z/28, although this time they're iron with an aluminum hat, rather than carbon ceramic. Rear rotors are a still-huge 14.37 inches in diameter and 1.1 inches thick. Camaro lead development engineer Aaron Link told us the heavy-duty rotors not only stand up to the punishment we'd be dishing out at Willow Springs, but that a set of rotors lasted through twelve hours of performance driving at Chevrolet's Milford Proving Grounds.

Traction control was never abrupt with braking and we never felt that it pulled power, even when it had. However, the optional Performance Data Recorder told the tale. The camera mounted near the rearview mirror captures a driver's eye view of the track while 30-channels of data are logged, including GPS position, throttle and brake percentage, steering angle, driving mode, current gear, and of course speed. Replaying the video revealed we were often too eager to get back on the throttle. Each of our three-lap sessions showed our increased confidence in the car, with increased speeds and decreased lap times.

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The Performance Traction modes vary from Wet, which offers the most intervention over throttle input and can apply braking using Stibilitrak to mitigate yaw, to Race, which turns StibiliTrak off and doesn't curtail throttle application. Dry, Sport 1, and Sport two enable progressively more oversteer.

At the Strip

Two big additions to Camaro will help drivers be more consistent and lower their e.t.s at the dragstrip. First is a line lock that works just like you'd expect, allowing the front brakes to remain engaged while the rear wheels are free to spin to a glorious burnout. The function is accessed through the Driver Information Center's Settings menu. A prompt will notify the driver that the function is ready to be accessed by applying full brake pressure. The line lock function lasts for 15 seconds, plenty of time to make an impressive cloud of smoke from the 305mm-wide Goodyears. Line lock mode even has its own shift programming. At any point during the 15-second allotment the driver may exit the line lock by pressing two buttons on the steering wheel that will slowly release the front brakes.

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Yes, those are street tires, and yes, that's a big, smoky burnout. Our lowest ET was immediately after our only burnout.

After the line lock has been used, the ZL1 defaults to Launch Mode. That made it easy to roll out of the burnout box, pre-stage, stage, and then initiate Launch Mode by pressing fully on the brake momentarily before applying full throttle. We did fail to engage Launch Mode on our first try simply because it seemed so wrong to go WOT at the tree in a stock car with stock rubber. That lead to peddling to a mid 8-second 1/8th-mile time. Funny Car driver Courtney Force was on hand and even with a passenger was able to dial in her Launch Control to record a 7.9-second 1/8th-mile time on the stock 305/30ZR20 Goodyear Supercar tires. Chevrolet promises 11.4-seconds in the quarter mile on stock rubber with the auto. Naturally we're planning a test on not-stock rubber to see what the Zl1 can really do.

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Launch Mode has an automatic setting and a custom setting that lets drivers pick launch RPM in 100rpm increments, and tire slip percentage in 0.5 percent increments from 5 to 15 percent. Because of the 10-speed's steep first gear, launch is selectable between 800 and 2,400rpm while the six-speed's launch rpm is between 1,800 and 4,000rpm.

The ZL1 looks to be Camaro's Jack of all trades, and as far as street going versions, it's the master of the dragstrip and the road course. Starting at $63,435, the ZL1 is a complete package that handles every driving situation we throw at it. The bar has never been higher.

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Standard Recaro sport seats were fitted with racing in mind, allowing room for shifting. Like the Grand Sport Corvette, red seatblets are available to accent the interior.

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The positioning of the end plate of the wing spoiler in relation to the quarter panel was critical. It added significant downforce while only adding .001 to the coefficient of drag.

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Line lock is available in Track mode only, and only when Traction Management is enabled. The driver's door must be closed, the steering wheel must be straight, the parking brake has to be disengaged, and it won't work in reverse.

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Steering is via ZF Servotronic II, which means it's electrically assisted. It works well to communicate the road or track surface to the driver and is tuned specifically for the ZL1's wider tires. The ratio varies with 11:1 on the outside and 15:1 on center to prevent wandering, with 2.25 turns lock-to-lock.

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