So, you want to read yet another review about the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, but you're not interested in hearing what a cheeky British guy thinks of the build quality or a bunch of out of touch old men think about the interior. Awesome because this is the review for you. Now, before we get to you, let's go over a little bit about me, so that you can get some perspective on this deal. I'm a fourth-gen fan through and through and I've grown up around LSX engines my whole life. They are, without a doubt, the best engine family on the planet. I've been lucky enough to work around fast cars for the majority of my career (oh, I'm 28 by the way) and as such, I have a warped sense of speed. Five hundred and eighty crank horsepower is little kid stuff to the people we hang with, and if you're a regular GMHTP reader, I'm guessing you feel the same way. I suppose you could call me a jaded enthusiast with an intimate knowledge of the brand, a biased loyalty towards the cars of my youth, and a job that allows me to review cars I would otherwise never be able to afford. Lucky me, lucky you. Or something like that.
Anyway, let's get down to business. I was recently offered the chance to spend a couple of days in a brand new 2012 Camaro ZL1 in exchange for photographing it and writing about it. GM sent it to us and paid the insurance on it, while our company paid for my gas and a trip around the state of Florida. This was, for a web exclusive car test, as good as it gets. And since I didn't have to pay for anything, I should have been much more forgiving towards the little things. Alas, I'm a professional hater, which means I can find issues in almost anything that isn't perfect and not even the highly praised ZL1 was immune to my cynical eye. As you will see, we've broken the rest of the review into sections, so… that's that.
Exterior:Let's not mince words here; the ZL1 is a gorgeous machine. One look at this beast and you know it means serious business. The GM design team responsible for the ZL1 clearly did their homework, taking the large stock fifth-gen body and adding just enough functional attitude to take the package to the next level. The redesigned front fascia, for example, is not only menacing but also fully functional. Same with the hood, which uses carbon fiber and physics to extract heat from the engine bay, reduce lift, and drop jaws. I have come to understand that they also make this piece in non-exposed carbon but let's be serious for a second; no one should ever order it that way. Out back, the ZL1 does slightly disappoint, although I am not sure that the problem could be solved without a completely new body. If you like the looks of a base fifth-gen rear, you'll be fine back here, as the new spoiler and exhaust tip arrangement does add a little style to the otherwise bulbous butt. Both wheel designs are awesome but not really worth talking about since you're going to change them out for an aftermarket set anyway.
Interior:The generous application of suede throughout the ZL1's interior pleases me, as does the new style steering wheel, but it's still not enough to make a driver or passenger get really excited. The seats are fine - if you've never sat in a factory Recaro - and the cluster setup is great, but it just needs something else to set everything off. The lack of a touchscreen navigation is disappointing, although it looks like '13 should offer that to drivers looking to match the head unit options of any other car brand since the turn of the century. The ZL1 does have a backseat, I think, but let's be serious; no one besides a new dad trying to sell his wife on the idea of a daily driver ZL1 really cares about that. Let's just say adults may or may not fit back there and I don't really care about their comfort anyway. Oh, and the new font on the gauge cluster is a major plus… that stock fifth-gen style was silly.
Brakes:6-piston Brembo calipers up front with two-piece floating rotors. That's all we need to say about that.
Engine:For the money, the ZL1 offers one of the greatest powerplant configurations on the market. Make no bones about it, the LSA is a work of GM engineering genius and is an engine capable of delivering serious horsepower well above the factory's 580hp rating. Put some additional boost to it, a couple of simple bolt-on parts, and a tune, and you're ready to rock and roll with some serious thrust. If the ZL1 has any part that demands attention, it's the LSA. You just can't say enough about this supercharged 6.2-liter beast. That said, it is curious that you can only get the little 1.9-liter blower. I mean, I get that the Corvette ZR1 needs to make the most power out of the GM lineup, but for almost 60-grand it seems like an upgrade to the 2.3-liter supercharger would be a no-brainer. Oh well, maybe next year. Or, maybe you'll just pull the stocker off and smash a Whipple in its place... that'll make for an awesome dyno graph.
GM rates the ZL1 at 580hp and we've confirmed that it makes that much in chassis dyno testing, but in a 4,000-lb softy, it's just not enough. Sure, it's "fast" by factory standards and it's obviously faster than any fourth-gen was by close to a second, but, come on, we're talking about 12.0s here with someone trying really hard. Okay, so you're thinking that no one really cares about track times, maybe it's all about the street. Well, it's probably better to focus on the 12.0's in that case, since street pulls felt even slower. Traction is great, but that's probably half the reason the ZL is so disappointing in this regard. Are you moving? Great, you can stab the throttle and the ZL1 will start pulling… not very hard and definitely not sideways, but it'll go just enough to scare your grandmother for a couple of seconds. On feel alone - just feel, not the actual acceleration rate - the ZL1 feels similar to a 400-rwhp fourth-gen, which to many of us is just plain old boring at this point. Torque is great, but the car is so heavy that it needs it… you're not getting torque for the sake of melting tires, you're just getting it to merge onto the highway at a fun clip.
Handling:This is a tricky section since the ZL1 is obviously an extremely capable machine in the corners. The Nurburgring lap times (not that anyone actually cares about them) prove it, as do the lap times at VIR, but the problem here is that GM did such a good job engineering the chassis that it's hard to tell the ZL1 is doing anything at all. Even pulling well over 1g running around Homestead, the ZL1 felt like it was on a Sunday drive, just motoring along through the course as if it could be doing double the speed. The Goodyear tires are fantastic and they work with the Magnetic Ride Control in perfect harmony, but it's almost as if everything works together too well. For the money this is without a doubt one of the best handling cars on the market, but you'll have a tough time knowing it if you're not coming from a racecar background. Set the suspension to "Touring" mode and the ZL1 gets even softer, so I used that for about 8-seconds before clicking back over to "Sport."
Price:Starting at 54,000 American dollars, the ZL1 is supposedly a great deal. Of course, I take home about half of that money each year, which means it would take me two years, working full time, and never spending a single dollar ever again to afford one of these bad boys. And to that end, it's certainly not the car for me. But, compared to its competition, the ZL1 stacks up just fine, coming in right around the same price as the (much faster) Ford GT500 and, well, I guess something Mopar makes, but we all know they aren't an actual competitor in this market. If you've got 50-grand to spend, eh, maybe this is a great buy if you're a hardcore fifth-gen Camaro fan, but I would much rather jump into a used C6 Z06 for my cold hard cash. And let's be honest, at $54,000 you could go out and buy two C5 Z06s, one for the track, and one for the street... Not that this is supposed to compete with a Corvette, but you know what I'm saying.
Overall:The 2012 ZL1 the greatest Camaro that I'll never want to own. On paper, and in the real world, the Camaro ZL1 looks like a winner. It has a great engine paired to a fantastic drivetrain, an amazing state-of-the-art suspension system that works flawlessly, and it looks fantastic both inside and out. It's also gigantic, heavy, hard to see out of, and relatively slow. The weight issue is balanced out by the 580hp from the LSA engine, but for a top-of-the-line edition you don't want balance, you want scary speed. And you're not going to get scary speed in the ZL1 unless you modify it extensively, in which case you can kiss that warranty goodbye. With no warranty, you might as well buy a used car, and if you're in that realm, I believe there are plenty of other options for an enthusiast like me (and probably you if you've made it this far into the review). I don't want to sound confusing here, but I am afraid there is no other way to say it. The 2012 ZL1 is an amazing car, and easily the best Camaro (spec wise) that has ever rolled out of a General Motors assembly plant, but it's missing the raw American attitude that I've come to know and love from GM's earlier models.
And I get it, GM thinks they need to appeal to a broader market, to the old man with a BMW 3 Series who reads fluff magazines who pander to the euro market. But the thing is, that guy is never going to buy one of these even if those fluff jobs review it in a real way. It's too fast and capable for him, but too slow and soft for us. And if you're a real down and dirty enthusiast coming from a "crude" fourth-gen with stiff suspension and a big camshaft, I'm not sure that it's going to be the car for you either. Want comfort and style? Check out the Cadillac CTS-V lineup. Want raw performance? Corvette. Want a real Camaro? Well, good luck with that.