Super Chevy First Drive: Camaro ZL1

A full 30-percent of the fifth-gen Camaro was re-engineered to create the ZL1

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The first thing you notice as you leave pit lane is the speed. A heavy right foot has you entering Turn 1 at Virginia International Raceway at 100 mph--and you're not even standing on it yet. Moreover, it feels like you're only doing half that.

Once you familiarize yourself with the track layout and there's some heat in the Goodyear Supercar tires, you start feeding in the power, the brakes, and the steering. The new Camaro ZL1 lets you know immediately that it's a willing dance partner. The faster you go and the more turns you take, the quicker you come to one irrefutable conclusion: This is the best, most sophisticated factory Camaro ever. Nothing else even comes close.

There's never been an F-body so overly hyped before its introduction. We started hearing rumors about it before the fifth-gen was even introduced to the public. Originally said to be called Z28, it supposedly almost got cancelled, then came storming back with a new name: ZL1. Yes, the same nomenclature attached to the mythical aluminum-427-powered beast of 1969. But while that car was designed as a limited production animal to rule on the dragstrip (at a price that could triple the cost of a base V-8 Camaro), the new version is set to take on the Shelby GT500 and Challenger SRT8 in the modern muscle car wars. It won't be cheap, but it's right in line with the aforementioned Brand X competitors, $54,995 (same as a new '13 GT500).

While the original ZL1 was a bare-bones machine that lived only on a diet of expensive race fuel, the new model coddles you with every modern convenience and luxury, with performance that is in the realm of a modern supercar. In bone-stock trim, the original ZL1 ran 13.10/110 in an August '69 High Performance Cars magazine road test. Gulping premium unleaded, the new ZL1 is expected to turn the 1320 in 12.0 with an automatic and 12.1 with a manual, both at 119 mph. Say it again: 119 mph. With drag radials and a good driver, that should make the manual gearbox ZL1 a mid-11-second piece right out of the chute. Once you do the inevitable blower pulley change and computer tune, are 10s out of the question?

A full 30-percent of the fifth-gen Camaro was re-engineered to create the ZL1. Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser's team left no system untouched, from the aerodynamics to the engine, transmission, IRS and interior.

Let's start with the exterior. The goal was to have a high-speed car with lots of stability, even though the designers knew the fifth-gen is not a low-drag shape. Every piece of added bodywork is fully-functional, and the result is now a car that creates 65 pounds of downforce at speed instead of 200 pounds of lift (the standard SS). Dual belly pans were added. They not only improve the aero package, but also direct air to the front brakes and over the drivetrain to keep it cool. The ducting on the carbon-fiber hood is designed to extract heat from the engine compartment and keep air from building up under there. The body has rake to it, tires stick out a little to look more aggressive. Side splitters add to downforce and stability.

Even the ZL1 coupe's unique decklid spoiler contributes to the improvement. (For a variety of reasons, the convertible gets the same decklid spoiler as the SS.) Engineers tested full-scale clay models and full-size prototypes in the General Motors wind tunnel, shaping clay and trimming foam board by hand to affect changes and measure them immediately. They were then proven on racetracks (including the Nurburgring), GM's Milford Road Course and other facilities.

From a looks perspective, the front fascia mimics Bumble Bee from the Transformers movies, while at the same time having functional cooling ducts for the brakes. The upper grille reminds us of the "heritage" grille, but instead of horizontal bars, the new cladding is similar (according to Chevy) to what you'd see on a modern firearm.

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