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.

The engine, as you've no doubt heard, is the 6.2L LSA from the Cadillac CTS-V series, but with forged connecting rods, an improved induction system that flows 30-percent more air and new stainless steel exhaust manifolds. The supercharger and intercooler efficiency is also vastly improved, with the intercooler brick optimized for better flow and improved cooling flow and heat transfer. Anyone who has ever driven a blown car on a road course knows it will typically slow down lap after lap and the engine and supercharger get heat soaked. This should help alleviate that situation, with the upside being improved street performance as well. A dual-mode 2.5-inch exhaust à la Corvette is standard equipment. That means it's quiet around town and has an aggressive bark when you hammer it. (Yank the fuse; it'll be like having straight pipes.)

The end result is 580 hp at 6,000 rpm (an improvement of 24 peak over the CTS-V) and 556 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Torque junkies will be happy to know it cranks out over 500 lb-ft from 2,700-6,000 rpm. This makes the portly ZL1 feel hundreds of pounds lighter than it actually is.

Unlike those shopping supercharged Blue Oval products, the ZL1 customer gets his choice of a beefed-up Tremec 6060 manual six-speed gearbox or a 6L90 Hydra-Matic with Tap-Shift function. The 6060 was upgraded with a stronger output shaft, an additional mainshaft roller bearing, a GM-designed short-throw shifter and a refined synchronizer design. All told, it's 30-percent stronger than the similar unit used in the SS. It's mated to a dual-mass flywheel and twin-disc clutch that is wonderfully light in traffic, but robust when it comes to taking abuse.

As for the automatic, it's an impressive piece of hardware. We did a story on the improved Tap-Shift function at superchevy.com (http://www.superchevy.com/features/camaro/sucp_120223_2012_camaro_zl1/index.html), but the long and short is this: This is a three-mode trans. There's what's called "Drive Mode" for everyday ferrying. The trans starts in second gear and behaves like any other slushbox. There's the "Sport Mode," which starts in first gear and holds the trans in gear longer for higher-rpm upshifts. Also, the shift algorithms are more aggressive. The "Tap-Shift" mode is more like a full manual than before. There are no automatic upshifts, even at the redline/rpm limit and the shifts are quicker than those in the SS.

On the track and on the street, both gearboxes worked well. We'd still like to see the gear-changes come quicker and harder in Tap Shift mode, but the fact that Chevy is claiming the automatic ZL1 is actually a tenth quicker in the quarter-mile than the stick makes it awfully tempting. On the other hand, the manual would still be our choice for open track days. It upshifts/downshifts like a dream and felt faster at VIR, though this needs to be borne out through instrumented testing.

Putting The Power Down

It would have been a lot easier for Chevy to just add 154 hp to the Camaro and call it a day, but it could have ended up with an unbalanced beast that would have a propensity for grenading its independent rear suspension. To help the IRS' capability for strip use, the ring gear is beefier than the one used in the SS. The half-shafts in the rear are a different stiffness and diameter to help manage axle hop. This is similar to what is used in the Corvette ZO6. Finally, there's a seven-plate clutch pack in the differential. At the strip and stoplight, the clutch pack helps dissipate energy to put the power down. There's also a diff cooler that knocks fluid temps down 100 degrees F.

To ensure the handling was up to the same level as the horsepower, engineers added Performance Traction Management, Magnetic Ride Control 3.0 and Launch Control for manual transmission versions. Magnetic ride employs valve-less damping and Magneto-Rheological fluid technology to vary the suspension firmness to match the road and driving conditions, according to Chevrolet.

Unlike the modified tuner Camaros we've driven, the ZL1 has two things going for it they can't offer: a 100,000-mile powertrain warrant and factory civility. Yes, there are faster Camaros out there, maybe some with more ultimate grip, but we've yet to sample one that was so sophisticated and enjoyable to drive. We can't wait to put it through our battery of instrumented tests. c

Both the Corvette and Cadillac CTS-V have used MR technology in the past, but this is the first application for the Camaro and we like it plenty. At VIR, you could drive over the rumble strips at speed and not upset the car in the least. Even purposely driving over our heads did not make the thing behave poorly.

"Traditional suspension systems at some point compromise ride quality for road-holding grip and body control, said Oppenheiser. "With Magnetic Ride Control, we can offer customers the best of both worlds: A comfortable ride that makes the ZL1 appropriate as a daily driver and the incredibly precise body control that makes the ZL1 so enjoyable on the track."

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Rack-mounted electric power steering and variable assist ratio help with stability, speed and lower the effort when parking/low speeds. Vastly improved over the 2010-11 SS models, the ZL1 steering feel is firm when it needs to be, and offers improved feedback and road feel. Rolling stock consists of forged aluminum wheels (20x10, front; 20x11, rear) and sticky Goodyear F1 Supercar tires (285/35ZR20, f; 305/35ZR20, r).

Braking (naturally) was upgraded. Huge 14.6-inch/two-piece Brembo rotors with six-piston calipers replace the 14-inch front rotors on the SS, The rear rotors are the same 14.4-inch/one-piece rotors with four piston calipers from the SS. Thanks in part to the brake cooling ducts, these stoppers hang in there forever. The rotors are said to have survived 24 continuous hours of track use and thanks to their aluminum hub, the fronts are no heavier than the smaller, standard SS counterparts.

But How Does It Drive?

We'd hoped to be able to deliver a balls-to-the-wall Super Chevy banzai strip test this month, but no ZL1s were being released after our test session at VIR until an unspecified problem with the model was worked out. This hiccup delayed delivery of the cars to customers and magazine editors alike. As this issue went to press, ZL1s were finally flowing to eager buyers; hopefully, our test vehicle will be here soon.

What we can tell you from our time on the street and on the road course is that Chevy has developed one heck of a dual-purpose machine. The power, as you'd expect, is delightfully demented. It rockets out of the hole and never stops pulling. Thanks to the suspension tweaks, it has a lot more poise than anything this heavy has the right to. Despite the extra 100-plus pounds on the nose, the ZL1 is more neutral and controllable than the SS. It doesn't fight you at all. The brakes never quit--heck, they don't even take a coffee break.

Virginia International is a demanding track and we pushed the ZL1 to our limits, but certainly not the car's. With each passing lap, we could explore its capabilities further. You could drive it hard and it rewarded you. The tail never stepped out unexpectedly and there was a ton of grip up front. Experienced drivers will love the way you can make it drift. Throw it around a corner and you can easily catch it. It was completely at home around VIR's NASCAR Bend and Left Hook, allowing you to go and stay flat-out for a long time after that.

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Given a chance to stretch its legs, we saw some big, big speed, like 128 in the back straight before reaching the Chevy-installed chicane way before the Roller Coaster. In total, we found the ZL1 an unflappable companion (though we hear three journalists found ways to flap it into the weeds before and after we had our chance).

The ZL1 proved itself a competent track car, but it also surprised on the street, with a compliant suspension and comfortable interior (the optional suede upgrade would be a must on our list). Even the shift knob in the stick model is new and vastly improved over the gourd-shaped unit in the SS. Yes, it's got blind spots. Get over it or buy the convertible ZL1, which will be available in 2013.

Unlike the modified tuner Camaros we've driven, the ZL1 has two things going for it they can't offer: a 100,000-mile powertrain warrant and factory civility. Yes, there are faster Camaros out there, maybe some with more ultimate grip, but we've yet to sample one that was so sophisticated and enjoyable to drive. We can't wait to put it through out battery of instrumented tests.

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

EnginesLSA 6.2L Supercharged V-8
Displacement(cu in/ cc):376/6162
Bore & stroke(in /mm):4.06 / 103.25 x 3.62 /92 mm
Block material:cast aluminum
Cylinder head material:cast aluminum
Valvetrain:overhead valve, two valves per cylinder
Fuel delivery:1.9L supercharger with intercooler; sequential fuel injection
Compression ratio:9.1:1
Horsepower580 / 410 @ 6,100
Torque556 / 745 @ 3,800
Recommended fuel:premium required
Maximum engine speed (rpm):6,200

TransmissionTremec TR6060 six-speed manualHydra-Matic six-speed automatic
Gear ratios
First:2.664.03
Second:1.782.36
Third:1.301.53
Fourth:1.001.15
Fifth:0.800.85
Sixth:0.630.67
Reverse:2.903.06
Final drive ratio:3.733.23

Chassis / Suspension
Front:double-ball-joint, multi-link strut; direct-acting stabilizer bar; progressive-rate coil springs; with Magnetic Ride Control
Rear:4.5-link independent; progressive-rate coil springs over shocks; stabilizer bar; with Magnetic Ride Control
Steering type:electric power steering with variable-ratio, variable-effort rackand-pinion
Steering ratio:16.1:1
Steering wheel turns, lock-to-lock:2.5
Turning circle, curbto-curb(ft / m):37.7/11.5

Brakes
Type:four-wheel disc w/ ABS; ventilated two-piece front and one-piece rear rotors; six-piston fixed Brembo aluminum front and four-piston rear calipers
Rotor diameter, front(in / mm):14.6 / 370
Rotor diameter, rear(in / mm):14.4 / 365
Rotor thickness, front(in / mm):1.26 / 32
Rotor thickness, rear(in / mm):1.1 / 28

Wheels / Tires
Wheel size and type:20x10-inch aluminum(front)20x11-inch aluminum(rear)
Tires:P285/35ZR20 summer(front) P305/35ZR20summer(rear)

Dimensions / Exterior
Wheelbase (in /mm):112.3 / 2852
Overall length (in /mm):190.4 / 4836
Overall width (in /mm):75.5 / 1918
Overall height (in /mm):54.2 / 1376
Track, front (in /mm):63.7 / 1618
Track, rear (in / mm):63.7 / 1618
Curb weight (lb / kg): TBD
Weight balance (%front / rear):TBD
Coefficient of drag:TBD

Interior
Seating capacity(front / rear):2 / 2
Headroom (in / mm):front: 37.4 / 950 rear: 35.3 / 897
Legroom (in / mm):front: 42.4 / 1077 rear: 29.9 / 757
Shoulder room (in/ mm):front: 56.9/1444 rear: 42.5 / 1080

Capacities
Cargo volume (cu ft / L):11.3 / 320
Fuel tank (gal / L):19 / 71.9
Engine oil (qt / L):8.9 / 8.5

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