LS9 Install - The Big Swap

Everything you wanted to know about uploading the LS9 into a Gen-5 Camaro, but didn’t know to ask.

Barry Kluczyk Dec 15, 2011 0 Comment(s)
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So, you want to swap your Camaro's LS3 for the Corvette ZR1's LS9 engine, huh? We don't blame you. With just about 640 horsepower on tap, the LS9 is a factory-engineered monster that delivers nearly 100 horsepower more than the typical bolt-on supercharger kit or the expected output of the forthcoming LSA-powered Camaro ZL1. We'll be completely honest: There are less expensive ways to make similar or more power in your Gen 5 Camaro. But there is the "it" factor of the LS9. It has an exotic aura and star quality that, frankly, an aftermarket supercharger kit simply doesn't--ike the difference between Cameron Diaz headlining a movie and an anonymous actress who played a bit part on Law and Order.

If it's the star power you want over lower cost and potentially greater horsepower, there are a number of things you need to know before plunging into the swap project:

1. The engine bolts into the engine compartment and hooks to the TR6060 six-speed manual without a problem. It doesn't work with an automatic-equipped car without a stand-alone control system, which could be more trouble than it's worth.

2. There are a myriad of details required to hook up the engine, from rerouting the fuel line to adding the intercooling system and more.

3. Tuning is a big issue. The factory E38 controller wasn't designed to accommodate the LS9's supercharger and intercooling system. Thomson's project uses an E67 controller for the engine, the same as the Corvette ZR1.

4. Careful fuel system, oiling system and intercooler decisions will have to be made, each of them requiring varying degrees of fabrication.

5. It ain't cheap. A stock LS9 purchased, installed and tuned, as described in this story, could cost more than $35,000.

We recently followed an LS9 swap into a new Camaro SS convertible, which was performed by the LS gurus at Thomson Automotive near Detroit. The finished product looks, runs and drives like a factory-engineered model, but it wasn't easy. Because there's no room under the hood for the LS9's dry-sump oil reservoir tank--and it was deemed less desirable to mount the tank in the trunk--the engine was converted to wet-sump lubrication, which meant the car's original LS3 oil pan had to be cut and modified with a custom insert that matched the contour and mounting pattern of the LS9's front cover. The move to wet-sump oiling also necessitated an oil pump change to the LSA's (the Cadillac CTS-V's supercharged engine) high-volume pump, which is a wet-sump pump--but to use it with the stock LS9 crankshaft and front cover, a custom spacer was created for the crank snout. It should be noted, however, that the dry sump pan fits the Camaro chassis with plenty of clearance and there's even sufficient room to route the oil lines that run into the side of the oil pan. It's the oil reservoir tank that's the issue--specifically the lack of room for it under the hood. The move to wet-sump lubrication also meant the block had to be drilled for a dipstick, which the LS9 doesn't have.

When it came to the fuel system, the dual-pump unit used with the LSA was dropped into the stock fuel tank. It fit just fine, but requires updated wiring and a complementing fuel pump controller to replace the stock one. Along with all that, 64-lb/hr fuel injectors are required, because the LSA operates at a lower fuel pressure than the LS9. Of course, using the LS9 fuel pump would solve that problem, but it's too tall for the Camaro's fuel tank and, from your friendly neighborhood dealership parts department, it'll cost nearly $3,000. The LSA in-tank pump could be ditched in favor of a separate, external fuel system, but that will be noisier and take up trunk space. Besides that, Thomson was looking to make their project as OE-appearing as possible.

The oiling and fuel system challenges were comparatively easy next to the tuning issue. Although the plethora of aftermarket supercharger kits have demonstrated that it's possible to make a blower run very well with the Camaro's stock E38 controller, they do it with the stock engine and wiring harness. The LS9 is a whole other animal, with its own unique sensors--including multiple MAP sensors--and harness requirements, which the E38 just isn't equipped for. The E67--especially the ZR1's E67--does the trick, but it is not a simple "plug and play" operation. Thomson built the necessary harness for the engine and worked long and hard on the tuning, noting the development work on his shop's project car will make future swaps into customer cars quicker and easier--but advises first-timers and novice tuners probably should not attempt the job. It could cost more time and money in the long run if professional help is required later.

And let's touch on that issue of cost again. As noted above, this isn't a budget bolt-on affair. An LS9 crate engine from GM Performance Parts (PN 19201990) can be had from dealers such as Scoggin Dickey Parts Center for about $21,000, which is exactly where the engine for this project came from. And while you're on the phone, you'll need to hit them up for the front-end accessories, brackets, etc. It's a kit that'll cost another $1,800. The LSA fuel pump, wiring and controller costs about $1,000 and you'll need to set aside another thousand dollars or so for the intercooler heat exchanger, coolant pump and a variety of other lines, hoses and miscellaneous parts--and then there's the cost of the tuning. Thomson says the approximately $35,0000 tab for the project breaks down into two parts--about $25,000 in parts (including the engine) and about another $10,000 in the installation and tuning.

"Obviously, the bulk of the cost is in the parts--they're expensive and there's no getting around that," he says. "The installation itself is pretty straightforward, but there's also a lot of time in the wiring. It has taken us a long time to figure it all out."

The other X-factor for this project is the at-the-wheel horsepower. The LS9 uses the same four-into-one-type exhaust manifolds as the Corvette Z06's LS7 engine and their flow is awesome. Unfortunately, those manifolds don't work with the Camaro's chassis, leaving the installer to use aftermarket headers or bolt up the standard LS3 manifolds. For the sake of keeping the car as factory-appearing as possible and retaining emissions compliance, Thomson re-used the stock manifolds and converters and estimated the horsepower at around 625 (a chassis dyno test is scheduled, but didn't take place before our story deadline).

Upon the project's completion, we took Thomson's Camaro for a drive and were immediately impressed by production-style characteristics. There were no hiccups, flat spots or issues with starting, idling or acceleration--it performed as if the car were originally built with the engine. The visceral performance was equally impressive, but with the convertible's curb weight already well beyond the 4,000-pound mark and the LS9's supercharger and related equipment adding nearly 100 pounds more to the tally, the heft of the car was impossible to ignore. Bigger brakes to complement the LS9 swap should definitely be considered.

It would be easy to fill an instruction manual with all the procedures, tips and tricks required to swap the LS9 into a new Camaro, but we simply don't have the room for that. Instead, the accompanying photos provide an overview of the tasks required to perform the job. And like we mentioned at the beginning of the story, this is not the project to pursue if you're looking for the cheapest way to more than 600 horsepower in your Gen 5. But if it's the magical aura that surrounds the LS9 that attracts you, it's a swap that's absolutely do-able with patience and money. Just be sure to bring plenty of both!

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