2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 second drive
The undisputed performance per dollar champion
Virginia International Raceway, Va. — The most powerful production car to come off the line in Canada. A wide-angle chasm between its high performance and price. Exotic car-shaming thrust. An unexpectedly sophisticated suspension. Yes, there's a lot to like about the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
Sure, it's a caveman-like performance brute, a heavy throwback to the era when big cars and even bigger engines ruled North American roadways. Back then, there was little regard for fuel economy, or any rival automaker not based in or around Detroit. But the ZL1 is not just GM dropping the bigger supercharged engine of Cadillac's CTS-V series of cars into the Camaro, adding a bigger bulge under the pants, er, hood, and then letting loose a new top dog in the Camaro food chain.
No, it's fairly obvious that GM sweated the details with this car. And it shows in a variety of ways.
Well-integrated design upgrades, perhaps too subtle for some
Photo: Michael Bettencourt
It starts with the exterior design, where design director Tom Peters said the design inspiration was to create a visual "track weapon," but they didn't want to just drop parts on the body to make it looks aggressive or to achieve a certain performance goal.
"We originally looked at a larger hood scoop, but we tossed it because it didn't add to the performance," said Peters. "We spent a huge number of hours in the wind tunnel, and we did not compromise one millimeter on this car."
The main visual differences of the ZL1 are the more prominent carbon-fibre "Mohawk" hood, protruding front splitter lower lip, available black wheels, larger rear spoiler and rear diffuser around the dual quad exhaust tips. This heat-releasing Mohawk is carbon-fibre in all ZL1s, but you'll have to pay more to see the exposed weave C-F, or if you'd like, the traditional muscle car stripes.
A few different varieties of ZL1 were parked in the garages of the Virginia International Raceway, and what struck me most was how the convertible version that's set to arrive this summer looks very much like they lowered the stock SS droptop. This was likely a base ZL1, with lighter 20-inch aluminum rims similar to the SS's five-spoke motif, but hiding larger 285/35ZR20s rollers in front, and massive 305/35ZR20s out back.
And those rears can be quickly transformed into an enveloping wall of smoke screen by the equally intimidating supercharged V8, as we saw at the track more than once.
Engine an old-school powerhouse, with new-world tricks
Stepping into the car at VIR, the first turn of the key brings a barking "RAWR" from the momentarily open exhaust, before the valved exhaust system closes up for a more muffled and refined idle, or until one punches the throttle to wide open. The 6.2-litre supercharged V8 engine has been massaged for an extra 29 hp over the same engine in the CTS-V, thanks to NACA ducts and the extra air flow of that big-nostriled hood, although the torque stays at the V's plenty stout 556 lb.-ft.
The standard six-speed manual transmission comes with a launch control system, and GM makes a point to emphasize that it built the system — and the entire ZL1, for that matter — to endure the mechanical pounding of the racetrack. Nail the throttle to the floor with the clutch in, and the system holds the revs until the driver releases the clutch pedal. The system then adjusts engine torque up to 1,000 times per second to maximize forward thrust and minimize rubber-burning wheelspin.
The system can be shut off totally, for when one wants to let out one's inner tire-shredding Neanderthal.
A six-speed automatic is also available, unlike on its nemesis, the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. Ford's most powerful performance machine currently makes 550 hp, and starts about two grand above the ZL1's base price of $58,000. All good news for Camaro fans, who will be able to order their ZL1 Coupes this spring, or the 2013 droptop this summer.