Car news

04 June 2012

TG drives the Chevy Camaro ZL1

It's a bit tricky, but once you grab the reins, it's one fast pony...

Pat Devereux
Car image

If you've been waiting for Chevy to deliver a Camaro that delivers the performance its narrow-eyed, chiselled-cheeked styling promises, you can relax now. The 2012 ZL1 is everything you hoped it would be and a whole lot more besides.

Offering more horsepower for fewer bucks than any other car on sale today - under $100 per pony - the new King Camaro has been designed and engineered to not just recapture the muscle-car crown, but to own it. And, on paper, it looks like it's done just that.

A 0-100kph time of just 3.9secs and a top speed of 296kph are figures you'd normally associate with a supercar. As are an ability to pull a full g of lateral grip and punch out a quarter-mile in 12 seconds dead. So, to find them in an off-the-peg muscle car is not just a surprise, but a shock.

Instead of the regular, reedy-voiced V8 from the SS, the ZL1 gets a supercharged version of the 6.2-litre LSA engine that shares its DNA with the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V's engines. Good for 580bhp and 754Nm, it simmers like a bubbling volcano at normal road speeds, the exhaust valves erupting only when you really - and I mean really - push the pedal to the floor.

The bodywork has also been subtly reworked to eke out efficiencies, particularly at high speeds. While a normal Camaro SS, like most production cars, generates lift at speed - to achieve a good mix of economy and performance figures - the ZL1 does the opposite, to increase high-speed stability. So instead of the SS's 90kg of lift at 240kph, the ZL1 produces 30kg of downforce.

You have to look closely to see how the Chevy engineers achieved this feat, as there's no huge rear spoiler to claim the big win - that modest wing does contribute 68kg of the total downforce, though. It was actually achieved by a process of gradual detail refinements in the wind tunnel to the grille, bonnet, wings and even underneath the car to get the overall result.

If that sounds like a lot of trouble to go to for a muscle car, even one as stoked up as the ZL1, just wait until you hear what they've done to the chassis. Instead of just bolting on some racing-brand aftermarket shocks and giving it the ride quality of a road drill, Chevy has fitted the ZL1 with Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) and something called Performance Traction Management (PTM).

MRC is the first-ever application on a sports car of third-generation magnetic active damping - the first in the world was on the Range Rover Evoque. And it provides a similarly sophisticated feeling to the ZL1, being cushy when you want to cruise and firming up when you want to party. It's expensive stuff, this, more often found on Ferraris rather than muscle cars. But it shows you how serious Chevy's intent is.

Particularly when it's integrated into PTM, which first broke cover on the range-topping ZR1 Corvette. This five-mode box of tricks manages not just ride quality but also launch control, traction control, power steering response and stability control.

So, in theory, the ZL1 has got it all: budget price, tonnes of power, warp speed, clever suspension and idiot-proof performance control. Which should make it the well-mannered hooligan car we've always wanted. But where it starts to come apart is with the weight. Despite miracles performed by the development team, there's no hiding that the ZL1 bends the scales to the tune of well over 1,870kg.

It's not a problem in a straight line, but show that number to a corner, throw in some lifeless steering, and you aren't going to be able to hide it. Particularly when that engine is pawing the track through those two fat rear tyres. Especially when it's wet. Which it was.

Even with the PTM on its most modest mode, the ZL1 cuts the power when it senses a loss of grip, then gives it back to you, all 580bhp of it, in the flicker of an eye. Which is almost worse than not having it at all. If you were on it, you could catch it, but if you weren't, you would crash. As was conveniently demonstrated by a member of the US press. In a straight line, in second gear.

Which might sound like I didn't like the ZL1, but I did. A lot. Just because it's a bit tricky to drive in the wet isn't a fault - it's what you should expect from a muscle car, any muscle car, especially one with nearly 600bhp. It's definitely the fastest Pony car you can buy today. So it should be celebrated and congratulated for the extraordinary bargain it is.

Just don't mention the 2013 Shelby GT500, that's all.

Pat Devereux

The numbers
6162cc, 8cyl, RWD, 580bhp, 754Nm, 6.8kpl, n/a CO2, 0-100kph 3.9secs, 296kph, 1873kg

The verdict
Fifth-generation Camaro finally delivers the power and performance its looks have been promising since its launch in 2009. Happy to spin its tyres - or the whole car - all day long.

Tags: camaro, chevrolet, camaro zl1



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