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Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 gives more performance per dollar

The ZL1 may be swaying Jim Kenzie from his long-standing allegiance to the Mustang.

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    • WHAT’S BEST: Stomping acceleration; outstanding ride/handling balance for such a powerful car; factory warranty remains valid even if you use the car on a track.
    • WHAT’S WORST: Interior design and trim level don’t match the standards set by the rest of the car; auxiliary gauge package too low on the centre console to be of any value; a shame it still has to be so heavy.
    • WHAT’S INTERESTING: ZL1 designation dates back to the engine code of a race-prepared all-aluminum engine that was offered in exactly 69 1969 Camaros. Now collectors’ items, these were the fastest Camaros ever produced, until now.

ALTON, VA.—Lap times around the North Loop of Germany’s Nurburgring race course have become a touchstone for marketing/PR/bragging-rights in recent years.

Chevrolet’s Corvette ZR1 and Nissan’s GT-R seem to be fighting it out for “fastest production car” time, lapping the loop in somewhere under 7 minutes 20 seconds.

But if there was some sort of “performance index” of lap time per dollar of purchase price, I think I have the winner: Camaro ZL1.

In the hands of GM engineer Aaron Link — an excellent driver, if not a professional racer — it turned a 7:41. That’s pretty impressive for a car that lists at $58,000.

And it’s built in Canada.

Performance cars costing two to three times as much, with storied names in racing, can’t match this time.

ZL1’s performance begins — as it does for all performance cars — with the engine. A slightly detuned version of the 6.2 litre supercharged V8 found in that Corvette ZR1 (and essentially shared with the Cadillac CTS-V) produces 580 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and a peak of 556 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4,200 r.p.m.

It is mated to either a Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual with dual-mass flywheel, twin-plate clutch and new short-throw shift actuator, or a Hydra-Matic 6L90 six-speed automatic.

GM expects buyers to be split about 50/50 on transmission choice. There’s no need to apologize for the slushbox, either: Chevy’s quoted acceleration and top speed numbers are actually a tad quicker with the automatic than with the manual.

ZL1 is available initially as a 2012 model year coupe; a convertible joins the fray this summer as a 2013.

It is important to note that the ZL1 is not just a Camaro with a big ol’ monster V8 stuffed under the hood — this was a fairly serious remaking of the car.

Tom Peters, chief designer on the project, noted that it was a rare case where design and engineering teams worked together toward the common goal of better performance.

“Every detail, even the radius of the curves in the grille slats, was optimized to not only look right, but to perform right,” said Peters. “To feed all the air that a performance engine needs, we had to make sure we didn’t compromise that air flow.”

A key component is the hood “scoop”, which is a carbon fibre insert designed to allow under-hood air to escape, thereby improving the air’s throughput and also reducing front-end lift.

This piece is painted in standard spec, but for a few hundred bucks more, it can be left in standard carbon fibre form.

Why more money if there’s no paint? Because the clearcoat used to protect the finish is much more expensive than paint.

You really do want to spend the extra bucks. It looks terrific and it’s one of the very few options you can get on this car.

The ZL1 is also one of the rare production cars that actually generates downforce at speed. A myriad of modifications, which include a race-car-style front splitter, front tire air deflectors, two belly pans for reduced underfloor turbulence, subtly redesigned rocker panels and a new rear deck spoiler, means the car “weighs” some 30 kg more heading into a corner at high speeds (compared to about 90 kg of lift in the Camaro SS), which helps it stick to the pavement.

So do the Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar Generation 2 tires (285/35ZR20 front, 305/35ZR20 rear), designed specifically for this car. They are mounted on your choice of two lightweight 20-inch aluminum rim designs.

A trap that a lot of car makers (and GM has often been among them) fall into when designing a performance car, particularly when it has been tuned for, or on, a race track, is to make the suspension ultra-stiff to improve performance to the point where it beats you to death while you’re driving to the track.

ZL1 avoids this issue by adopting Magnetic Ride Control suspension. The dampers contain “magneto-rheological” fluid.

It contains metallic particles, and when a magnetic field is applied around the damper, these particles line up in such a way that the viscosity of the fluid increases, in mere fractions of a millisecond. Thus, the damper stiffness can likewise be changed, electronically-fast.

Sensors in the car measure road speed, vertical suspension travel, steering input, yaw (the degree the car is actually turning) and a bunch of other factors, and the damper stiffness can be changed as required to provide both a supple ride and flat, stable cornering.

The driver can also choose between “Tour” and “Sport” programs, with firmer settings in the latter. First introduced in Corvette and various Cadillac models, it is now also used by Ferrari. If you are judged by the company you keep. . .

McLaren claims the suspension system on its new-to-us MP4-12C sports car is more sophisticated than Magnetic Ride, and maybe it is. But this one — actually, the Generation Three edition, which reacts even quicker than before — is awfully good.

The McLaren costs more than four times as much as the ZL1. I rest my case.

Another area where Camaro exceeds expectations is steering. Electrically-assisted power steering in many applications has been rightly criticized for lack of feel, or at least an unnatural feel, for not building steering resistance in a linear fashion as cornering force increases, which gives the driver a much better idea of what’s going on at the rubber-pavement interface.

The Camaro’s ZL1 largely avoids this problem. In fact, the Camaro’s steering actually felt better than the big brother Corvette’s, which has always felt too light, too numb, too video-gamey for me.

I was not alone in this belief, although the General Motors test drivers who agreed with me asked not to have their names mentioned because they do like their jobs and would like to keep them.

Braking is taken care of by big six-piston discs up front, four-piston at the rear, developed in conjunction with Italian race brake maker Brembo.

Inside, ZL1 gets the high-end 2SS trim level, plus a unique steering wheel, alloy pedals, micro-fibre suede inserts in the seats and on the dash, and ZL1 logos on the front seat headrests and door sills.

A revised Head-Up Display includes various performance data displays. It’s difficult enough to read this when you’re thrashing around a race track, but a hell of a lot easier than the ‘four-pack’ of auxiliary gauges, including a supercharger boost gauge, way down on the transmission tunnel. Those are pretty much pointless.

The full range of Camaro exterior colours is available on ZL1; the interior can be any colour you want as long as it’s black.

I had the opportunity to drive the ZL1 both on the twisty roads of rural Virginia and North Carolina, and on the equally twisty and challenging Virginia International Raceway, one of the favourite tracks of just about everybody who’s ever driven there.

And the car really delivers.

On the road, it is point-and-shoot quick, the engine delivering building-shoving, pavement-shredding torque on demand. Yet while cruising, it is pleasantly tractable, accepting large throttle openings in too-tall gears with little protest.

Despite the performance potential, ride quality is remarkable. The seats hold the body well, but don’t demand ungainly entrances or exits.

I focused on the Tremec six-speed manual, although I did a few track laps in the Automatic too. The throws on the manual seem shorter and crisper than I remember from the last Corvette I drove — maybe the Corvette team has to up its game a little.

I’ve never liked the “new” Camaro’s dashboard, though. I find it way too busy, and most of the bits look like they are made of cheap plastic. Mainly because they are.

The ZL1 does dress things up a bit, but it isn’t the car’s strong point.

On the track, I was asked to start with the Electronic Stability Control system (dubbed Performance Traction Management, or PTM) in the third of five modes, labelled “Sport”. This dials back the interventions of the various chassis control systems.

Then as I grew more comfortable, subsequent pushes on the “Sport +” button give you “Competition” mode, or even “Good Luck buddy — you’re on your own”. The fact that an American journalist had toasted one of the test cars in the previous day’s rainstorm damped my enthusiasm for hang-the-tail-out shenanigans.

(Ok, so call me a coward, but I’m a live coward, and if I had toasted a second car somebody probably would have killed me. . . )

The objective wasn’t to set the fastest lap but to see how well the car behaves when you push it harder than you ever should on public roads.

And under any exigencies I dared explore, the ZL1 is a very nicely composed and integrated track car.

Despite its 1,900 kg weight, and with a preponderance of that over the front wheels, understeer (plowing into a bend) is virtually undetectable. The car simply grips, and turns in.

With this kind of power, you obviously could drift this thing sideways until Kingdom Come if somebody wasn’t controlling your right foot. PTM does it almost seamlessly and turns you into a better driver than you are.

The ZL1 is a genuine track car, with two major advantages over most others: It is genuinely comfortable getting there and coming back home again; and assuming you don’t make any modifications to the car, the warranty is still good! I don’t know of any car that maintains its warranty if you run it on a track, but this is a measure of GM’s confidence in this vehicle.

Quite justifiably, Chevrolet makes a big deal out of the fact that it makes both the best-selling ‘luxury sports car’ — the Corvette — and the best-selling mid-priced sporty car too, in the Camaro.

Although honestly, at least until now, I have never quite understood the “new” Camaro’s success. I figured that once the pent-up demand had been satisfied — the Camaro had been out of production since before Lindsay Lohan went into rehab — Ford’s Mustang would resume the top step on that podium, which it had occupied since before dirt was invented.

Apparently not, because still as of last year, Camaro handily outsells both its Ford and Dodge (Challenger) um, challengers.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time in Mustangs than Camaros recently, but I have generally preferred the Ford.

My opinion is being swayed, though. Absolute power can do that to you. Just ask Vladimir Putin.

I’d love to get a Camaro ZL1, a Challenger SRT-8, and maybe both the Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca and newly-revised Boss 500 variants out to Mosport to play for a day. Or five.

What say, all three of you? Up for a winner-take-all competition?

Travel was provided to freelance reviewer Jim Kenzie by the auto maker. [email protected]

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

PRICE: $58,000

ENGINE: 6.2 litre V8

POWER: 580 hp, 556 lbs.-ft.


manual 14.9 City / 10.5 Hwy.;

automatic 17.7 City /10.7 Hwy.

COMPETITION: Dodge Challenger SRT-8, Ford Mustang Boss 302/Laguna Seca, Ford Shelby GT500

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