Mountain Wheels: Supercar ZL1 Camaro makes for over-the-top driving
July 27, 2012
Yellow. Why did it have to be bright yellow? Why did one of the most powerful domestic automobiles ever produced have to come to me in a shade no less embarrassing than a Sasha Baron Cohen movie? What were they thinking?
The horsepower arms race I’ve discussed at length has a new, relatively value-priced victor, and that is the completely insane Chevrolet Camaro ZL1: 580 horsepower of 100 percent North American origin for about $54,000, a quarter of the price you’d pay for that much juice in even an entry-level European exotic.
The ZL1 answers questions I didn’t know we mere mortals were asking, namely, “exactly how much engine can one stick under the hood of a car that, in its most basic form, retails for $23,000? Will that be a good idea?”
ZL1 is indeed batspit crazy, a looming, seemingly nuclear-powered presence that, in Rally Yellow paint, is instantly identifiable to both 6-year-olds and every car guy in a 100-mile radius. It can also probably be seen from space, so good luck avoiding prosecution if you run it hard.
In an absolutely painful and ongoing show of restraint, I ended up driving the ZL1 almost entirely at or below the speed limit for the entire time I had it, my eyes fixed on the helpful speedometer readout projected on the Corvette-derived head-up display.
For ZL1, in that shade, causes officers of the law to crane their necks when you pass, and call their friends. They’ve read Road and Track. They know what the car is capable of doing. They want to see if you are stupid enough to do that in their town.
I didn’t want to be that guy, even though the Camaro will, equipped with its optional six-speed automatic, do 0-60 in 3.9 thunderous seconds, and bang out a quarter mile in 11 seconds. And stop very quickly, on 14-and-a-half-inch Brembo brakes, which necessitate many hours of cleaning the deeply ridged and beautiful wheels. The combat-hardened six-speed manual version, which I drove, gets to 60 in a glacial 4.0 seconds.
I’ve heard it also possesses genuinely European supercar-styled track handling abilities, though a week of rainy nights and the fact that I got the ZL1 after my local track days and its tires were almost completely bald, prevented me from doing anything at all heroic. The multi-modal magnetic ride system did make it both racing-worthy brutal and thoroughly comfortable during regular drives.
Simply working the Camaro in civilian traffic was heroic enough. Start it up and that 6.2-liter supercharged V8 roars like some seriously annoyed Roman god, blurbling and glurbling like the Hamburglar if you goose it and then let off the gas. I had to spend a lot of time at idling speed, sounding like a Cigarette boat in a Miami harbor, in order not to set off car alarms.
Those 20-inch, ZL1-specific Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires are roughly the width of your front door and, suffice to say, the 556 lb.-ft. of torque will allow you to smoke them to their cores with just a slight lift of that apparently 900-pound clutch pedal.
Should you find a safe spot to do it, acceleration is unbelievably intense. You’ll hit the 6,000-something rev limiter in a nanosecond in first gear and reach freeway speed in second; the stats say the standard, off-the-lot car will reach 184 miles per hour with just a bit of resolve, and open road. Did not go there.
With stock car-worthy power comes stock car- worthy efficiency, and the ZL1 averaged about 15 MPG, on premium fuel, unless I took it really, really easy and stayed in sixth gear.
It is way more than a $25,000 engine plopped in a basic automobile, however. The Camaro’s been aerodynamically tweaked from the “there is no way I can ever park this in any parking lot, ever” three-inch-off -the-ground front air splitter to the carbon fiber hood engine scoop to the rear spoiler.
A stronger driveshaft, axles and differential were added to absorb some of the shock of all that power; underneath, a Corvette-derived engine and transmission oil cooler and even a rear differential cooler (plus brake cooling ducts) also make it quite palpably race-worthy, for those blessed with tread.
The supercar comparison deal kind of falls apart on the inside, where Camaro’s deep, plastic-heavy bathtub of a cabin does get, as an option, a suede microfiber Muppet fur interior, plus red stitching and some aluminum pedals.
But Camaro overachievers will be more than happy with that; as a value-to-horsepower-to-testosterone proposition, ZL1 ain’t a bad deal. Bring your attorney with you each time you leave the house, though.