With Great Power Comes Great Times
November 12th, 2012
By: Alex Villani
Pics: Alex Villani/Adam Bean
Power. From the carbon fiber heat extractor, to the blacked out forged wheels, all the way to the throaty quad-tipped exhaust, the stuff oozes from every inch of this car. There is no doubt that the week with this car will be filled with bright smiles, giddy laughter, and wide open eyes. The ZL1's power is in the upper echelon of the performance car world, with only a select group of exotic cars that sit above it. But it will take more than horsepower to prove that the ZL1 can play with some of the world's finest performance machines. It means taking the rough edged Camaro through a bit of a finishing school before it can start making any claims. Better yet, how does this monster muscle car behave in day-to-day driving? We aim to find out.
After sampling the sweet, wonderful power of Chevy’s most powerful Camaro only a few months ago in Virginia, we could not wait to get our hands on one for a week. While tooling around a track for a few hours can tell you a lot about the level of attention engineers paid to making the Camaro ZL1 a potent machine; even a vehicle like the ZL1 is best evaluated on the open road. Oh, and it is a hell of a lot more fun to boot.
Come on, how could we not give this beautiful beast a solid 10? Chevrolet figured out how to make the already mean and aggressive Camaro even more so, without adding ridiculous amounts of body cladding, aircraft wings, vents or other “all show and no go” parts. In fact, the ZL1 has just the right amount of changes to help you visually distinguish it from its lesser siblings. Starting up front, the face is a bit bigger, with a larger lower grille area and functional lip splitter to help add down force. The grille pattern has changed as well with a simple ZL1 badge on the driver’s side. Below each halo-ringed headlight is a pair of driving lights housed in a trapezoidal cut out; homage to the ZL1’s Australian brothers in arms from HSV perhaps?
Surprisingly, Chevrolet did not massage the fenders to accept the much larger rubber, both fore and aft, but they did help smooth the air flow over the big meaty rubber by extending the inner fender lining just enough that it protrudes ever so slightly. Those big tires are mounted to 20-inch wheels, but they are not the same units found on the SS model. No sir, these are lighter forged units, and come in either a standard powder coated black 10-spoke design, or optional polished five-spoke units. Our tester has the standard blacked out units, a theme that Chevrolet is carrying on to all of their performance nameplates.
Hiding behind the black wheels are supersized brakes: six piston calipers clamping a two-piece 14.6-inch rotor up front, while the rear gets a larger four piston caliper and 14.4-inch rotor. Making our way to the back of this monster, we are greeted with a larger deck lid spoiler housing an integrated third brake light and altered rear diffuser flanked by five-inch quad cannons, two on each side. Signs of restrain and attention paid to how it works more than how it looks pays off big here by adding space for the larger exhaust.
The whole car was wrapped in a brilliant Rally Yellow paint job and accented with the optional carbon fiber insert that helps draw attention to the heat extractor built into the hood. There is that attention to functional detail again, adding the exotic material to the car without going over the top. Everything had a once over, making sure it would help the performance of the car, but it also helped accentuate the Camaro’s already fantastic design.
Let's not kid ourselves here. Despite the upgraded interior for the 2012 model year, and the ZL1’s optional micro faux suede accents, the interior is still a let down, at least visually. Let us start with the bad stuff, shall we? Okay, first off is that there is still an extensive amount of hard touch plastics just about everywhere you place your hand. The door panels, the center stack, the center console and the flat vinyl covered armrest still lacks padding for your arm to rest.
And while it looks cool in the brochure, the black acrylic inserts in the doors should have been left in the concept, or at least shrunken down so that it did not take up so much space on the doors. The only part that really looked like an afterthought was the ZL1’s new instrument panel.
The 2012 update fixed some complaints that Camaro owners had about the speedometer numbering looking bunched up, and even changed the needle design, but when it came to updating the speedo for the ZL1’s near-200 mph top speed, it looks as if they just jammed them all in the lower right corner. It looks like an afterthought, almost as if they forgot that the car could now achieve this new top speed, at the last moment, stenciled a bunch of new numbers on the stock face and called it a day.
The good parts? The seats are a perfect fit for just about everyone without being too flat or too hard; offering you the support you need to stay planted in your seat. Would optional Recaros have been nice to see as an upgrade? There is no doubt that there should at least be an offering, even just for the marketing aspect. Still, the ZL1 seats feature nice micro suede surfaces complete with red stitching, and that micro suede stuff finds its way wrapped around some other places where your hands tend to be when driving.
The biggest upgrade to the Camaro’s interior was the nicer feeling shifter knob, which is also wrapped in the soft material. While parts of the dash are also covered in the material, only the doors get the aqua-blue accent lighting. I also really love heads-up display. I do not know if it is the wannabe fighter pilot in me but the ability of seeing vehicle and engine speed projected out in front of me while driving is fantastic. This technology has to go down as one of the best drivers aids ever implemented since the advent of the fixed windscreen.
This leaves just one interior component that is essentially a draw: the steering wheel. I had a lot of qualms about the Camaro’s interior when the first production pictures of the “reborn muscle car” hit the Internet. Hell, I remember having a discussion with several Camaro enthusiasts in 2006 after we had all seen the concept in person. The whole first generation design looked good on the outside, but that interior was despised in ’69, so why draw inspiration from it?
Still, there was one single item on the interior that I absolutely loved, and that was the steering wheel. With its deep tri-spoke design, it was a custom wheel design just for Camaro. It was not one shared with lesser cars—it was exclusively Camaro. It had perfectly placed grips with wonderful stitching that felt good to squeeze. Even the round center with the beautiful CAMARO badge all looked great. With all the complaints about the interior rolling in from critics and customers, Chevrolet did a slight remodeling, but removed my precious steering wheel; swapping it out for one found in the Cruze and Sonic.
For ZL1, they fitted it with a wheel fitting the car’s performance cred. They flattened the bottom of the wheel, a design derived from racecar so that the wheel didn’t scrape your lap when driving aggressively. Then, they wrapped the wheel in that same soft micro suede material, added some plastic mesh looking material, and threw a small ZL1 badge at the bottom, just in case you forgot you were strapped to a 580 horsepower rocket.
The list of production cars that pack more power than the ZL1 could fit onto a three by five index card, and the list of cars that have this type of power with the level of standard equipment goodies for this price narrows that list down to zero. The Camaro team had a target and a mission: to make the ZL1 one of the most capable performance vehicles ever to hit the road or track, and they nailed it.
The heart that thumps under the aluminum and carbon fiber hood is a bit of a hand-me-down from Cadillac; the supercharged 6.2-liter LSA V-8 engine. Thanks to improved intake and exhaust routing, Chevrolet was able to coax out a few more horsepower from the mill, pumping it up to a total 580. Fed by a 1.9-liter fourth generation, four-lobe Eaton supercharger, the big-cube V-8 never leaves you wanting more.
The exhaust note could be a Grammy winner thanks to the improved vocal range granted by the dual-mode exhaust system that belts out the greatest hits once the engine revs over 3,500 rpm. The crackle and roar of the engine pierce the early morning air on our way down the Garden State Parkway, drawing everyone’s attention to the yellow blur quickly making its way south. The sound is intoxicating, and even around town, you never want to take it out of third in fear that the rumble would turn into a purr.
When you want to turn it down a notch, sixth gear is never too far away and quickly flips the engine to simmer mode. The tight throws of the much-improved shorter throw shifter and better clutch feel all come together to offer a much better driving experience. Even the clutch engagement is smooth and easy, making this more powerful Camaro much easier and more fun to drive than the first one we tested three years ago.
All that power needed a stronger and more substantial rear differential, and Chevrolet was not going to fall into the same trap it did with the last generation. The Camaro team also took a look at what could be done, going with a nodular iron rear differential casing with integrated oil cooler. They also threw out the standard SS half shafts and replaced them with stronger units that could keep up with the rest of the power upgrades.
All of this is great stuff to read, but if it does not work in the car, what’s the point? Good news is that it works so beautifully and gives you more assurance that it will take a lot of work to try to break anything. Even after a dozen or so hard launches using the ZL1’s Performance Traction Management system, the car never so much as whimpered. In fact, it buckled down the harder you pushed it. So why does it only get eight instead of totally blowing away our expectations? Sadly, when it comes to power, the Camaro has to play second fiddle to the crosstown rival, the Mustang GT500. And it is not only power, but the Mustang also has magically evaded the dreaded gas-guzzler tax, a tax that a ZL1 owner have to cough up to the tune of $1,300.
Ride and Handling: 9
Nothing this big, making this much power, with wheels as large as these wrapped in tires with such a low profile should ride this good. While the CTS-V might ride a bit smoother, it was never meant to be the all-out performance machine that the ZL1 is. Like the powertrain, the suspension received a solid once over to make sure that everything was pushed to 11 to meet the rest of the car’s performance level. The corner stone to the ZL1’s great ride and handling comes from GM’s third generation magnetic ride suspension, the first GM car to receive the updated system. Complete with an updated computer, the suspension reacts faster to road imperfections, keeping the tires glued to the road.
The duty of turning the front tires has been turned over to an electric steering system, tuned and refined to profile proper feedback and steering weight to give the driver confidence, be it on a back road or through tight chicane. Nowhere did we feel any sort of numbness or disconnection between our hands and the road, helping us whip the car and making us look like much better drivers.
Out back, the rear suspension’s upgrades include stiffer bushings and a redesigned sway bar that extends out further toward the wheels, helping stabilize the rear and cutting some of the car’s understeer that we noticed in the standard SS. This all helps to keep the rear hunkered down and tracking right behind the front wheels.
Hitting the roads, there is not a lot that will really upset the chassis or the occupants inside as the car lets the magnetic dampeners do all the work of soaking it up. Even in the ever-crucial parking lot test, you do not feel as if your arms are going to be torn from their sockets trying to turn what is a very heavy vehicle. At highway speeds, ride continues to be solid for the exception of those big Goodyears can hum just a bit, but it is only noticeable if you flip the shifter into sixth-gear when the exhaust note steps down a few octaves.
If all of these magical suspension tricks and upgrades that turn it into a world-class driving machine were pieces of an orchestra, then the conductor would be the ZL1’s Performance Traction Control system. It is the brain that controls everything that is going on—hundreds of times a second—monitoring steering input, throttle opening, ABS and stability control sensors, as well as the magnetic suspension.
This is the system that ties it all together and can make a good driver great, and a driver that is pushing their ability at least manage to stay on the blacktop. That is what makes the ZL1 better than just a big engine in a box, and something that can help it elevate it to the level of supercar status. And just in case you think your reactions and your driving ability is better than a computer, you can turn it all off and hope for the best.
Sadly, that about does it for the high-tech features for the ZL1, at least for 2012 that is. What the ZL1 does have as standard fare is a Boston Acoustic stereo system mentioned before, and the older Bluetooth system that will sync with your phone, but will not transfer any of your contact information over. This is because the Camaro will not receive the much enjoyed MyLink system found in other Chevy products until the 2013 model year. So if you want all this power, but want some high end infotainment features, best wait to pick up a 2013 model.
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OnStar is still there, and the aforementioned heads up display has a few different modes to project different information out in front of you. Just in case you did not have enough sources of info, the driver information center is still there. Combined with the ever-watchful eye in the sky, OnStar, it is the closest thing to navigation as you are going to get in 2012.
Average score: 7.8
It does not get better than having control of one of the most powerful production vehicles in the world for a few days and having a little fun. As Ferris Buheler once put it, if you have the means to get one, do it. But with such power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility comes in electronic form that helps contain the ghost in the machine.
Outside of the interior, there is very little not to totally fall in love with unless you are just not interested in the car all together. With all of this power and looks, the ZL1 has a refined side—or at least as refined as one could make a supercharged Camaro. This refinement brings the car out of the engine-in-a-box that used to be the formula for muscle cars, and elevates it to the point where it could be more than acceptable for every day driving.
Some purists might take issue to the fact that it does not follow the old code and that is has way too many fancy gadgets that will just eventually fail and leave the owner with an expensive driveway ornament. The call for simplicity and affordability is a just one, but the ZL1 is not that car. The ZL1 is a perfect case of showing just how far the Camaro team can with gloves off, pushing the standard further and raising the bar.
Not to mention that we forget the fact that every generation of Camaro has added refinement and complexity. From the first Camaro ZL1 that cost nearly double that of a standard model, to the implementation of advanced Tuned Port Injection; all the way to composite panels and introduction of advanced stability control, Camaro has always kept up with the times. It is with the ZL1 that Camaro takes another step into the future and redefines the term muscle car.
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