Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and ZL1 1LE: Driven

While Ford went to the trouble and expense of engineering a Euro-spec Mustang, even converting it to wrong-side drive, GM has never bothered to get the currentCamaro's passport stamped for those non-American parts of the world where cheese is expected to possess such novelties as flavour. A shame, as America's other pony car outpoints its Ford rival on most criteria even in its most basic form. And the range-topping Camaro ZL1 leaves the Mustang bleeding on the canvas.

Ingredients are simple, but compelling: a 6.2-litre version of GM's small-block V8 in supercharged form, sending a dizzying 650hp to the rear wheels. Discipline comes through track-focused suspension that's been honed at what some of the development team probably refer to as the Nurby-Burgy Ring while chewing tobacco. It's basically the same mechanical package from the Corvette Z06, only with the added practicality of two (very small) rear seats, plus a more sizeable price discount. Compared to the current Mustang hierarchy it's rock versus scissors, without the finesse of the Shelby GT350's flat-plane V8 but boasting an extra 124hp. Compared to those fancy Yoor-A-Peens it's even more compelling, the ZL1 having 205hp more than the BMW M4 Competition Pack, yet costing $5,000 less than its German rival in the States.

Although performance bargain is an overused cliche, it's one the ZL1 really has earned the right to use.

Shaker hood
The regular Camaro isn't short on visual aggression, but the ZL1 builds it to a cartoonish degree. The front bumper almost reaches the ground, the bonnet gets a carbon fibre bonnet bulge to show how special it is and the arches are filled impressively well by some black lightweight alloys wearing minimal profile Goodyear Eagle F1s. There's also a sizeable rear wing sitting atop the tailgate; well, sizeable until you see the even bigger one on the harder-cored ZL1 1LE.

The cabin feels less different, with some red seatbelts and huggy bucket seats, but otherwise just carbon and leather trim details to distinguish it from lesser Camaros. Ergonomics remain challenging too, with the low roof and fat pillars really eating into visibility - it's a bit like trying to drive a bottle bank. There are rear seats, although only for the smallest and squashiest occupants, and overall trim quality feels probably slightly ahead of that in the Mustang. One complaint is the low positioning of the round metal air vents, which are basically set at crotch height and do a better job cooling your trousers than your face.

Ten speeds on my wagon
I drove both the regular ZL1 and the circuit-focused ZL1 1LE, albeit only on the road. The standard car came with the optional 10-speed automatic instead of the six-speed manual. This is related to the 10-speeder in the Ford F-150 Raptor that we drove last month, and first impressions are - as in the truck - that it has too many gears. Yet it soon transpires the transmission also has several neat tricks to offset its obsessive ratio shuffling.

First, the ability to tame the monstrous engine. At everyday speeds the gearbox blending its shifts with seamless deference and making the most of the engine's mid-range torque. The angry side of the ZL1's personality is always close, with the gearbox helping to deliver it as quickly as possible. Pressure on the long-travel throttle pedal delivers immediate, solid urge, and the harder you press the more there is. The supercharger starts to really make its presence felt around the 2,500rpm mark, filling the cabin with a Mad Max whine. From then to the 6,500rpm limiter it just pulls harder and harder; this is one of those cars where getting the accelerator to the bulkhead feels like a proper achievement, although not something you'll manage often on public roads.

A heavier right foot also wakes the automatic gearbox up. The transmission helps the car to get off the line with a brutal savagery - even without the use of its launch mode and its selectable wheelspin threshold - and under hard use the gearshifts are fast enough that you stop minding about how many there are. Switched to the punchier Sport and Track dynamic modes the ZL1's ECU cuts fuel on upshifts to add a satisfying crack to the exhaust note. Then under really hard use the gearbox starts to reckon that it's on a circuit - or being used as a getaway car - and switches to what's basically a Hulk Rage map, holding the lowest possible gear for as long as possible, like the Sport Plus setting for Porsche's PDK.

And on a twisty road this works impressively well at keeping the Camaro on the boil, although it gets the engine bellowing a soundtrack that's likely audible from space.

Switching the gearbox to its manual mode, and letting it hold ratios for longer, calms things down. Full manual control does make the gearbox feel overpopulated with ratios though, with downshifting starting to feel like a bit of a chore. (Holding the left change paddle is meant to shortcut to the lowest available ratio, but this came after a yawning delay in the test car.)

Not just straight lines
The ZL1 is massively fast, running 0-60 in the mid-threes and capable of dispatching a quarter mile drag strip in the low 11s - it's also far more than just the sort of crude muscle car that Detroit used to specialise in making, and which the 700hp Dodge Hellcat still exemplifies. The Camaro's chassis is good - really good. There's the usual proviso that driving impressions harvested in the States don't always translate into what you could expect in Britain, although the roads I drove in Michigan had some proper cambers and bumps. Regardless, the ZL1 managed to feel impressively lashed down without becoming unduly harsh, the ride staying on the acceptable side of firm and actually improving slightly with speed and load.

Grip levels are predictably high, but the ZL1's mighty engine gives it a rear-led handling balance even at road speeds, the car tensing and squirming its back axle as the torque arrives.

It's not excessively wayward - not unless you want it to be - but it does feel properly edgy and exciting, even when not being pushed particularly hard, with a clear relationship between throttle pedal and cornering line.

While the engine is pretty special, the ZL1's single best dynamic feature is quite probably its steering. The rim is heavier than the norm these days, and many of the unfiltered messages that get passed to the Alcantara steering wheel are pretty much shouted, but it relays all the critical messages about grip and slip without corruption. It's an object lesson in how sports cars are meant to do it. The brakes are great, too - steel discs with a nicely weighted pedal and tireless for fast road use.

If that's not quite fast enough...
The ZL1 1LE, with special track-focused suspension and an aerodynamic pack that looks like an aftermarket parody, is a Chevy-badged GT2 RS. Or along those lines, at least. This is the blue collar hero that posted a Nurburgring time of 7:16 earlier this year, and that's with a manual gearbox. All those scoops and flaps aren't just for show...

The yearning for an empty race track I felt in the ZL1 was intensified considerably by the 1LE. It's a hell of a thing, but not really suited to the combination of tight and bumpy back roads and freeways that I drove it on. GM isn't kidding about the circuit-spec suspension. All of the pliancy of the regular ZL1 has gone, with motorsport-grade spool valve dampers and suspension that can be switched from nominal road to pure track settings by jacking the front end and turning specially designed strut tops through 180 degrees. Properly proper, in other words.

The upshot is a car that rides like a racing speedboat in a choppy sea, riding over potholes and expansion joints with the sort of bangs and vibrations that would normally get you stopping to audit the wheels. Like the regular car, it improves with speed, the suspension gaining some lightness in place of diving boots the car seems to be wearing in town, but it's on the outer edge of what you'd want on the road; specifically in that it reminded me strongly of the BMW M4 GTS, although for less than half the price.

The manual is also an interesting comparison with the auto. The six-speed gearbox has a nice, weighty action and can be shifted impressively quickly if you're forceful enough, but the engine's mechanical inertia and what feels like a big, heavy flywheel makes it hard to slot everything together smoothly. I'm not usually a fan of throttle-blipping systems, but the Camaro's (activated by the steering wheel paddles that the auto uses for gearchanges) matched revs on downshifts far better and more consistently than I could manage. At the risk of earning myself a box of doilies and a lace-making kit for Christmas, I'd be sorely tempted to pick the auto if I was speccing a standard ZL1.

Tomayto, tomato
Not that I can, of course. On a medium-term timescale GM's divorce from Opel-Vauxhall might actually make it more likely that we will ultimately see some of the General's extreme performance models get brought to Europe properly, maybe even with steering wheels on the right side. But it won't be any time soon. If you're tempted by a lesser Camaro then there is still one official dealer in the UK, Ian Allen in Surrey, who will sell you a brand new 2.0 Turbo or V8. But if you want a ZL1 or a ZL1 1LE then you'll need to wait for a very expensive import.

Doesn't stop me from wanting one, though.

: 6,162cc V8, supercharged
Transmission: 10-speed auto, rear-wheel drive.
Power (hp): 650@6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 650@3,600rpm
0-60mph: 3.5sec (manufacturer)
Top speed: 198mph (limited)
Weight: 1,790kg (manufacturer)
MPG: 20 [EPA, Highway]
CO2: Lots
Price: $63,450


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Comments (59) Join the discussion on the forum

  • big_rob_sydney 07 Oct 2017

    It's not perfect, but I really, REALLY like this.

  • roscobbc 07 Oct 2017

    ALL of the really worthwhile cars will have at least a 'flaw' or two - its what we call 'character' - being 100% perfect would perhaps being a little boring?

  • Murphy16 07 Oct 2017

    I really wish we could cars like this over here, i'm loving the high end GM products at the moment, the latest Cadillac range looks so smart. I'd have a CTSV, Corvette or Camaro over it's German rival any day. The US have caught up with Europe in the handling and composure stakes now, and are reaping the rewards of years of honing those big V8s to produce some quite awesome cars.

  • ZX10R NIN 07 Oct 2017

    I'd still take the GT350R but if someone was giving it away I'd snap their arm off smile

  • mylesmcd 07 Oct 2017

    And the build quality of a ham sandwhich.

    Begs the question;

    Dodge Viper ACR
    Shelby GT350
    Hellcat Demon
    Current Corvette (in top trim..whatever that is...)


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