2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Review

We sample Chevy's hot new Camaro.

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March 29, 2012

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Review

Add a Camaro that pumps out nearly 600 ponies and promises real, actual honest-to-goodness handling prowess into the mix, and you have a glimpse of car-scribe heaven.

Meet The ZL1
If you're looking for two words that will perk up any auto journalist's ears, 'open bar' are the ones you want. Failing that, try 'track day,' and watch your favorite scribe begin foaming at the mouth, regardless of his or her actual driving skills. Add a Camaro that pumps out nearly 600 ponies and promises real, actual honest-to-goodness handling prowess into the mix, and you have a glimpse of car-scribe heaven.

Sadly, heaven can't exist without hell, and if you'll allow us to mix our metaphors, into each life a little rain must fall. Or in our case, a lot, meaning our shot at hot-lapping a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 around Virginia International Raceway went down the drain, literally and figuratively, thanks to Mother Nature's capricious whims.

We'd love to tell you how it felt being strapped into one of the fastest American muscle cars out there, or what it's like to feel the effects of downforce (yes, downforce) at speed, or how well the car negotiated the infamous oak tree corner at VIR, but we can't, thanks to the wet stuff. Fear not, though, as we did get some wheel time at real-world speeds--enough for some solid first impressions. Update: We've now gotten some track time. See below.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro Just The Facts The ZL1 exists mainly to fight Ford's Boss 302 and Shelby GT500 for track-day superiority, and it comes to the battlefront pretty well equipped, thanks to a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 that makes 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque, a dual-mode exhaust, six-speed manual or automatic transmission choices, a magnetic-ride suspension, a performance traction management system that allows the driver to choose from five different ride/handling modes, variable-rate electric power steering, engine and transmission coolers, brake cooling ducts, and a rear differential cooler, all for a base price of $54,995.

There's six options: the six-speed auto, 20-inch bright aluminum wheels, an exposed carbon fiber hood, a power sunroof, a stripe package, and a suede package. A fully-loaded car with the automatic would cost $59,120. And oh by the way, a convertible version launches this summer as a 2013 model.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro Hot-Lapping We never set rubber on VIR's hallowed track, nor did we turn a wheel in anger (or even joy). But we did prowl VIR's sprawling grounds while scouting for photo ops, occasionally sliding the speed up towards highway velocity. We'll have to save our full report for when a ZL1 shows up at our office, but til then, we can report that the car makes glorious exhaust sounds that are almost as soul-soothing as the audio produced by the Boss 302's pipes, but it seems quieter than that car at idle and low speeds.

Full-throttle acceleration wasn't in the cards, but what little bit of prodding we did produced nothing but ear-to-ear grins. The shifter is a joy to work with, as is the clutch, and we have no reason to doubt the stoutness of the brakes, although we never tested them, either.

As far as ride and handling goes, well, we never got a real chance to test it, but we can tell you that unlike the car's SS brethren, there's some actual real feel to the steering (the SS can occasionally feel vague and distant). We can also tell you that the car was as civilized as the SS, if not more so, when trawling the grounds at low speeds, but from what little bit of pushing we did, we'd expect it to be a beast on the track. If you're curious about 0-60 times, Chevy is saying 3.9 seconds, and the company pegs the top speed at 184 miles per hour.

Update: Due to a fortunate confluence of events, we had the chance to drive the ZL1 at Road America during a press event, and two days later, we hit the dragstrip at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, after tooling around for a little bit on the suburban streets outside of Lucas Oil Raceway. This gave us the chance to more fully experience the car.

Let's start with the road course at Road America. We drove some pretty hot sheetmetal, including a Jaguar XKR-S and a Ford Mustang Boss 302, as well as both coupe and sedan versions of the Cadillac CTS-V, and the ZL1 quickly emerged as one of our favorites.

The ZL1 hit all the right notes on the track, starting with acceleration--it leapt from corner to corner with startling ferocity, making quick work of the straightaways. When it came time to slap on the binders, it felt like God's own hand was slowing the car, thanks to the stout Brembo brakes. We were able to hold onto more speed and brake a tad later than we normally do at Road America (which can be very unforgiving of mistakes) because we knew the Camaro had our backs.

During cornering, the car exhibited plenty of stability and predictability, feeling at times as if superglue was slathered on the Goodyears. Despite all that power and mass, the car never felt intimidating, and we never worried about experiencing an unintended off-roading session. We also didn't feel much in the way of tail-out sliding. In fact, with all electronic systems fully on, the only drama we experienced in several hot laps was a tiny bit of tire squeal, on just one occasion.

Because of the confidence the Camaro gave us, we often found ourselves driving 10-15 mph faster in certain parts of the track than we normally do. Our only beef was that the car smacked hard against the rev limiter at 135 mph, right before entering the braking zone for the dastardly Turn 5 (for those that don't know, Turn 5 is a 90-degree, 25-35 mph left-hander that's immediately preceded by a straight in which cars can reach 120-150 mph. Oh, and the braking zone is downhill. It's not wise to mess with Turn 5). Other cars, including the CTSs (both equipped with automatics) were able to go a touch faster in this stretch (to be fair to Chevy, we won't rule out driver skill as a factor). On the other hand, we blasted the straightaway before the fabled Canada Corner (another slow corner, this time a 90-degree right-hander taken at around 30 mph) at 125 mph, which is a good 15-25 mph faster than usual. This wouldn't have been possible without the confidence the car instilled in us.

At the dragstrip, we were hampered again by weather--a hot, humid day put a damper on times. A few hot-shoe auto journos broke into the high 12-second range, but our best time was a bit short of that--13.031 at 108.72 mph. We suspect we'd do better in cooler weather, but we also found the manual transmission's launch-control system a bit tricky to learn. Consistency was a bit easier to achieve with the available six-speed automatic, but driving a manual at a dragstrip is that much more satisfying.

It's not hard to spin the wheels at launch, and the car can get squirrely if you aren't paying attention, but once the car hooks up it tracks straight and true with plenty of thrust.

On the road, we found that the ZL1 was tractable and easy to drive in the land of strip malls, backing up our earlier experiences at VIR. The exhaust note fades into the background at slow speeds and low RPMs, and the car seems less clunky to drive than an SS, even with a stiff clutch and shifter. Outside of the lack of visibility, which is an issue with all Camaros, the ZL1 makes for a great daily driver. That's Chevy's aim, of course--to make a daily driver that can be raced on the weekend. We'd say they succeeded.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro Inside The Cabin The cockpit is mostly standard Camaro, except for the standard suede inserts, some jazzier pedals, flat-bottomed steering wheel, short-throw shifter (on manuals) and a few ZL1 badges. A rearview camera is standard, along with a USB port, rear park assist, heated front seats, and a wireless cell-phone link. The Suede Package adds suede accents to the steering wheel, shift knob, and shift boot.

Since the changes are subtle, standard Camaro challenges--such as cramped rear seat and limited visibility--remain. But we suspect most ZL1 buyers will know what they're getting into.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro Here's Looking At You The biggest difference between the ZL1 and lesser Camaros is the bulging hood. Trust us, though, you won't need the ZL1 badging to know what you're looking at--the car looks menacing in person, like it will kill you if you look at it sideways. We'd expect to see more than a few of these mean machines at the Woodward Dream Cruise next summer.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro Fuel Economy, Or Lack Thereof Fuel Economy? Sheah, right. If you must know, it's 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway with the manual, 12/18 with the automatic. As part of the performance traction management system, the driver can adjust the traction control and antiskid system, and a launch-control system on manual-transmission cars will help drivers get drag-strip runs just right.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro First Impressions Although some might see the Boss as a natural competitor, the real target is the similarly-priced 650-horsepower Shelby GT500. After all, Ford is limiting production of the Boss, but Chevy will build as many ZL1s as it can sell. And we think that they'll sell more than a few, especially since the warranty isn't voided by a trip to the track.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to ZL1 sales is internal--Chevy just announced a 1LE handling package for SS models that borrows heavily from the ZL1's parts bin, meaning cost-conscious weekend warriors may opt for that car instead. After all, Ford fanatics probably aren't crossing the lines to drive this car, and Chevy loyalists will likewise be staying away from the Shelby, no matter who wins what comparison tests, because muscle-car fanboys are more loyal than political partisans.

Still, if you have $50K+ to spend on a hoary muscle car and you don't have a history with either brand, the ZL1 will make for a tempting choice. We still love the Boss, but the ZL1 is a bit more civilized at sane speeds. We haven't yet driven the Shelby for comparison's sake, so we'll hold back on that judgment, but we did enjoy our time in the ZL1. Consider the ZL1 the top-dog in the Camaro fleet, and if you're looking at an SS, consider saving some more cash for the ZL1. Go big or go home.

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