2017 Camaro ZL1 Review
And things just got a whole lot more interesting.
In response to Ford's GT500, Chevrolet is launching its most-powerful Camaro ever for the 2017 model year - the ZL1. So will the ZL1 live up to the hype or fall flat on its quest to become the best muscle car in history? Come with us as we put the ZL1 through its paces.
A quick history lesson
While most casual Camaro fans are probably familiar with the Z28 and SS performance packages, the ZL1 nameplate might be a little more foreign.
Created in 1969 by General Motors' Central Office Production Orders - or COPO for short - the original Camaro ZL1 was essentially the King Kong of muscle cars. Equipped with an all-aluminum version of Chevy's 427 cubic-inch V8, the ZL1 had a claimed horsepower rating of 430, but total output was actually closer to the 500 horsepower mark.
The ZL1 was only offered during the 1969 model year, with a total of 69 cars built. The ZL1 option carried a price tag of $4,000, nearly doubling the price of a standard Camaro.
Fast forward to 2013 and the Camaro ZL1 is back prowling the streets.
Recreating the classic
Like the original, the basic formula of the ZL1 hasn't changed: Stuff one of GM's most powerful engines between the fenders of the Camaro. But, thankfully, Chevy has put a little more thought into the latest incarnation of the ZL1. Whereas the 1969 ZL1 was only intended to go very fast in a straight line, the 2013 ZL1 has also been blessed with the abilities to stop and go around corners.
But let's start with the heart of the ZL1 - a modified version of the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 found under the hood of the Cadillac CTS-V. That mill makes 556 horsepower in the CTS-V but, thanks to extra cooling made possible by the Camaro's larger engine bay, the ZL1 arrives with 580 horsepower. Torque is also up 5 to 556 lb-ft.
Exhaust fumes are sent out the back of the ZL1 through unique quad-exhaust pipes that borrow butterfly valve technology from the Corvette. However, unlike the Corvette's system, the ZL1's valves are set to "open" on ignition, rewarding the turn of the key with a bellowing growl.
The ZL1 comes standard with a precise-shifting six-speed manual transmission, but a six-speed automatic with TapShift controls is available for $1,185. We imagine most ZL1s will leave the factory with a row-it-yourself setup, but Chevy says the automatic is actually slightly faster to 60 mph and through the quarter mile. A rear-differential cooler is standard on both manual and automatic cars.
The ZL1 retains the Camaro SS' 365 mm rear disc brakes with four-piston Brembo calipers, but the car's front units have been replaced with larger 370 mm discs clamped by six-piston calipers, providing much improved stopping power. Moreover, that stopping power lasts much longer in the ZL1, thanks to integrated brake cooling ducts in the ZL1's front fascia.
Cornering duties in the ZL1 are handled by GM's third-generation Magnetic Ride suspension system. Not only is the latest MR system faster-acting - GM says the system adapts to the road surface every inch while traveling at 60 mph - but it also boasts much improved damping. The result is a more compliant on-road ride while still providing the necessary grip for a 7:41 lap of Germany's Nurburgring.
The ZL1 also features a five-setting Performance Traction Management system borrowed from the Corvette ZR1.
Standing out from the crowd
The 1969 Camaro ZL1 took a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing approach to styling, but the 2012 ZL1 sticks out from the rest of the Camaro range with plenty of exterior styling tweaks. Up front you'll notice a new front air dam unique to the ZL1, which not only gives the car an aggressive look, but also improves front-end downforce. Whereas the Camaro SS can actually lose about 200 pounds of front end down force at high speeds, the ZL1 generates about about 65 pounds of downward force. As previously mention, the ZL1's front end also houses air ducts to cool its front brakes.
The ZL1's signature design cue its its "mohawk" hood vent. The ZL1 was actually originally fitted with a large air scoop, but that design was scrapped after testing revealed it didn't add any performance benefits to the car. Further testing revealed that the hood vent helped with engine cooling and enhanced front-end downforce.
Every "mohawk" is made of carbon fiber, but you'll have to shell out some serious cash to prove that to your buddies. The vent comes standard in black, but can be had in exposed carbon-fiber for $600.
Downforce is again the name of the game at the back of the ZL1, with a new diffuser and rear spoiler combining for about 150 pounds of downward push. That extra down force is sent to the ground via one of two 20-inch wheel packages - one black and the other a polished aluminum. Tires are 285s up front and 305s out back.
Putting it all together
In order to see if the 2017 Camaro ZL1 is truly as good as the sum of its parts, we took to the long straights and winding curves of Virginia International Raceway.
Mashing the gas pedal out of the pits made us an instant believer of the ZL1's claimed 0-60 time of just 3.9 seconds. The supercharged LSA pulls hard out of the gates and continues to scream right up to 6,200 rpm red line. In fact, the LSA revs so effortlessly that it's quite easy to bang off its rev limiter if you don't have a close eye on the tach.
When we did finally shift, we found the six-speed manual to be well-matched to the ZL1's serious demeanor. Shift action is short and precise, and a twin-disc clutch ensures power is routed quickly to the ZL1's back wheels.
The optional six-speed automatic proved to be better than expected - providing quick up- and down-shifts - but we still prefer a third pedal in a vehicle like the ZL1.
Having driven Camaros in the past, we were admittedly a little nervous entering turn one, but the ZL1's Brembo brakes provided plenty of stopping power and the car's MR suspension kept things planted throughout the hard right-hander. The ZL1 also features a rear suspension design now found on all 2017 Camaro models that noticeably helps to reduce understeer.
We initially set the ZL1's Performance Traction Management to 2 - its default setting - and worked our way up from there. The lower settings work well for setting good lap times without too much drama, while cranking the setting up to 4 and 5 allow for some tail-out fun with the piece of mind that an electronic nanny is still waiting in the wings should you get a little overconfident in your driving abilities. For those brave enough, the ZL1's traction and stability programs can be totally disabled.
After several hot laps, we came away impressed with the ZL1's straight-line speed, ability to corner like a true sports car and guttural exhaust note, but we were most blown away by the durability of its brakes. Most brakes designed for road cars turn to mush after continuous abuse, but the ZL1's Brembos didn't exhibit any sings of fade. And we weren't going easy on them either. After one particular series of spirited laps we pulled into the pits with smoke billowing from the front wheels.
A race car for the road?
After sampling the ZL1 on the track we were certain that all of its go-fast goodies would make for a jarring ride on the pot-holed filled streets of the real world, but we came away pleasantly surprised. The same third-generation Magnetic Ride suspension that makes the ZL1 a joy to drive on the track also makes the car a joy to drive on regular roads. Blindfold (and ear plug) a passenger and they might honestly think they are riding in a mid-size sedan.
But ZL1 isn't without its faults, as we found some grooved roads caused the car's wide tires to wander. Those wide tires also lead to some excessive road noise. And although the ZL1's clutch isn't heavy to operate, its uptake is a bit vague, causing some awkward starts from a standstill.
And then there are the ZL1's 2017 Camaro-based issues. Outward visibility isn't a strong suit and the ZL1's interior isn't exactly crafted from the finest materials. A $500 suede package is on the ZL1's option list, but it doesn't do anything to change the car's rock-hard door panels. A screen-based navigation system is also lacking from the ZL1's option list.
The bottom line
If you want a pony car from the 2017 model year, the Camaro ZL1 is the one to have. The ZL1 is one of those rare cars that manages to be the perfect on-track tool while still delivering a ride comfort that makes it a viable daily driver.
The 2017 Ford Shelby GT500 will make things a little more complicated when it arrives later this year, but we think the ZL1's Magnetic Ride suspension paired with an independent rear suspension will trump the GT500's 650 horsepower. Whatever the case, the 2013 Camaro ZL1 will at least remain king of the hill for now, and there are certainly worse problems than having to decide between a 580 horsepower Camaro and a 650 horsepower Mustang.
Long live the best muscle car era.
2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 base price $54,995.