By MALCOLM GUNN
How do the high-performance Camaro ZL1 coupe and convertible square with General Motors’ greenification program of introducing fuel-sipping electrics, hybrids plus a couple of new ankle-biter sub-compacts?
Well, the eco trend is definitely here to stay, but at the opposite end of oil barrel, GM’s cornerstone division isn’t neglecting its involvement in the muscle/ponycar bracket. Although relatively small, the pedal-to-the-metal-gunfighter class remains unequivocal in its No Imports Allowed policy. And in this club the numero uno bylaw states that horsepower rules and absolute horsepower power rules absolutely, or at least until another club member ups the ante and overthrows the leader.
Until the ZL1 came along, the top Camaro was the 426-horsepower SS. It was no slouch, but it was outgunned against the refreshed Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 with a 470-horsepower 6.4-liter “Hemi”engine. And there was the Ford Mustang-based Shelby GT500 and its 550-horsepower 5.4-liter supercharged V8. With bragging rights on the line, you just had to know that Chevrolet would eventually retaliate.
The ZL1 response evokes memories of a highly revered name (an engine option order number, actually) from 1969 that Camaro followers have likely read about, although few have viewed up close. Chevrolet built a mere 69 copies, with many of those being employed by professional drag racers.
The original all-aluminum ZL1 racing engine reportedly produced in excess of 500 horsepower, which was an off-the-scale number back in 1969. The 2013 edition’s supercharged 6.2-liter V8 – a variation of the engines found in the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V – is mated to a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic, believe it or not, and dynos at 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque. This makes it the most powerful production Camaro ever built and, Chevrolet proclaims, will be the most powerful Chevy droptop ever.
The ZL1 constitutes much more than just unbridled horsepower, but represents a thoroughly sorted out performance platform where nearly every component has been beefed up or completely redesigned to handle the engine’s hefty output. Today it’s no longer now about straight-line drag racing (although sub-four-second runs to 60 mph are doable), but rather it’s about constructing a car that’s highly competent on the street as well as on road-racing courses where numerous owners will stretch the ZL1′s legs.
Both driver and their front passenger should have no problems stretching out inside the Camaro’s generously sized cabin with its power-adjustable heated leather seats with grippy suede-like inserts. They’ll also appreciate the sounds from either the Boston Acoustics audio system, or the dual-mode exhaust system that becomes freer flowing (and louder) when the driver opens the taps a bit.
The ZL1′s exterior displays a unique front air intake and a lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber hood. Its built-in extractors help direct airflow over the car for added road-hugging downforce. Other visuals include vertical fog-light pods that double as intakes to channel cool air to the massive Brembo-brand brakes. The package is only partially visible through the 20-inch forged-aluminum wheels supported by ZL1-specific Goodyear tires.
The specialized hardware extends to the suspension that uses GM’s Magnetic Ride Control, which uses special shock dampers that constantly vary the degree of firmness, according to road and driving conditions. There are also Tour (soft) and Sport (firmer) settings that the driver can dial in. Most of the remaining suspension components have either been strengthened or swapped out and that extends to the driveshaft, axles and the heavy-duty limited-slip differential.
With a base price of $54,350 plus destination charges, a ZL1 coupe will cost about $20,000 more than a Camaro SS. That might seem steep, but it’s similar to the cost of a Shelby GT500 and Dodge Challenger SRT8.
Of course, Ford has already responded by pushing the GT 500′s horespower to 662 – that’s up 112 from the previous model – while Dodge is left to contemplate whether it wants to join in.
Regardless of who has the horsepower bragging rights, the ZL1 is more car than most people will ever use in around-town driving, but it’s nice to know you “can” if you want to, isn’t it?
What you should know: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Type: Two-door, rear-wheel-drive coupe and convertible
Engine (hp): 6.2-liter OHV V8,supercharged (580)
Transmission: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic (opt.)
Market position: A horsepower and sales war of sorts exists between the three main domestic protagonists for supremacy in the so-called “ponycar” category, with the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 firing the latest shot.
Points: A lot of power, yes, but living with a detuned Corvette engine is tough to swallow; No exotic Euro-style twin-clutch transmissions here, only six-speed manual gearbox; Spacious front-seat space; tight fit for adults in back; Convertible ZL1 should prove popular; Stop watching the gas gauge and just go out and have some fun; Question:how long will this kind of performance go on before it’s legislated out of existence?
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags (except convertible); anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy): 19 combined (est.); Base price (incl. destination): $56,550
Mustang Shelby GT500
Base price: $49,600
Well turned-out high-performance coupe or convertible is ZL1′s main rival.
Dodge Challenger SRT8
Base price: $45,400
A Mopar fan favorite that’s no slouch in the power department.
Cadillac CTS-V coupe
Base price: $65,400
Great-looking, ultra-quick Caddy that shares its powerplant with the ZL1.