People sometimes ask how I can write objective reviews when my test drives take place at press junkets, in which the automakers fly us in, put us up, fill our bellies, and send us a-driving. I always answer by telling them to read my reviews and decide for themselves if I am being fair and impartial.
But what if I were to, say, wreck the car? Now that's awkward. But that's exactly what happened at Virginia International Raceway. After a couple of fast and thrilling laps, a drizzle started to fall, and I promptly slid a brand-new 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 off the track and into a wall of tires, breaking the car's nose (link goes to photo) but happily doing no damage to my own.
So you'd think I owe Chevy a good review, wouldn't you?
Here's the thing: Callous as this may sound, I don't think I do. My first responsibility is always to the readers. I've talked trash about more than my share of cars, and the automakers have always been just fine with that.
I'm telling you all this because you're about to read an overwhelmingly positive review, and I don't want you to think I wrote it out of guilt. I truly loved the Camaro ZL1, and that's no small accomplishment, because the Camaro itself isn't exactly on my list of favorites. This is a fantastic car, big and brutish but very skilled, and I would say so even if I wasn't in the uncomfortable position of having bent one up.
What is the ZL1?
The ZL1 is the new top-of-the-line Camaro, and it's based around the LSA V8 engine, a 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft version of the supercharged 6.2 liter V8 found in the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V. With its new-found power, the Camaro goes 0-60 in 3.9 seconds with a six-speed automatic transmission and 4 flat with the six-speed stick-shift, and on to a top speed of 184 MPH. Chevy says the ZL1 can make it around the Virginia International Raceway track in 2 minutes 52.4 seconds, just 6.8 seconds behind the Corvette ZR1 (and, as it happens, six seconds faster than the best published time they can find for a Boss 302 Mustang). That's not a bad showing, considering that for the price of a Corvette ZR1, you can buy two Camaro ZL1s.
This isn't just a re-engine job. The ZL1's program engineering manager, Tony Roma -- I swear, that is really his name -- says about 30% of the parts were changed, but none of the mechanical bits went untouched. The transmissions and driveline were strengthened, including a liquid-cooled differential. Aerodynamic improvements -- including those funky reverse-facing scoops on the hood -- were designed to provide up to 65 lbs of downforce, versus the 200 lbs of lift generated by the Camaro SS. And the chassis was retuned, not only gaining GM's magnificent magnetic ride system (which uses magnetic shock fluid that can instantly stiffen the dampers, allowing better handling with a softer ride), but revised geometry and mounting points, with some of the changes being integrated into lesser Camaros.
When the rubber meets the road
How does it all work? Oh my God, is it amazing. The ZL1 encompasses all of the high points of the Corvette ZR1 and the CTS-V, rolled into one car.
From the ZR1, the Camaro inherits its power and fury. To me, one of the best reasons to buy a V8-powered performance car is the soundtrack, and they don't get any better than the Camaro ZL1. The ZL1 gets the Corvette's flappy exhaust system, with flaps that open to increase noise and flow. Unlike the 'Vette, the ZL1's exhaust stays open at idle, so it ticks over with a true muscle-car burble. The flaps close under gentle acceleration, but it doesn't take much juice to open them up and enjoy the popping and backfiring when you lift off the throttle. Man, what a great sound!
From the CTS-V, the Camaro inherets its tractability. Now, I suppose that, given my off-track adventure, you'd expect me to warn against powerful rear-drive cars, but the truth is that the ZL1, like the CTS-V and the ZR1, is actually quite tame considering how much power is going to the rear wheels. New to the ZL1 is a stability control system with five performance modes, Mode 1 being the wet traction mode, and Mode 5 being full track mode with the sharpest engine, suspension and steering settings and all protection off. (I was driving in Mode 2 when the track was dry, but I failed to check what mode the car was in before I took off for my ill-fated rain-soaked ride.)
And that's important, because Chevrolet wants ZL1 owners to take their cars to the track. Most automakers will void your warranty if you take your car to a track event, but not Chevy. Provided you don't install a roll cage and participate in a sanctioned race, the ZL1's warranty still applies. That's a very big deal -- it shows how confident GM is that the ZL1 can handle repeated heavy thrashing.
Out on public roads, the ZL1 is surprisingly pleasant. It rides comfortably and it's easy to keep the power in check. I took a back-to-back comparison drive with a Camaro SS, and could really feel those suspension improvements -- the ZL1 tracks straighter and doesn't wiggle around on bumps the way the SS does. It feels quicker -- though not as much as you might expect -- and it sounds a hell of a lot better.
I drove both manual and automatic versions. In the Cadillac CTS-V, I prefer the automatic; with the engine's broad, flat torque curve, the car goes fast in any gear, and shifting simply interrupts the awesome flow of power. But in the ZL1, I'll take the manual -- Chevy designed a short-throw shift kit that makes changing gears an absolute delight, and pedal effort and take up are surprisingly gentle considering how much clamping force the clutch has to generate. To be fair to the automatic car, it's quicker to 60, part-throttle downshifts are sharp and prompt, and the paddle shifters work pretty well. Still, if you opt for an automatic ZL1, you're missing out on a big chunk of the fun.
All that said, the ZL1 isn't entirely free of the regular Camaro's bad habits. It's difficult to see out of, it feels as wide as an office building, and the interior, largely unchanged from the regular Camaro, is unbecoming of a car this expensive.
Ready for the really good news?
Which brings us to the price: $54,995. Just so you know that's not a typo, I'll spell it out: Fifty-four thousand, nine hundred ninety-five dollars. With what few options there are -- automatic transmission, aluminum wheels, sunroof, stripe and suede packages, and unpainted carbon fiber on the hood -- the price rises to just $59,120. At that price, the Camaro ZL1 isn't just a bargain -- it's a gift.
Since Ford's 650 hp Shelby GT500 is still a few months out, the ZL1's closest rival is the Ford Mustang Boss 302. The Boss feels lighter and quite a bit more nimble, probably because GM didn't seem to put the much of an emphasis on weight reduction. The ZL1 weighs over 4,100 lbs, a quarter-ton more than the Boss, and it shows in the way the two cars feel on the track. Driving the Boss is like carving a steak with a razor-sharp knife; driving the ZL1 is like whacking the crap out of it with a meat cleaver. But the Boss can't match the ZL1's brute power, and it's also a lot less comfortable as a daily driver. The closest Chrysler comes is the Dodge Challenger SRT8, which is not in the same league in terms of handling. Still, if you want noise, speed and fury, the Challenger does all that pretty well -- but why not spend a few extra grand and get the whole package with the ZL1?
Bottom line: The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is yet another excellent performance car from General Motors. It's very fast, very loud, very, very thrilling, and -- unbelievably for a 580 hp car -- you can actually use it as a daily driver (provided you can afford the gas, that is). I think the ZL1 is absolutely brilliant -- and I'm not just saying that because I wrecked one. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
- Huge fun to drive -- loud, fast, and agile
- Bargain price
- Easy to live with
What I didn't like:
- Feels big and heavy
- Low-rent interior
- I crashed one
- ZL1 is the new ultra-high-performance Camaro
- Price range: $54,995 - $59,120
- Powertrain: 6.2 liter supercharged V8/580 hp, 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 14 MPG city/19 MPG highway (manual), 12 MPG city/18 MPG highway (automatic)
- Best rivals: Ford Shelby GT500, Ford Mustang Boss 302, Dodge Challenger SRT8