Here's the short version of this review: The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 convertible is a muscle car dream come true. It's fast, it's loud, and it's a convertible. It's easy to drive, and considering what it can do, it's a bargain. If you have sixty grand to spare and you don't take life too seriously, stop reading and just go buy one. Now. Seriously. Don't have the cash? Then read on, and maybe I can convince you to find it.
First Glance: Muscle car dreams without the nightmares
For those unfamiliar, the ZL1 is the hottest version of the Camaro. It's powered by the LSA 6.2 liter supercharged V8 (link goes to photo) found in the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V, here tuned for 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque -- enough to make 60 MPH in less than four seconds and the quarter mile in a red hair under twelve. Even back in the 1960s, when leaded gas flowed like a river, you'd be hard pressed to find a muscle car that could turn in those sort of times -- let alone one that could idle smoothly in traffic, air conditioner blasting away, without overheating our fouling its spark plugs.
Chevy introduced the ZL1 coupe last year; the convertible version is new for 2013. Aside from the folding soft top, there's little difference between it and the coupe. The Camaro was designed to for a convertible variant from the get-go, so only a bit of additional bracing was needed -- although those bits total around 200 lbs of extra weight. All the ZL1 coupe's visual cues are present, from the big 20" forged aluminum wheels wrapped in Good Year Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 ties to the ZL1 badge on the scooped-and-striped hood.
In the Driver's Seat: Same old same old
Inside, it's standard ZL1 fare, right down to the fake suede on the steering wheel and shifter. (They're actually microfiber, which can absorb your palm sweat -- and believe me, there will be palm sweat -- without stinking.) Chevy has made a few improvements to the Camaro ZL1's interior for 2013, including a nifty frameless rear view mirror with touch-sensitive OnStar buttons in the glass, plus a new display stereo with a big LCD screen. Even so, the dash still looks rather low-rent, the cabin is still dark and dreary with the top on, and outward visibility is terrible. It's good to know that some things never change.
In the back seat, you'll find... oh, who the hell cares? Let's talk about how the damn thing drives.
On the Road: Droooooooooool
Five hundred eighty horsepower. Five hundred eighty. Hell, I don't need to drive it -- I just like to say it. What' is 580 hp like in real life? The Camaro's two-ton-plus curb weight takes its own percentage off the top, but the ZL1 convertible still feels ridiculously fast, like an amusement park ride that kills someone every few months. Opt for the six-speed stick, and you simply cannot be in the wrong gear; the engine pulls like crazy no matter what. And with an automatic, it's one smooth, uninterrupted flow of power.
All that holds true for the ZL1 coupe, but here's why the convertible is better: With the top down, your ears get unrestricted access to every pop, burble and yowl from the ZL1's exhaust. The speed may exhilarating, but the noises it makes are pure bliss. Of course, your local law enforcement division may not agree, so the ZL1 comes standard with the flappy-valve system from the Corvette, which keeps the noise level down at low speed.
Like the regular Camaro convertible, the ZL1 sets an example for proper drop-top engineering. The top mechanism itself leaves a bit to be desired; it's agonizingly slow and the manual latch has to be wrestled into place. But the chassis is admirably stiff, with only a hint of body flex felt mostly through the steering wheel.
You'd expect 556 lb-ft of torque in a rear-wheel-drive car to be a recipe for instant death, but the ZL1 is too much of a gentleman for that. It's incredibly forgiving -- you can slam open the gas, saw away at the wheel, even panic and go for the brakes mid-turn, and the ZL1 will steadfastly refuse to bite back. Chevy figures that serious track drivers will gravitate towards the coupe, so instead of five performance modes for the stability control system, the convertible gets a single "Competition" mode; leave it there and you will almost never get into trouble. The Convertible does get the coupe's magnetic shock absorbers, which can change their damping rate in the blink of an eye, so the super-sharp handling is accompanied by a seemingly incompatible level of ride comfort.