The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 takes the notion of most bang-for-your-buck literally.
For the price of a loaded BMW 1-Series drop-top, its big honkin’ supercharged V-8 pumps through as large and as many internal combustion explosions as almost any current exotic car.
Think about the ZL1’s scary performance value for a minute: 580 hp, for $58,000 to start. It was only a few months ago that I wrote about how good of a performance coupe value the 550-hp Jaguar XKR-S was, at its $139,000 starting price compared to its mostly $200,000-plus rivals. The Camaro is less than half the Jag’s price, plus about 50 large less than the deified Nissan GT-R, itself a master at exotic car monster (price) slaying.
GM likes to compare the ZL1 to such exotic $200,000 machines as the Mercedes-Benz SLS and Audi R8 GT, which both make slightly less power than the king Camaro, as does the entire six-figure-only Aston Martin lineup. But although the interior trimmings, visual wow factor and cachet of these other performance machines are undeniably leagues above the Camaro ZL1, their straight-line speed is not.
The ZL1 with the six-speed manual scoots to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds flat, and 3.9 seconds for the six-speed automatic, which has been adapted with special pre-charge hydraulic pressure in the clutch to shift quicker. Both are helped along quickly by no-lift shifting technology. Top speed is 290 km/h for the manual, 297 for the automatic, with 12-second-flat quarter-mile times for each, according to GM’s figures.
Unlike some other sports cars, the standard six-speed manual transmission is the one that comes with a launch control system. GM even made it clear that it built the system – and the entire ZL1, for that matter – to endure the mechanical pounding of the racetrack. That’s a clear dig at Nissan for its treatment of early GT-R customers who used that car’s dual-clutch transmission’s launch control feature and initially were refused warranty coverage when the DCT went boom.
Unlike muscle cars from the care-free ’60s, and arguably even the current Shelby GT500, the ZL1’s closest rival, this Camaro doesn’t stop impressing when the track goes from drag strip to road course. With a good hour of lapping the sinewy lines of Virginia International Raceway, its most surprising performance traits are by far its formidable handling and braking abilities. With a curb weight pushing 1,869 kg, it doesn’t respond as eagerly as those pricey mid-engine exotics, but the ZL1 turns in smartly, deals well with late braking into the corner, and allows for quick mid-corner corrections with the steering wheel or the gas.
The advanced stability control system allows widely varying levels of slip before it kicks in – from street-ready cautiousness to remarkable “is-this-thing-still-on?” restraint. That’s down to the well-thought-out Performance Traction Management system, as first seen on the Corvette ZR1, still the ultimate Chevrolet sports car and supercar rival, offering 641 hp from a similar supercharged 6.2-litre V-8, but for a much heftier $119,000 to start. The PTM system takes your basic electronic stability control and parses it down to fine levels of electronic intervention, with six modes in total, from most interventionist (Mode 1 or Wet) to limb and life-risking all the way off (Mode 6).
This is also the mode you want it in for big, smoky, stinky, yet primitively fascinating tire-shredding burnouts, as GM happily demonstrated on the track.
The variable rate damping system is even more advanced, the latest MagneRide suspension now offering dual-core damping, which adjusts the shock’s damping levels much faster than before, at about 1,000 times per second, or once every inch at highway speeds. It’s again a rarity at anything less than six figures, as it also allows the ZL1 to combine its track prowess with a surprisingly supple ride on the street.
So with a powerhouse engine, bleeding-edge suspension and big-time Brembo brakes that clawed the ZL1’s speed down mightily again and again with little evidence of fading, how come the Camaro ZL1 is so inexpensive? Well, since it’s only coming out of the Camaro’s regular Oshawa, Ont., assembly plant, the persistently high Canadian dollar is not helping anymore.
No, it’s quite obviously the interior, which still looks very close to what an SS owner would see, outside of suede seat and steering wheel trimmings. This should perhaps be expected, as the ZL1 is technically a performance option package on the SS, as listed in GM’s ordering guide.
There are a few more exterior differences that set the ZL1 apart from its lesser Camaro siblings. The more prominent carbon-fibre “Mohawk” hood, the protruding front splitter lower lip, available black wheels, larger rear spoiler and a rear diffuser around the dual quad exhaust tips are all giveaways, not counting the front, rear and side (on that hood bulge) ZL1 badges.
In the end, one can’t deny that the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is one of the true performance bargains of all time, even if a final price in the 70-large range after options and taxes is getting awfully close to the starting price of a much more refined Cadillac CTS-V Coupe that shares its engine, less 29 ponies for stricter intake plumbing. There’s also the ominously large 650-hp shadow being cast by the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500, which Ford announced at the Los Angeles auto show before GM could even get the ZL1s to market, this spring for the coupe and summer for the convertible.
With increasingly tough 2016 and later 2025 fuel efficiency mandates looming, as well as new-generation versions of both the Camaro and its Mustang nemesis rumoured to arrive around 2014, it’s possible that this car may well become an automotive signpost of the end of the “traditional” muscle car era, at least in this big-displacement and supercharged V8 form.
No matter whether GM responds in kind to the upcoming GT500, and I’m betting it does, this Camaro ZL1 seems like a classic, even before it arrives.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Type: Mid-size 2+2 performance coupe
Base price: $58,000
Engine: 6.2-litre, supercharged, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 580 hp/556 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.9 city/10.5 highway (manual); premium recommended
Alternatives: Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, Dodge Challenger SRT8 392, Ford Boss Mustang and Shelby GT500, Hyundai Genesis V-8 Coupe, Nissan GT-R