Chevy Camaro ZL1 Is the Performance Muscle Car to Beat

Take your pick from a half-century of muscle cars: None will outperform the supercharged, 650-horsepower Camaro ZL1.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Let’s hop into Marty McFly’s DeLorean and jump back 35 years to meet the Chevy Camaro. It’s 1982, and Biff couldn’t be prouder of his Camaro Z/28 and its flaccid, 145-horsepower V-8. Everyone with a brain knows it’s a plastic POS—perfect for lunkheads like Biff—though a Motor Trend Car of the Year award shows the dire straits of Eighties “performance.”

Crash land in 2017, and Great Scott! we have the Camaro ZL1 with 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. Whereas the ’82 Z/28 took more than 9 seconds to hit 60 mph, the ZL1 does it in 3.5 seconds and with 450 percent more horsepower. A supercharged, direct-injected LT4 V-8, electronic rear differential, magnetic suspension, and optional Performance Data Recorder are all gifted offspring of a Corvette Z06. Doc Brown would be apoplectic over the slick 10-speed automatic, which GM swears can upshift faster than Porsche’s dual-clutch PDK unit. An automobile with 10 forward speeds, and paddles for shifting? Impossible!

The Price Is Relative

But it’s no time-traveling fantasy. Walk into today’s Chevy showroom, walk out with a Camaro that does 200 mph, give or take. More importantly, a Camaro whose overall performance will top many pedigreed sports cars, including a standard Corvette Stingray, and slay most pricey European coupes. And while the ZL1 is dearly priced by muscle-car standards—$63,435 for the manual-transmission coupe and $6,000 more for the convertible—the ZL1 costs less than a stripper Porsche Cayman S with a four-cylinder turbo and 350 horsepower. That’s what I call Making America Great Again.

Honestly, the 455-horsepower, $44,400 Camaro SS 1LE is all the Camaro you’d ever want, or need, especially on well-patrolled public streets. But there’s something to be said for overkill, especially in a Camaro that applies those 650 horses to the asphalt with ruthless efficiency and, in our initial impression, less squirrelly behavior than the far-lighter Corvette Z06.

Setting a Hot Pace in NASCAR Country

Appropriately, our introduction to the ZL1 came on a pilgrimage from Charlotte, N.C. to the Daytona 500. This included a private tour of Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick’s private museum, stuffed with dozens of pristine Camaros and Corvettes. The ZL1 will someday join them on museum and auction floors, but not because of movie-idol looks. The sixth-generation Camaro is more purposeful than pretty, and the ZL1 especially looks brutish enough to be an arm-breaker for the mob. Getting air to that voracious 6.2-liter engine, and creating downforce without excessive drag, was a key engineering brief—which explains the industrial-strength, black-barred grille and inlets on widened front fenders. Eleven heat exchangers include a pair of outboard radiators up front. A carbon-fiber hood heat extractor includes a rain gutter than quickly detaches with three screws for even more airflow. A stanchion-type spoiler helps pin the rear at effortless triple-digit speeds, including a quarter-mile blast in 11.6 seconds at 127 mph. Al Oppenheiser, the Camaro’s speed-loving chief engineer, says confidently that owners won’t experience a trace of heat soak (that is, un-dissipated heat that saps performance) even in the most brutal track shakedowns.

Lawrence Ulrich

ZL1 Coupe takes a breather in seaside Beaufort, S.C. 

The magnetic ride suspension with FE4 tuning largely mimics that of the SS 1LE, only with wider and more aggressive Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires (305/30/ZR20’s out back) and bigger, longer-lasting brakes that include six-piston Brembo calipers and 390-mm front rotors. Chevy cites 1.02 g’s of maximum cornering grip and a stop from 60 mph in 107 feet. Crank those tires to the maximum 51 psi and set wheel camber to zero, and the ZL1 will safely run above 200 mph in stock trim.

Our 500-mile route from Charlotte to Daytona doesn't allow those speeds, though the Camaro makes clear that it would happily run above 110 mph all day long if circumstances permitted. And we promise to test the ZL1 on a suitable road course at the first opportunity. Yet with a quick mental switch to redneck-hijinks mode, I manage to have a smoking good time in the ZL1, enough to get an awestruck sense of what this strapping baby can do.

Six Speeds and a Clutch, or Ten Speeds With Paddles

For many hardcore ZL1 buyers, the standard six-speed manual transmission will be the only choice. With your left foot and thighbone connected to 650 blown horses, the experience is as involving as you might imagine, set to the omnipresent whirr of the Eaton supercharger. In yet another Corvette inheritance, the Active Rev Match feature automatically blips the throttle for downshifts when you're not in the mood for heel-and-toe maneuvers.

Yet GM’s new 10-speed HydraMatic transmission makes its own solid impression, and it makes for the quickest ZL1 on dragstrip or track. I roll past Charlotte Motor Speedway in a ZL1 automatic coupe, expecting a lugging engine, premature upshifts or busy gear changes—all notorious demerits of Fiat Chrysler’s nine-speed slushbox. Instead, GM’s take on the Schwinn ethos is fast and utterly unobtrusive, a notable improvement over the dawdling, mediocre eight-speed in current Corvettes and Cadillacs. Paddle-actuated downshifts are crisp, but full-throttle upshifts are even more impressive, with the barest interruption in the torrent of power. 

That the transmission is tuned for peak performance—keeping the engine in its sweet spot for hot corner exits, rather than running lower revs to save fuel—shows in the fuel economy. The automatic actually drinks more fuel than the manual, at 12 / 20 mpg in city / highway versus 14 / 20 mpg. (Both versions are dinged with a gas-guzzler tax, at $1,300 for manuals and $2,100 for automatics). And its 7.39 overall ratio spread is wider than Texas, with ninth and tenth gear both overdrives.

Lawrence Ulrich

Launch Control. Yes, please.

A Favorite Recipe for BBQ Tires, Courtesy of Line Lock

On a Lowcountry two-laner in South Carolina, it was time to goof with the automated launch control. Via the driver’s instrument cluster, I choose my engine-rpm level for an automated clutch drop and a percentage target for wheel spin. I start by setting RPMs to 1,700 and wheel spin to 10 percent. The Camaro chirps its tires and catapults toward some imaginary finish line, a textbook-perfect launch for a winning dragstrip time. Next, I dial up to 2,200 rpm with 15 percent wheelspin. The Chevy lays a long, howling stripe of rubber before hooking up nearly at the top of first gear. Call that the impress-your-friends, or perhaps the piss-off-the-neighbors, setting.

We make the switch from an automatic coupe to a manual convertible at a seaside lunch in Beaufort, S.C. And in honor of our southern locale, we next order our Goodyears Dixie Fried by sampling the Line Lock feature. The Line Lock holds the front brakes for up to 15 seconds for a classic smoky burnout, allowing us to steadily upshift to third gear without having to touch the brake. Noxious smoke envelops the open-roofed Camaro, chokes driver and passenger, and floats like storm clouds across nearby fields. Press two steering wheel buttons simultaneously, and the Camaro segues into a perfect rolling burnout. Man, that's fun. Not 60 seconds after melting the tires and blackening the pavement, we hear the blaring siren of a fire truck heading directly our way. Could some local have called in a three-alarm rubber blaze that quickly? Apparently not, because the firemen roar past without slowing down. Or maybe these fireworks are also legal in South Carolina.

On one freeway cloverleaf that seems to curl into infinity, I keep my foot in it to see when the Camaro will run out of grip. The Camaro unwinds the corner before that happens, barely stressing its tires, or suspension. Steering seems near-identical to the SS 1LE’s, which is to say excellent for both weighting and feel.

Lawrence Ulrich

Convertible version solves the Camaro's claustrophobic sightlines.

The ZL1 convertible plops a hefty 4,110 pounds on the scales with a manual transmission compared with 3,883 for the coupe. So while the hardtop ZL1 will be the correct tool for track, the convertible offers a literal eye-opening advantage: You can actually see out of it when the cloth top is down. (The coupe's tangled sightlines and dark bowels, like the view from inside a python's belly, remain the Camaro's least-winning feature). There is one trade off for the convertible’s airy sensory pleasures: There’s no electronic limited-slip differential, because its sizable control unit wouldn’t fit in the ragtop’s rear. That smartly engineered differential is a Camaro trump card, with multiple fine-tuned settings that gradually relax electronic nannies while upping the performance ante. Pulling into Daytona Beach at twilight, I salute the standard Recaro buckets that leave my back and body mostly unscathed after an 11-hour trip. Ride quality is firm but surprisingly livable, especially in the suspension’s softest Tour mode.

Chevrolet

Nice materials, nicer Recaro seats, excellent gauges and displays

On Street or Track, ZL1 Will be Hard to Beat

Oppenheiser and Co. were calling this the ultimate Camaro, “the best for steet, strip or track.” That honor lasts ‘til the next afternoon at Daytona, when NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon rolls up to us in the ZL1 1LE, a special track-package version designed to trim precious seconds off the ZL1’s already monumental lap times. 

We’ve been saying this for a while, and the ZL1 drives it home: The traditional term “muscle car,” with its connotations of clumsy American handling and primitive engineering, doesn’t do justice to Camaros and Mustangs that (luxury aside) match up against the cream of the European crop. Tell your friends, the ones who drive BMW M's and Mercedes AMG's: The ZL1 is coming for them. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.