Were supercar shootouts conducted on paper, this one would be a cakewalk. By any numerical determination you care to choose, the 2013 edition of Ford's GT500 Mustang lords its supremacy over Chevy's ZL1 Camaro. It's quicker to 100 kilometres an hour, speedier through the quarter mile and wrung out to its top speed, Ford's topflight Mustang is at least 20kph faster than Chevrolet's ultimate Camaro.
Indeed, the specifications for the GT500 read like something out of a Lamborghini brochure. There's a double overhead camshaft 5.8L V8 that pumps out 662hp (at a heady 6,500rpm), 855Nm of tire shredding torque available at 4,000rpm and its 12-second quarter mile time is more apropos to a 1,000cc superbike than a lowly specimen of Detroit iron. By way of comparison, the Camaro ZL1 has 80 less horsepower, 101 fewer torques and weighs 106kg more. Should be no contest, right?
Thankfully, at least for General Motors, there's a lot more to driving than simply dominating the back page of a showroom brochure. The first thing that surprises is that, although the Mustang wins the spec sheet wars, it's the Camaro that feels more on the street. Both cars share the same four-lobe Eaton supercharger and boast about the same displacement (the Camaro has a slight advantage at 6.2L compared with the GT's 5.8), but the real source of the seeming anomoly is that the Mustang has "Le Mans" style gearing, its 3.31:1 rear-axle ratio noticeably taller than the Camaro's acceleration-friendly 3.73:1. Credit Ford's desire to boast a top speed of more than 320kph, or perhaps the engineers were just trying to eek out better highway fuel economy by having the big V8 rev less, but the GT500's 5.8L is spinning so slow in top gear that punching the throttle results in little more than a moan of protest from the intake manifold. The ZL1, although also geared fairly tall in sixth, manages to actually accelerate.
Of course, the Mustang fans out there are screaming, "Just downshift the thing, you big wuss!" Here, too, things are a little problematic for the Ford. Even though both cars use a Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual gearbox, the Mustang's feels like it's been liberated from a bulldozer, while the Camaro's is as smooth as a BMW's. I don't know whether it's a case of Ford's shifting mechanism being particularly poorly designed or the Chevy's magically engineered, but the difference is startling; I would have never guessed that the same transmission lies underneath. In other words, downshifting is just not a whole bunch of fun in the Ford, so one tends to just leave it in fifth gear on the highway and suck back the gas.
The situation is reversed, dramatically even, on a racetrack. Without constables and pedestrians to fear, one is free to let loose the Mustang's horses and on the open track, where horsepower and revs reign supreme. Ford's high-tech, double overhead camshaft V8 is clearly superior. Drive the Camaro in isolation and it is monstrously fast; after all it does boast 580 horses even if they are burdened with a not unsubstantial 1,861 kilograms of curb weight.
But jump in the GT500 afterwards and it's like you've gained a couple of afterburners. Once on the boil the Mustang fairly rockets ahead, making all kinds of rorty noises and eating up the straightaways in big supercharged gulps; 662hp will not be denied. And thanks to the four-valve GT500's 7,000rpm redline — 1,000rpm higher than the retro-tech two-valve, overhead valve Camaro — you can hold each gear a lot longer in the Mustang, avoiding that reluctant gear-shift linkage. Indeed, the Mustang's taller gearing, something of a nuisance on the street, was a boon at the track. In the Camaro, a few of the shorter straights required upshifting to avoid banging into the rev limiter, only to then have to immediately downshift again for the next corner, each gear change a waste of precious time on the gas. The GT, by comparison, could gobble up many of the same sections in a single gear, saving time on the shifting.
Still in a straight line - mostly - the brakes, like the transmission, proved another puzzling anomaly. Both cars sported top-quality six-piston Brembo front calipers and yet the Mustang had noticeably better braking performance. Part of the explanation could be that the Camaro is carrying those 106 extra kilos or that its vented front discs are 10 millimetres smaller, but then the GT500's rear calipers are dinky single-piston calipers seemingly lifted from a poverty-spec Focus while the Camaro has substantial four-pot items. It might even be that the Camaro's binders had suffered some abuse at the hands of other auto scribes. Indeed, other evaluations compliment the ZL1 brakes on their fade-free performance. But, in our test, the Camaro's stoppers were clearly inferior. Switching out of the GT500 after a few fast laps back into the ZL1 almost always assured missing the first few braking markers, along with, of course, a few expletives decrying the Camaro's braking power. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
So, the Mustang fans are thinking, revenge is ours. Since these cars are performance-oriented beasts and the Ford is better to'ing and fro'ing, it must have won our little competition.
Were that it was that simple. At the end of most straightaways, there's a corner, something that usually challenges the Mustang more than the Camaro. In one aspect of the racetrack portion of this comparo, the Mustang was very lucky. Calabogie Motorsport Park is the newest racing facility in Ontario, Canada, and so big, wide-tired, ground-effects supercars haven't had time to chew up its pavement. Indeed, the five kilometre, 20-turn circuit is one of the smoothest tracks in North America and the equal of many in southern Europe.
It allows the Mustang liberties it might not enjoy at other venues. The Mustang, you see, makes do with an archaic old "live," or solid, rear axle, while the Camaro features a more modern independent rear suspension system. As well, ZL1 taps the Z06 Corvette for its way-trick magnetorheological dampers (essentially the fluid in the Chevy's shock changes viscosity, or thickness, in response to electrical current), which are far more sophisticated than Ford's two-stage Bilsteins.
Had Calabogie been bumpy (and, indeed, the difference was readily apparent on our road ride), the Mustang would have had to take a back seat to Camaro through the turns. Both cars generate about the same level of lateral grip (in fact, both cars run on Goodyear Eagle F1 "Supercar" performance radials, though the Camaro's are wider, front and rear), but the Camaro handles bumps with aplomb while the Mustang reacts with an alarm commensurate to the size of the perturbance.
Because Calabogie was so glass-smooth, however, the difference in suspension performance wasn't so readily apparent. Indeed, there was only one high-speed crinkle that upset the Mustang's resolve. Otherwise, on Calabogie's unbroken pavement the Ford did an admirable impression of a race car, its stiffer suspension mitigating roll a little better than the Chevy. Its steering, heavy on the street, felt perfectly weighted on the track, Calabogie's high-speed turns showing off its excellent calibration.
Nonetheless, the Mustang had its issues. It was more prone to understeer, particularly at low speeds before the tires were fully warmed up. The Mustang does carry a greater percentage of its weight over the front axle — 57 per cent versus the Camaro's 53 per cent — but the real reason for the Camaro's better manageability is its Performance Traction Management System. Simply put, this is one of the best performance-oriented traction nannies in production and harnesses the Camaro's power and grip better than the Mustang's more rudimentary stability control system. It can't make the ZL1 defy Newton's laws of physics (as when some silly autojournalist forgets the Chevy's brakes aren't as powerful as the Ford's), but it makes the Camaro a whole bunch easier to drive fast.
And, in the end, that's the difference between the two cars. On this track at least, there's no doubt the Mustang was the faster of the two. On less co-operative (read bumpier) courses, that might not be true, the Mustang's lighter weight and superior horsepower perhaps offset by its relative lack of stability over humps and bumps. The GT500 never actually lost its composure, but it always felt like it might; the Camaro, in comparison made the driver feel like he could do know wrong. The bottom line is that the Camaro is significantly easier to drive and, when you have so much horsepower underfoot, confidence is the prime determiner of speed.
Both cars, of course, need improvement. The Camaro's weight problem, however, looks to be addressed if rumours of the next iteration being based on the Cadillac ATS platform prove true. The Mustang's future is more problematic. Until Ford admits that its basic chassis design has reached the limits of development, improvements to its power output may not achieve the desired boost in real world performance. In a nutshell, the Camaro is a traditional pony car looking for a way to fit into a modern world; the Mustang is a tremendous example of a retro muscle car looking to relive past glories. It may be faster. It's certainly much louder. But it's simply not as much fun to drive.