I almost didn't get to test Chevrolet's new ZL1 Camaro. Or, more accurately, I almost didn't get to test - as in really put it through its paces - the company's latest muscle-bound pony car.
As if new to this business of having a truly track-ready production car, Camaro's public relations staff were more nervous than first-time fathers told that they were going to have triplets, all of them girls. It was tough to figure out what the press hacks expected to go wrong; that the car would be a hunk of junk, that it would break under the pressure of true race-track abuse or that its handling would be so unwieldy that we simpleton motoring journalists would be treating Firebird International Raceway's prominent and unyielding guardrails like bumpers in a pinball machine? It was only after much deliberation (OK, really a whole bunch of wheedling and whining on our part) that they turned us loose on the Arizona circuit to actually flog the ZL1 as it so richly deserves.
It turns out they had nothing to worry about. For one thing, the new Camaro is terribly robust - nothing broke and, in something of a coup, Chevrolet says the ZL1's warranty will be valid even if you track test it, as long as it remains unmodified. More surprising, however, is that the ZL1 really is a formidable track weapon, able to challenge even European supercars around corners.
Yes, I know, I am as surprised as you are. Indeed, upon perusing the ZL1's spec sheet (especially that 1,900kg curb weight), I expected a car that was simply an SS with a bit more power; fun to spin tyres with but not the sort of thing you'd want to spend time flinging around a race track.
Instead, the ZL1 turns out to be a budget supercar. Besides the obvious - and that big, 580hp 6.2L supercharged V8 under the hood certainly qualifies as obvious - the real reason for the ZL1's exemplary performance is the latest Gen III Magnetic Ride suspension system and its twin-sister of computerised road-hugging malfeasance, the all-new Performance Traction Management traction control system. As incredible as it may seem, the two combine to render the rather portly Camaro into a rapier-like road rocket.
The ZL1's Gen III system, like earlier Magnetic Ride systems, uses a unique magnetorheological fluid that alters its viscosity, or thickness, in response to an electrical signal. Essentially, if you feed the fluid some electricity, it gets thicker — as in water to molasses — in the blink of an eye. This allows Chevy's engineers to almost instantly alter the suspension performance by computer. One minute the ZL1 is a model of decorum and the next the suspension is Formula One rigid, all because an ECU sends the dampers a few milliamps. Indeed, the new two-coil, two-wire dampers react so quickly, says Alex MacDonald, Chevrolet's chassis control development engineer, that it's possible to tailor the car's tendency to under or oversteer just by sending a current to the dampers. In its design phase, MacDonald claims, the big Camaro could be transformed from an understeering pig to an oversteering hooligan with just a few keystrokes from a laptop.
Throw in what is possibly the automotive world's most sophisticated traction control system, Chevy's new Performance Track Management (PTM), and you have one of the most easily controlled high-performance cars on the planet. PTM offers five positions of digital intervention, all the way from a "wet" setting to the full-zoot "track" mode.
MacDonald also says that PTM differs from other traction control systems by being predictive, as it can reduce power before the wheels lose traction rather than after.
The system works brilliantly. A little intrusive in its normal number two position, there's a noticeable delay on exiting corners at full throttle. But move up to position four and response feels as immediate as a race car; the back end drifts on command and yet no matter how silly you get, the PTM seems to reign you in before you get into oh-my-where-did-that-guardrail-come-from trouble.
Indeed, the ZL1 has few faults, the Magnetic Ride keeping the car flat even under high lateral "g" force fast turns at the end of Bob Bondurant's Firebird race track. The sticky (and almost treadless) 20-inch Goodyear Supercar F1s offered plenty of traction and the PTM system kept understeer in check. Even roiling through Firebird's high-speed "ess" turns fails to upset the plot, the big Camaro feeling more like a lithe Lotus when flip-flopping between apexes.
Only in the slowest of first-gear switchbacks do those 1,900kg overwhelm the Goodyears and push the front end a little wide. The ZL1 is a formidable track weapon.
How formidable? GM's development engineer, Aaron Link, posted an incredible 7:41.27-second lap time around the world-famous Nürburgring, the circuit that is now the world's benchmark for fast cars. That sees the ZL1 ahead of Porsche's mighty 911 GT3 piloted by none other than 'ring legend Walter Rohl as well as the Pagani Zonda S and less than a second behind Lamborghini's mighty Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera. This might be a good time to remind everyone that, yes, I'm really talking about a Camaro.
Of course, part of the reason for the ZL1's incredible turn of speed is that monster supercharged 6.2L engine. Based on the same basic block and Eaton blower as the ZR1 Corvette and the CTS-V Cadillac, the Camaro's 580 horses neatly splits the difference between the two, being 58 less than the over-the-top Vette but 24 more than the M5-trouncing Caddy.
In truth, it is the 754Nm of torque that matters more. So massive is the low-end grunt that the supercharger pumps out that I opted for the six-speed automatic version when romping around the race track. No matter what losses the slushbox's torque converter might engender, the big 6.2 had more than enough to cover it. In fact, according to GM, the automatic is actually quicker, romping to 96kph in just 3.9 seconds, 0.1 quicker than the manual. The automatic is also faster on the top end as well, its 297kph top-speed seven more than the six-speed manual.
And the engine barks like the real McCoy. The exhaust system, as is common these days, has a cut-out to let all those horses breath. But even more mesmerising is the noise from throttle limiter that kicks in as you exceed top revs.
It all adds up to one of the biggest surprises in recent years, a mid-priced American sports car that is as track worthy as the best from Europe or Japan.
Yes, the interior still looks like it fell out of a Chevette and quite why Chevrolet makes a car that can generate 1.0 g of lateral cornering force and then stints on the seats' side bolstering is beyond me.
Nonetheless, this may be the best track-day bandit you can buy for the price.
For those of us of middle-class means looking for a supercar that we can afford to abuse, this as good as it gets.
Base price N/A
Engine 6.2L OHV supercharged V8
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Power 580hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 753Nm @ 4,200rpm
Fuel economy, combined N/A