What is it?
The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is the most potent Camaro ever produced, which Chevy has built to go toe-to-toe with Ford’s quickest Mustang, the Shelby GT500.
The four-seat, rear-drive muscle car is a tribute to the rare 1969 Camaro ZL1; a lightened, high-performance version geared towards the drag strip, where many owners enjoyed pushing their Chevrolets to the limit.
Chevy designed the latest Camaro to be at home on the strip and the race track, but also to have enough poise to allow it to be used as a daily driver.
At the heart of the car is a supercharged 6.2-litre engine (the same engine as in the Cadillac CTS-V) that’s tuned to produce 572bhp and 556lb ft.
The team behind the ZL1 re-engineered about 30 per cent of the Camaro SS to make the latest version, with race-oriented changes such as improved cooling systems, beefed-up differentials, clutch and brakes and significantly tweaked aerodynamics to provide downforce.
As well as more efficient cooling systems to cope with track use, the ZL1 is the first car to feature Chevrolet’s third-generation magnetic ride suspension system. This Camaro also gets Performance Traction Management, which controls the level of interference from the electronic driver aids. It features wet and dry road modes and three increasingly liberal track settings, another signal of Chevrolet’s intended market for the ZL1.
The ZL1’s straight-to-the-point attitude means it is ready for track use as soon as it has been run-in. The list of optional extras extends to an automatic transmission, a choice of wheels, a sunroof and very little else.
What is it like?
The Chevy is full of character from the moment you slip behind the wheel and survey the hulking power bulge, complete with ZL1 badging, on the bonnet that stretches out in front of you.
Start the engine (using a conventional key that looks like it could be for an Aveo or Cruze – no race-spec starter buttons here) and the engine emits a tame-but-pleasing burble. When you stab the throttle and snick up through the gears via the sturdy six-speed manual ’box, the small-block V8 emits a spine-tingling roar.
While powerful low-end punch and surging acceleration is impressive enough, the handling is more noteworthy, particularly if you labour under the misapprehension that US muscle cars have to be brutally fast but slightly agricultural when it comes to road manners.
This Camaro is quite the opposite: on the road, the ZL1 feels fairly refined. It rides and drives with a taut precision that suggests Chevy’s exhaustive testing at the Nürburgring Nordschleife was development time well spent.
It feels deceptively nimble for a car of this size and weight, a sensation that’s accentuated by the surprising light and deft steering. Hurtle enthusiastically into a bend and you don’t get an understeery reminder that there’s a sizeable V8 lump at the front. Get feisty with the throttle out of the corner and the rear end hunkers down obediently, only really starting to step out if you’re a tad too enthusiastic with your right foot or brave enough to switch the PTM system to one of the more aggressive modes.
The low-speed ride occasionally doesn’t iron out all of the road’s lumps and bumps, although some of the blame can be apportioned to the 20-inch wheels the ZL1 rides on.
The cabin layout is fairly basic and features some cheap-feeling plastic finishes that look like they have come straight off a generic GM parts shelf. That’s not to say the Camaro ZL1 isn’t a pleasant place to be – the stripped-down approach suits a car of this type, and you can be confident that Chevrolet’s money has been spent in honing the performance and handling rather than providing shiny cabin baubles.
The visibility isn’t great, thanks to broad A-pillars and the sculpted, swept-up rear end that includes tiny rear quarter lights and a narrow rear windscreen, neither of which offer much assistance when it comes to parking. It’s just as well that Chevy’s included a parking camera in the rear-view mirror and parking sensors, although positioning a car that’s 4836mm long and 1917mm wide still poses a challenge.
In general, though, the driving position is excellent and the leather seats strike a good balance between support for press-on track driving and comfort for highway cruising. Rear legroom and headspace is very limited, although that’s common of other cars of this ilk.
The elephant in the room is the fuel economy. Although the ZL1 is geared towards the track, Chevy intends it to be a road car too, and with that in mind it's difficult not to raise an eyebrow at a claimed combined economy that’s below 20mpg. On one 50-mile test route, driven fairly enthusiastically, our test car returned an average economy of 10.8mpg.
Should I buy one?
You can’t in the UK yet – and might not be able to at all through manufacturer channels. A decision hasn’t been made whether Chevrolet UK will officially import the ZL1 to its range alongside the existing SS, which is offered in left-hand drive only.
Using the relative US and UK prices of the Camaro SS as a guide, we reckon the ZL1 would pitch in at around £58,000 in the UK. Even if that proved to be the case, however, you’d still get a lot of performance for your money; in addition to the supercar-baiting grunt, you’d get a head-turning machine that’s stirring to drive and oozes US muscle car cachet.
You’d have to weigh that against the practical considerations, such as the outrageous thirst, and the car’s dimensions, which would make it more of a handful on tighter UK roads than it does on sprawling US highways.
Nevertheless, buying and running one chiefly as a track and drag strip weapon would lead to no end of tyre-chewing fun, and the automotive world is definitely a more colourful place with cars like the Camaro ZL1 in it.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Price: £58,000 (est); Top speed: 180mph; 0-62mph: 4.0sec; Economy: 19.2mpg (est); CO2: 389g/km (est); Kerbweight: 1872kg; Engine type, cc: V8, 6162cc, supercharged; Power: 572bhp at 6100rpm; Torque: 556lb ft at 3800rpm; Gearbox: 6spd manual