500 miles in the 650-hp 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

While I never got a speeding ticket, the threat of earning one was always gloriously present.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
6 min read

Two miles in, 498 to go, and the madness had already set in.

You, too, would be struck with madness if you had 650 horsepower at the ready, with no place to legally exercise some, or even most of it. It's like Frodo and the One Ring, the Precious begging to be used despite your determination to reach the fires of Mount Doom without difficulty.

My road trip spanned some 500 miles, stretching from Charlotte, North Carolina -- the home of Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR -- to Daytona Beach, Florida, home of NASCAR's legendary Daytona 500. My ride was the 650-horsepower, 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible.

The ZL1 is not your average Camaro. Under the hood is the 6.2-liter supercharged LT4 V8, the same heart that beats within the Corvette Z06. The rear wheels are the only ones tasked with putting all that power to the ground, but help comes in the way of a six-speed manual transmission or a new 10-speed automatic.

There's a ZL1 coupe, but since we'd driven that already, the focus was on the droptop, and we had plenty of time to suss out the differences.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible has a whole lot of hustle

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Drop the top

The ZL1's fabric top operates with a single switch, and it takes about 18 seconds to drop at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. With the top up, it's damn near a coupe, with appreciable wind noise not making an appearance until extralegal speeds. Since this is a Camaro, there's never any assumption that rearward visibility matters or exists, and it's the same case with this model.

With the top down, though, it's quite the breezy affair. There's wind, and plenty of it. Putting the windows up doesn't stop the turbulence within the cabin, though it does cut down on noise a bit. Or at least the glass provides a barrier so you can actually hear the person next to you talking.

Yet, when the top is down, this pony car remains solid as a rock. There's no cowl shake or anything that would suggest flimsy assembly. It's a big, solid convertible, cut from stone and unflappable at speed.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible
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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

This is the first Camaro droptop to operate at speeds above 0 mph.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

The man in the iron bathtub

Then again, it should be unflappable, because this iron bathtub weighs over 4,000 pounds. It's a big car, much like the Challenger with which it competes, and it exhibits some of the same tendencies as its Auburn Hills rival.

The ZL1 Convertible may not look like a bathtub, but it feels like one. The beltline is too damned high -- you can't even rock an elbow atop the door without forcing your arm into some obscene, uncomfortable angle.

The dashboard is equally tall, even with the seat raised. The gauge pod in front of the driver raises the line even higher, so forward visibility is an issue, but it's one that's dogged the Camaro for two generations now. It's difficult to tell where the hood ends, so discretion must be exercised during tight parking maneuvers.

At most, you'll get a glimpse of the ZL1 badge atop the carbon fiber hood scoop, but that's not even halfway to the end.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible
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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

It's a nice badge.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Hustle and bustle

The ZL1 badge serves as a constant reminder that your car is not built to screw around. With 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque on tap, exceeding the speed limit is a matter of when, not if. For the record, Chevy quotes 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds and claims it can trip the quarter-mile fantastic in 11.4 seconds at 127 mph. Those official figures are likely for the slightly lighter coupe, but I defy you to tell the difference from behind the wheel of this convertible.

The familiar whine of the supercharger isn't as extreme as it is in a Challenger Hellcat, but it's always there, although it gets hidden by wind noise with the top down. The exhaust note, though, bounces off nearby buildings and walls with reckless abandon, inviting drivers near and far to investigate the source of the ruckus.

While the throttle input is delightfully sprightly in any of the ZL1's available modes, it's somehow easy to meet and beat the ZL1's EPA-estimated 20-mpg highway. One light-footed colleague saw 25 mpg after a particularly boring stretch of highway, though my number was closer to 21 mpg despite plenty of pedal pushin'.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible
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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

Every car on the road should have this engine. I don't care about how impossible that actually is.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

The car features several different drive modes, but there's an additional level of customization possible. The steering, suspension and exhaust can be set to stay in a certain mode when the rest of the system goes soft or hard. If you don't live with the exhaust in Track mode, you're doing it wrong.

Suspension is best left in Tour mode, where the magnetorheological shocks best absorb bumps and jostles. Even in Tour, there's a bit of skittishness over bumps and across poorly paved roads, of which there were many on our 500-mile jaunt.

No matter the mode, though, the ZL1's six-speed manual was a delight. The shifter is nice, with short throws and the perfect amount of tautness in each gate. Active rev matching allows the ham-fisted among us to feel fleet of foot, even if the computer is the one doing the legwork.

It's not all roses

The ZL1 is far from a perfect machine. The manual transmission features some particularly gnarly clutch chatter if you're not trying to launch it like a tool from every stoplight. It's not easy to move smoothly, but once you get it down, it's more manageable than it might seem.

The seats are supportive in regards to lateral motion, but the backs are hard and not necessarily super comfortable for long hauls. After about 10 hours of driving, I wasn't exactly sore but I didn't feel like I'd fallen asleep on a memory foam mattress.

The convertible's trunk features a partition that separates the cargo area from the stowed drop top. If you plan on an open-air experience, the trunk will fit two large backpacks at most. No long weekend trips for you, unless you want to fill the back seat with weekender bags.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible
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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

If you're looking for a trunk in which to hide a body, this ain't it.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Packaging constraints continue in the cabin. The wireless phone-charging pad could only fit between the front and rear seats, which is slightly annoying. The visors are flimsy, and the mirrors don't have covers, so if it's sunny out, I hope you like what you see.

My least favorite part of the ZL1 Convertible isn't limited to the convertible. It's the skip-shift system designed to improve fuel economy, which is on by default and suggests a 1-4 upshift within a certain speed range. It's frustrating when you forget it exists, and it requires you to shift earlier or later than what feels natural, in order to not lug the motor at such low speeds. The LT4's torque can handle the shift, but it never feels right.

Down to brass tacks

The ZL1 is a proper monster, with a top speed nearing 200 mph, which 99 percent of owners will never experience. Sadly, neither did we, forging a path on expressways with plenty of places for policemen to park.

The convertible's 200-plus-pound difference over the coupe helps the car feel planted at all times. Most of that weight comes from the top, along with some additional underbody bracing to make up for the lack of a rigid roof.

The additional under-car kit means sacrifices must be made. Most notably, the coupe's electronic limited-slip differential doesn't have the space to fit in the 'vert, so it makes do with a traditional mechanical unit instead. Sadly, a lack of road curvature meant I was unable to truly get a feel for the difference -- let alone approach its stated 1.02g max cornering capability -- but that just means I'll have to drive both again on different roads. Shucks.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible
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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

Here's the view that most folks will get of the ZL1. That's where the sound is best.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

All this hustle doesn't come cheap. With a suggested retail price of $67,140, our tester clocked in at a whopping $69,930, after dropping $1,300 on the gas guzzler tax, $495 on navigation (I'm surprised that's not standard at this price) and a few more buckaroos on taxes and all that good stuff.

But if you have the scratch, and you want to drive around in an aggressive droptop that'll tear the doors off most cars costing less than six figures, it's hard to go wrong with the ZL1 Convertible.