With a bark and a burble, the Camaro ZL1 announces its 580 horsepower engine, while Magnetic Ride Control, technology borrowed from Corvette and Cadillac, help keep it planted in the turns. But a 15 mpg average means plenty too many trips to the gas station.
When I turned the key in the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Godzilla cleared his throat. Or maybe it was Mount Vesuvius erupting. Possibly the Blue Angels were doing a flyover, and just hitting supersonic. After that bit of drama, I could hear the bass burble of the Camaro ZL1's LSA engine, a perfect example of muscle car music. This sound is uniquely American, not replicated by the Germans or the Japanese in their most powerful cars.
This engine is the centerpiece of the Camaro ZL1, and part of the game of one-upsmanship currently being played between Ford and Chevrolet. And by the numbers, Chevrolet is losing. Where Chevy's LSA engine churns out 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque, the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 is boasting 662 horsepower and 631 pound-feet of torque.
Not that I ever felt the Camaro ZL1 was underpowered. On my first outing I kicked down the gas pedal on a convenient straightaway, and the car torqued right. A little later I noticed the traction control was off, an essential piece of electronic gear for keeping all that power reigned in under normal driving conditions.
The eight cylinders displace 6.2 liters in the LSA engine. Just imagine three 2-liter soda bottles, and a little extra, all charged with explosive power. On top of that is a 1.9-liter supercharger forcing air into the cylinders. In CNET's car, this powerful engine sat under a vented carbon fiber hood insert, an optional and functional piece for the Camaro ZL1.
Beyond extras like that hood insert and the ZL1 badges, the exterior differed little from lesser Camaro models. The car features the same low greenhouse and two-door coupe design that made the Camaro an instant hit when Chevy released the newest model in 2009. As is typical for a special trim like this, the ZL1 gets its own wheels, and these are wrapped in Goodyear F1s, wide tires that are as close to slicks as you can get for general road use.
Tame in the city
When faced with a juggernaut like the Camaro ZL1, I am always a little hesitant, as these cars can be hell to drive through a dense urban jungle with traffic lights (which always seem to be red) at every block. But from my first cruise I found the car perfectly happy to be driven at low speeds, and it was easy to modulate acceleration when the lights turned green.
Okay, part of that driving ease came from the fact this Camaro ZL1 was equipped with the optional six-speed automatic. Before you sports car purists scoff, let me say that there exist some very capable automatics out there, and this is one of them. In manual mode, the paddle shifters on the steering wheel enact gear changes with satisfying swiftness. Tap for a downshift and I was instantly hurled forward as the lower gear bit in against the mammoth engine's torque.
The standard automatic drive mode is slow to downshift, and the Sport mode is not worth a damn, but the manual mode delivered the kind of response I wanted when pounding the car down a twisty road. GM also uses this transmission in its Cadillac CTS-V, and I had no complaints about it in that application. In fact, Chevrolet says the automatic transmission delivers a faster zero-to-60 mph acceleration time than the standard six-speed manual.
Another technology borrowed from the CTS-V was the Magnetic Ride Control suspension, which dynamically changes the stiffness of the dampers. Buttons in front of the shifter let me choose between Touring and Sport modes, and these made a notable difference in the ride. The suspension was always on the stiff side, but Touring mode added some sponginess. It felt like the car had Slinkys holding the wheels on.
Even with the suspension in Sport, I never found the ride harsh. Adding to the Camaro ZL1's comfort level were well-padded sport seats. These power-adjustable seats were covered in a grippy fabric and had bolsters that kept me in place, but were not so prominent as to invade my personal space every time I got in or out of the car. The cabin contained some nice fabric trim, but most surfaces were covered in hard plastics, and the back seats were not suitable for people. Despite the ZL1 trim, this car is still a Camaro.
Navigation not optional
And like the other Camaro models in the 2012 line, the ZL1 has no onboard navigation option. Chevrolet's familiar aqua electroluminescent radio display sits in the center of the dashboard, underlined by a row of buttons and bookended by traditional tuning and volume dials. However, Chevrolet does a surprisingly good job with this display, making it serve for all stereo and Bluetooth phone functions.
With three lines on the display, I found it easy to select albums from a connected iPod or to look up names from my paired phone's contact list. The car comes with voice command, but its functions are limited. I could not say the name of a contact on my phone and have it dial out, although the car has its own voice-tagged phone book I could have manually programmed. Nor could I ask it to do anything with the stereo. Contrast that with the much more capable Ford Sync system in the Shelby GT500.
Here's a tip: wait for the 2013 Camaro ZL1, as it will come with Chevrolet's MyLink system, offering more complete voice command along with app integration.
There are not many options for the Camaro ZL1, but a tempting one is the subwoofer package, which adds not one, but two 10-inch subs. I would also recommend a more powerful amp, as the 245-watt Boston Acoustics system lacks some oomph. The nine speakers from this system created good definition in the music I fed it, but the sound was not very rich. A few more watts could elevate the mids.
Some of the Camaro ZL1's cabin tech comes through OnStar, which is an excellent telematics service. It offers remote door unlocking, crash alerts, and stolen car recovery, along with other services. And while it does have turn-by-turn navigation, the system requires the car to be within range of a cell tower. In areas with a connection, but no data, the OnStar operator will literally read out a set of turns to a destination, and the voice record gets saved to the car for review. How quaint is that?
One very nice feature that comes standard on the Camaro ZL1 is a head-up display, a projection on the windshield showing speed and a variety of other driver-selectable information, such as lateral g-forces. Another very useful piece of equipment is the rearview camera, with its LCD mounted in the rearview mirror.
However, I found both displays easily washed out in bright sunshine. Racing the Camaro ZL1 around a track on a bright day, the HUD was invisible, so I could not see the obviously record speeds I was making around the corners.
Electrically assisted cornering
Opening it up under these conditions, I found the numb nature of the electrically boosted power steering made itself known. The wheel has good weight, and it accurately and quickly pointed the front wheels where I wanted to go. It even worked well under those circumstances where I had to shuffle the wheel a bit when the Camaro ZL1 was at the edge of grip. But the wheel offered no feedback from the road, a fault of this new, efficient type of power-steering system. The Camaro ZL1 is not alone in this regard. Porsche gave its new 911 a similarly boosted steering system, and just about every other automaker is falling in line.
Despite the numb steering, cornering the Camaro ZL1 was quite fun. The back end came out easily, even with the grippy Goodyear F1 tires and traction control on. But it was very easy to rein it back in, either scrubbing off some speed or through some steering-wheel work. Standard Brembo brakes provided good, easily modulated stopping power. At the end of a straight, I could give the brakes quarter, half, or more force, shedding just the right amount of speed.
Heading into the turns, the Camaro ZL1 does not feel like a precision instrument. In this regard, it stays true to its muscle car heritage. Even with good control over the steering, it felt a little rubbery, a little vague on initial turn-in. The Magnetic Ride Control suspension did an excellent job of keeping the car flat, but keeping the car on a line was more like riding a bucking bronco than laser pattern cutting, the latter being more the experience of cornering a BMW M3.
One problem with the Camaro ZL1, which not even the electric power steering saves it from: it earns a gas guzzler tax. The EPA rates it at 12 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, and there is no real chance, and not much point, in driving it so as to top that range. My observed mileage of 15.5 mpg only included city, freeway, and mountain highway driving, excluding track time.
The 2012 Camaro ZL1 is an impressive car, and will get plenty of attention from people on the street, if from nothing else but the exhaust note. Even though the Camaro has been out for a few years, the car still has head-turning looks, accentuated by the strip down the roof and trunk lid. Its mileage and interior space limit its practicality as an everyday driver.
Cabin tech comes up subtly in this car. The radio-based head unit may not look like much, but it can handle Bluetooth phones and music players, and connect to iPods and USB drives with its USB port. Although I prefer an onboard navigation system, OnStar can come in handy. This cabin tech should improve dramatically with the 2013 model year.
When it comes to performance, the Camaro ZL1 holds its own. The massive power makes for exciting, sometimes barely controlled, takeoffs. Cornering requires skill, as it does not take much for the car to break loose. However, I could always feels when it was at the edge of grip, and it gave enough leeway to get it back under control.
|Model||2012 Chevrolet Camaro|
|Powertrain||Supercharged 6.2-liter V-8, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||12 mpg city/18 mpg higway|
|Observed fuel economy||15.5 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, iPod, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Boston Acoustics 245-watt, 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Head-up display, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$59,250|