Master of excess

Chevy's ballsiest Camaro masters the trifecta of track, street and strip.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
5 min read

Welcome to the Camaro ZL1, the latest iteration of Chevy's sixth-generation Camaro, a car that has impressed us at every turn. Smaller, lighter and sharper than the previous model, Gen 6 came out swinging in 2015, facing off against a similarly reborn Mustang and, in the eyes of many, coming out ahead.

Chevrolet has followed that up with the predictable bevy of editions since, but now it's time for the big boy. It's the $63,435 Camaro ZL1, and this year it's rolling with 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque courtesy of the supercharged, 6.2-liter LT4 V8.

2017 Camaro ZL1 on the strip and the street

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It is, quite simply a monster, but it's much more than that: this is a monster that you can live with on a daily basis. That's especially true if you go for the automatic transmission, and though such a statement has historically been blasphemy, the new ZL1 doesn't have time for such sentiment.

The tech behind a better launch

2017 Camaro ZL1

With the standard line lock function, you can make all the tire smoke you want -- without burning out your clutch or your brakes.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The modern muscle car can't just be a straight-line demon. That isn't good enough anymore. Performance on the racetrack is a desirable part of the equation, too, and of course streetability will always be key.

Strip, street and track, the ZL1 tries to be all things to all of those places. Chevrolet engineers call it "the trifecta" and, for 2017, the drag strip was a big focus. The new ZL1 will hit 60 in 3.5 seconds and scream its way through the quarter in 11.4 with a 127 mph trap speed. That's about a half-second faster than before.

A big reason for the extra performance is the additional power, some 70 up over the last generation. The car has also lost weight, over 200 pounds worth, and while those two factors necessarily equate to a faster car, it goes a lot deeper than that. The new, 10-speed automatic transmission shifts in just 300 milliseconds, making the absolute most of those 650 lb-ft of torque, and the upgraded launch control has received some huge upgrades.

Launch control is almost expected functionality on sports cars these days, but the ZL1 truly raises the bar. Not only are there different levels of launches enabled depending on the available traction, you can actually create your own, custom flavor. Use the controls on the steering wheel to specify exactly what RPM the car should hold and precisely how much wheelspin will be allowed. How precise? How about 0.5 percent increments.

After a few tweaks the result is perfect launches, every time, and those wanting the fastest trap times will definitely want to select the 10-speed auto. It's four-tenths of a second quicker over the quarter.

On the track

2017 Camaro ZL1

The requisite giant Brembos are present, and capable.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Going fast in a straight line doesn't typically equate to handling ability in the corners, but the ZL1 doesn't disappoint here, either. We were given a few sessions on the big circuit at Willow Springs, sadly not enough to properly get comfortable with the car, but plenty to realize the potential.

Like the other performance-oriented GM autos, the ZL1 has a whole slew of driving modes to choose from. Yes, you'll want to be in Track of course to start, but from there you have five further gradations to customize your experience based on the track's level of grip and your level of expertise.

Or confidence, perhaps. With 650 horsepower on tap and a torque curve offering all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, there's no shame in wanting a little help to smooth out the power delivery.On Willow's fast, sweeping turns the ZL1 felt planted, MagneRide suspension coping with the numerous surface imperfections and the 285/30ZR20 front and 305/30ZR2 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar 3 tires acting like velcro on the vintage but grippy pavement. Here, I was less convinced that the 10-speed auto was preferable to the six-speed manual. It was faster, no doubt about that, and the extra flexibility in ratios meant I was never left debating between an early upshift early or a midcorner visit to the rev-limiter. However, when left to its own devices it often was hunting for gears in the longer, part-throttle turns, hopping up and down like an indecisive border collie. This unsettled the car a little bit, which isn't ideal.

You can of course override the system with the plastic paddles behind the wheel, and while the engagement isn't quite as crisp as a proper, dual-clutch system ala Porsche's PDK, it's properly quick and generally won't leave you wanting. No surprise, it was the 10-speed that set the blistering Nurburgring time of 7:29.60, about 12 seconds faster than the previous-gen ZL1.

On the street

2017 Camaro ZL1

Yeah, it's great out here, too.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

So it's a demon at the strip and doesn't disappoint on the track. Surely it's miserable on the road, right? Wrong, actually. The ZL1 is a legitimately pleasant road car.

The seats, which squeeze you like an old friend on the track, are just as friendly on the highway. In Tour mode the active suspension loses its edge and Chevy's MyLink system offers a solid experience on its own, plus compatibility for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay if you'd rather bring your own.

It'll do 20 mpg on the highway and won't even annoy you with a droning engine note thanks to a baffled exhaust. In fact, even with a wide-open throttle the ZL1 isn't particularly loud. I personally love the refined sound of the V8, with just enough supercharger whine to remind you that you're making boost, but I have a feeling the aftermarket crowd will be providing a number of solutions for those wanting more volume.

The competition

While you could theoretically pit this car up against the Hellcat, the ZL1 is a very, very different package. While the Dodge does put down bigger numbers on the dyno sheet, the Camaro is a far better-sorted, all-round sports car.

Its real competition lies in the Shelby Mustang GT350R, a car I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in earlier this year. These two cars, too, are surprisingly quite a bit different. The Shelby's flat-plane crank demands you rev it harder and harder, while the ZL1 just has oodles of torque wherever and whenever.

I'd hazard to say the ZL1 would be the quicker car around most tracks, thanks to its additional power, but when pushed I found the Shelby to be a bit more responsive and more engaging -- but I'll need more time behind the wheel of the Camaro to make a proper conclusion there.

Demon, tamed

2017 Camaro ZL1

Menace, but with purpose.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The ZL1 is a remarkable package, a big upgrade over the previous generation -- and I'm not just talking numbers. This is among the most potent street cars at the strip, it's properly capable on the track and, perhaps most impressive of all, it's still a perfectly livable street car.

Trifecta achieved? I'd say so, but of course there's a fourth element: cost. You'll spend $63,435 for a 2017 Camaro ZL1 manual, then another $1,595 for the automatic, which is legitimately good enough for you to consider. I confess I've chided friends for buying automatic muscle cars in the past, but the 10-speed here has so few compromises and enough advantages that, as much as it pains me to say it, it's probably the smarter choice.