ZL1 1LE: Chevrolet builds a 650-horsepower Camaro track monster
The mammoth rear wing of the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE sports prominent "X" decals. It's to signify, say Chevrolet engineers, that this is the most extreme interpretation of the sixth-generation pony car. For enthusiasts who measure a car's worth by how well it romps around a racetrack, you may agree that those "X" stickers are warranted given the ZL1 1LE's Nürburgring lap time of 7:16.04.
That's quite a good time indeed, being 13.56 seconds quicker around the 12.9-mile Nordschleife than the 10-speed automatic ZL1, making the ZL1 1LE the fastest Camaro to lap the famous German track to date.
The aforementioned carbon fiber wing is just one of the elements to the $7,500 ZL1 1LE package, but an important one to help hustle the Camaro around road courses faster with 80 percent more downforce compared to the base ZL1 wing. Developed with the help of GM's road racing partners at Pratt & Miller, the large appendage provides 300 pounds of downforce at 150 mph.
Other aero tweaks include front dive planes and a splitter mounted on the front fascia, sporting larger grille openings to provide better airflow to the car's 11 various coolers. Like all other 1LE models, the hood gets a satin black wrap.
The aero work pays off down the long straight between turns one and two at the Area 27 race track in Oliver, British Columbia, which is a 250-mile drive east of Vancouver. Getting up to 125 mph isn't difficult with a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 working under the hood, pumping out 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque. At high speed, the ZL1 1LE is comfortable and drama free.
In keeping with the driver-focused mentality of the 1LE models, the only transmission available is a six-speed manual with the fantastic Active Rev Match program for always-perfect rev matches on downshifts. For those who prefer to blip the throttle themselves, Active Rev Match can be turned off with a pull of the paddle behind the steering wheel.
Through Area 27's variety of challenging corners, other aspects of the ZL1 1LE come into focus. Turn-in is sharp, and body roll is minimal, which is saying something for a 3,800-pound vehicle. Mid-corner grip is plentiful, without much understeer to speak of, even in the really tight complexes where I expect the car to plow forward.
Holding me tightly behind the suede-wrapped, flat-bottom wheel is a heavily bolstered Recaro seat, which just may be the best seat to come from the factory in a GM sports car.
Besides needing to smoothly roll into the throttle out of turns to not upset balance, the car isn't intimating to push hard. It's far from sketchy at the limit, and when you do surpass the tires' capabilities, traction progressively falls off, giving ample time to make adjustments to regain grip and continue on.
Helping to make the ZL1 1LE a handling fiend are Multimatic DSSV dampers, which were previously used on the Gen 5 Camaro Z/28, and are currently found on such high-performance vehicles as the Ford GT and Mercedes-AMG GT. The dampers themselves are hard-mounted to the car and work with springs that are nearly twice as stiff as the base ZL1. Track rats will also enjoy the ability to adjust ride height and front camber for up to 3.7 degrees of negative camber.
Out back, the cradle is solid-mounted to the body and there's a three-way adjustable sway bar. The electronic limited-slip differential also gets unique tuning (compared to the base ZL1) for better cornering capabilities.
The whole package rides on staggered 19-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires wrapped on forged aluminum wheels. Developed to surpass the performance of the Pirelli Trofeo R tires used on the previous Z/28, the new Goodyears are excellent and stay consistent throughout our three-lap sessions. I do wonder how they will hold up over the course of a 15- or 20-minute session when they get really hot, but that discovery will have to come on another day.
Also staying strong during our short track sessions are the six-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo brakes clamping down on steel rotors. Engineers say that performance targets were met without needing to go with a carbon ceramic setup, but I again want to see how well they will cope with stopping the relatively heavy Camaro throughout a longer track stint.
After three short sessions, my most surprising takeaway about the ZL1 1LE is how non-threatening the car feels to lean on. On a new track with many blind corners and four stories' worth of elevation change, I settled comfortably into the 650-horsepower brute in short order and had a ball bombing around the great 3.0-mile track. It's unlike the other American sports car with north of 600 horsepower that comes to mind, the Dodge Viper, which seems like it wants to kill you out on track.
As it turns out, an approachable car with equally approachable limits is exactly what Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser wanted to build. To that, I have to say it is mission accomplished for Oppenheiser and his team.
How well the ZL1 1LE is on the road remains a mystery, as my drive was only on track. The Camaro development team says there's some road compliance in the car, but solid mounted cradles, struts, stiffer springs and low-profile high-performance tires seem to say otherwise. I'm not exactly sure how much street driving you'll want to do on the 100-treadwear-rating Goodyears, anyway.
However, some street driving will likely be necessary, and for that all the regular niceties found on the base ZL1 are here, too. There are heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and the MyLink infotainment system with an 8-inch color touchscreen, Bose audio system, Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities. Navigation to direct you to the closest racetrack will cost you an additional $495.
Also available is the $1,300 Performance Data Recorder system to record track sessions with real-time performance data to share on Facebook or dissect in hopes of producing better lap times.
The 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE is hitting dealers now wearing a base price of $71,295, which includes destination costs and a $1,300 gas guzzler tax (14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway). That's a decent premium over the $64,545 2017 Shelby GT350R Mustang, but the Ford is only packing 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque.
However, for most extreme Chevy Camaro yet built, with 650 usable horsepower and wicked track capabilities, the ZL1 1LE's price of admission doesn't seem too far-fetched.
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