The Camaro ZL1 Coupe is one of the most surprising cars I have driven. Given its hefty waistline and reputation as a monster muscle car, the handling performance is quite astonishing. So, providing you don't wear a toupee, the convertible ZL1 should be just as impressive.
As with most convertibles, the car is simply the Coupe with its top chopped off and a million braces added to overcome the lost structural stiffness. But all these necessary additions do come at a price.
(Full Disclosure: Chevy wanted me to drive the ZL1 Convertible so bad they brought me to Michigan and fed me steak. I guess I was so excited that I forgot to pack any clothes for the trip, so, to overcome this problem I utilized the standard inside-out-boxer technique, made famous by a friend of mine in college who mastered the technique for six straight days. We are no longer friends.)
Of course the pony-car wars are ever raging and Chevy is keen to keep bringing out new renditions of the Camaro. That is an attempt to direct traffic to the golden bow tie instead of its horsey nemesis. Both Mustang and Camaro are machines with which drivers can easily connect when behind the wheel. They both have strengths and weaknesses. I continue to be completely on the fence; I wish I could take the Camaro chassis and interior and replace its cartoon-like bodywork with the Mustang's more brutish look. Plus I prefer the Mustang's engine and its obtrusively raw exhaust note.
So all in all, I sit like Humpty atop the wall, hoping one day things will become clear and I will fall off my perch and be presented a muscle car that incorporates everything I am looking for. But with the ZL1 Convertible, that day has still not come. It is a brilliant car and I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. But it's not yet enough for me to pledge my allegiance to the Camaro.
I'm not going to say the Camaro ZL1 Convertible is ugly. In fact I prefer its look with the top off, but that might just be because there is less to look at. It appears to be a subjective matter and I know many who dig the Camaro's Optimus Prime-like appearance. But for me, it just doesn't quite work. The grille looks cheap and its whopping buttocks obtrusively block what little vision you have out of the mirrors. It's not bad looking. But it isn't mean looking like the Mustang and it is obviously in no way elegant. So, I'd rather Chevy made some tweaks to transform Optimus into something else.
Sure, external vision is truly awful from the driver's seat but regardless, this is still a place I really love to be. I appreciate the use of Alcantara on the dash and gear stick, as it looks like an effort has been made above and beyond the handling and engine side — that is something I feel is missing slightly with the Mustang. Plus, with the top down, it makes you feel cool (even if you are wearing yesterday's boxer shorts) and I genuinely enjoyed the experience a lot. I'm not a big fan of convertibles per se, but from behind the wheel, I began falling pretty hard for this one.
Here, cruising with the top down, the lust I was feeling diminished slightly. The car isn't slow. Obviously. It has a 6.2L supercharged V8 that produces 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque. But the Coupe weighs 4,120 lbs and the Convertible adds around 200 more. And you definitely feel this extra weight. It's like eating at McDonalds for a month and then trying to climb all the stairs up the Empire State building. Even if you are a fit person, the additional weight will make you feel a little sluggish. And I just didn't quite feel the same raw power in the convertible as the Coupe. I was left wanting more.
Or rather, keep the power, just stay off the Big Macs.
The ZL1 is equipped with whopping Brembo brakes and they do an excellent job of stopping the portly piggy. Fade is minimal, helped by cooling ducts that route air from the fascia to the rotor and caliper. The grip from the 20-inch wheels and Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires enable the ABS to be almost non-existent, even if you hammer on the pedal harder than you thought possible. It stops on a dime and provides a real opportunity for your lunch to splatter directly on the suede wrapped steering wheel.
I'm sure you have all heard about GM's Magnetic Ride Control. The ZL1 uses the third-generation of this amazing system, with damping levels now adjusted up to 1,000 times per second and about one adjustment per inch of vehicle travel at 60 mph.
What this does is effectively customize the ride quality to the ever-changing road surface and conditions. The car scores big in the ride department because you could honestly cruise across country in this car and still get out with a back that wouldn't need standing on by Larry The Cable Guy, in an attempt to straighten it out.
Normally I would give the ZL1 a straight up 9/10. No question it is the best handling muscle car by a million miles and it puts shame to many top sports cars. It did a 7:41 at the Nürburgring for Christ's sake.
But that was the Coupe and this is the Convertible. I mentioned there was a price to pay to remove the car's head (that is, top). And that price, along with the acceleration, is the handling.
Braces were added to fight the deficiencies that appear with a convertible: One under the hood, a transmission support reinforcement brace, an underbody tunnel brace, a front "X" brace and stiffer cradle, as well as underbody "V" braces. Additional reinforcements were also implemented and all in all they do a stellar job. After all, an 8/10 is still a brilliant score on our tough-to-impress-Jalopnik scale. But while you do notice the extra roll, the car also has less downforce than the Coupe.
Having said that, you likely can't take a convertible to the track. If you did and you crashed and rolled, YOUR lid would be removed, much like the lid of the car. So are you going to notice the difference on the road? Not really. I still thought it was a treat to drive. It still wipes the floor with the Mustang in this department, and given its weight disadvantage compared to the GT500, that is quite incredible.
All hail the Magnetic Ride Control.
Two transmissions are offered. A Tremec six-speed manual and the Hydra-Matic 6L90 automatic transmission, with wheel-mounted paddle shifts. The auto is great in manual mode when using the paddle shift (although the paddles feel like they are derived from Ikea furniture), but in full auto it completely deadens the car. You lose all sense of the power available.
Do yourself a favor — go with the manual. The shifts are tight and the throw is short. I had issues when driving the ZL1 on track a while back but I had no such issues here. Every time I drove the auto I yearned to be back in the manual. It just made the car so much more fun.
The Boston Acoustics nine-speaker sound system is decent but not great. To be fair, being a convertible and the extra noise that encompasses, means it does have its work cut out. But honestly, I rate it at a 6/10.
I will add on a point, however, due to the beautiful growl produced by the big V8. But, that auditory quality is significantly inferior to the magnificent magnitude of the Mustang's bellow. This being a car that stands out as an eye catcher deserves a larger sound to match. But it is just a little too docile.
The Camaro comes pretty well-equipped, but nothing noteworthy. It has a standard rear camera, OnStar, Sirius XM radio, Bluetooth technology, and a remote start.
One new feature is GM's MYLINK smartphone-connect system, now available for 2013. The screen is situated above the cabin temperature controls and it works nicely. But to be honest, I'm confused why it has taken so long to get something as simple as this available.
At $60,445 (including destination) the ZL1 Convertible isn't exactly cheap. But you still get a hell of a car for the money. The question you must ask is, are you willing to give up a bit of raw acceleration and handling quality to feel super cool in your convertible? Can you actually pull off a convertible without looking like you are going through a mid-life crisis?
If the answer is yes, then this car may be for you. That is, as long as you are a fan of its comic book looks, of course.
Should you buy a Mustang or Camaro? I just don't know. I guess it is like asking if you prefer a girl with blonde hair or brunette. To each his own. Or maybe you want a little extra sophistication and you go with the M3.
Regardless, if you chose to buy a ZL1 Convertible, you will not be disappointed.