How Magnets Make The Camaro ZL1 Dance Around A Race TrackS

Like America's national treasures, the Insane Clown Posse, I don't have a clue how magnets work. But I became determined to find out after reading about how Magnetic Ride Control helps the new Camaro ZL1 handle so well.

It turns out that the suspension, which uses magnetically controlled dampers, isn't a new idea at all. It's been on cars made by General Motors and others for at least 10 years now.

But the latest iteration of the technology is so good, it makes a 4,300-lb. land yacht like the ZL1 Convertible glide around a racetrack with the grace and precision of a Miata driven by a puma who has had extensive rally training.

Alright, maybe it's not that great, but I'm a fan of the image.

Magnetic Ride Control, or MagneRide, was first designed by parts manufacturer and former GM subsidiary Delphi in the early 2000s — the system made its first appearance on the 2002 Seville STS. After filing for bankrupcy, Delphi sold the system to a Chinese corporation called Beijing West Industries, who continue to develop it further. It's still predominantly used on GM vehicles, including the Corvette ZR1, but it has also been put to use on the Audi TT and R8 as well as the Ferrari 599 GTB.

Frankly though, I think the ZL1 may be the best application of this technology yet. It's one thing to add insane handling prowess to a sports car, but a big, heavy muscle car like the Camaro? That's a bit of a taller order. But here, with the magnetic suspension (as well as a trick traction control system and other chassis goodies) the top Camaro can achieve 911 Turbo-esque lap times on the Nurburgring.

How Magnets Make The Camaro ZL1 Dance Around A Race TrackS

MagneRide suspensions use four single-tube dampers that are filled with what is called magnetorheological fluid. It's an oil-based fluid containing very tiny magnetic particles, usually along the lines of iron powder. The result is that when this fluid is placed near a magnet, it hardens; when the magnet is removed, it becomes a liquid again. This image on BWI's website from Range Rover World Magazine helps explain exactly what's inside the damper.

How Magnets Make The Camaro ZL1 Dance Around A Race TrackS

According to BWI, the MagneRide's damper piston contains an electromagnetic coil that generates varying levels of magnetism. When the current is off, the fluid isn't magnetized and remains a liquid, behaving very similarly to conventional hydraulic oil. But when it is magnetized, the fluid stiffens, and so the suspension provides greater resistance. This diagram to the right is kinda science-y, but it helps explain what I mean.

It's not just an "on and off" scenario. The level of viscosity in the fluid changes depending on how strong the magnetic field is. The greater the magnetic field, the greater the resistance and damping power, something BWI calls "real-time variable damping with a very large range of force variation."

But how does the fluid know how hard to get, you ask? It does this through an electronic control unit that varies the magnetic force every millisecond based on input from sensors, which communicate information about road conditions and the movement of the body and wheels. What this all means is that the damping rate is constantly adjusting itself automatically 1,000 times each second.

MagneRide also uses no moving parts or complicated electro-mechanical valving like an ordinary suspension. "Compared to other, valve-based technologies, MagneRide achieves a much broader damping force range and responds much more rapidly without generating noise," BWI tells us.

How Magnets Make The Camaro ZL1 Dance Around A Race TrackS

So how well does it all work? In our recent review of the droptop ZL1, we praised both the car's ride comfort and handling, saying "it wipes the floor with the Mustang in this department, and given its weight disadvantage compared to the GT500, that is quite incredible."

And writing for the New York Times, Ezra Dyer said the ZL1 Camaro "dances" on the track. "Instead of plowing through corners, the rear end is willing to step out and point the front end into the turn. I've driven an M3 on this track, and the ZL1 really feels like a big BMW M car. Call it the M6's American pen pal." High praise for an American muscle car.

We also noted that it strikes a good balance between firmness and comfort on the new Cadillac ATS.

What are the downsides? While it comes standard on a number of high-end GM vehicles, on other cars it's an expensive option — Magnetic Ride Control is about $2,000 extra on both the base model Corvette and the Audi TT. It's also far from cheap to replace.

What say you about MagneRide? Is this the future of suspensions? Let us know in the comments.

Photos credit GM, BWI