In the past, the large American V8 was considered a symbol of freedom and the open road. But today, the muscly gas guzzlers are vilified as enemies of the future and a road block in the way of the good ship progress.
But that just isn't true. Cars like the Camaro ZL1 combine the past, present, and future of the distinctly American way of traveling. It's a brute. It's brash. It's loud. And it's pleasant once you get to know it. Much like us.
A summer road trip in a hybrid is patently boring before you even set off. But a trip in an American muscle car, that's something you'll remember.
Labor Day weekend is the last chance of the summer to hit the open road and make that final memory. I grab the ZL1 on the Friday of the holiday weekend, and the first thing that strikes me is the color.
This. Thing. Is. Yellow. It might as well come with a blank sheet of tickets already filled out. That way you can give it to the officer pulling you over for speeding — cause you will be speeding — and he can just fill out the speed, points on your license, and the court date.
Once you hop in, you notice one key thing: You can't see out of it. The view out of the Camaro is like being in a World War II Panzer tank with the windows covered. It's a bunker. And in such a large car, that can prove to be problematic, especially in holiday traffic out of NYC. Merging is awful and the walls of the Lincoln Tunnel feel like they are closer than ever before. Also, around town I find the brake pedal to be a little too blunt and on/off, which makes for jerky stops. Thankfully, the clutch is fairly light and the shifter is direct, with short throws that are just a tad too notchy for my taste.
But get yourself a little open space, and the right pedal converts gas into all sorts of orgasmic, patriotic, thundering noise. And speed. If it hasn't been said enough, the ZL1 is shit-your-pants fast. It's a rush better than crack, not that I know.
I somehow make it out of the city unscathed and home. I park the car and decide, for shits and/or giggles, to check the fuel economy. In my eight mile trip home, the ZL1 used a gallon of gas. For you non-math students, that means it got eight miles to the gallon. But on the "smiles per gallon" scale, the ZL1 far outshines anything with a bunch of batteries under the hood.
Now, one of the preeminent memories from my childhood is going to Lime Rock Park on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for the Vintage Festival with my parents. We'd arrive just as the dew starts to burn off from the clouds and wander down into the paddock and stop at the snack bar to grab breakfast. The best part of the day would be sitting on a picnic bench with my folks, eating oatmeal and watching vintage race cars drive by in the paddock. That continued for years.
And then I moved away for college. Once I graduated, I moved out of my parents house. Since 2004, I have been to the vintage festival precisely once. Times change. But when I found out that I'd have the opportunity to have the ZL1 for a weekend, the first person I called was my Dad. I told him we're going to Lime Rock. He had no objections.
I pick my Dad up early Saturday morning and we hit the road in the yellow beast. Instead of hyper milling, which is boring, slow, and, frankly, nerdy, the ZL1 destroys the highways. Firmly planting your foot to the floor results in head snapping acceleration and a noticeable downward movement of the fuel gauge.
But once we get off the highway, the trip gets annoying, and it's because of rural drivers. Billy Bob in his Dodge Ram likes going 40 MPH no matter what the speed limit is, and he isn't gonna be pleased if you pass.
Now, if you have that Prius, you won't even consider that pass because 1) It'll ruin your fuel mileage and 2) You aren't going nearly fast enough to pass someone anyway. That's the joy of driving something with actual power. It reminds you that a car doesn't have to be a piece of techno wizardry that thinks it knows better than you. If you put your foot down, it just goes, no questions asked.
We get to the track and park behind a sweet Cobra replica. The shop at the track has changed, the paddock feels bigger, and there seem to be less cars, but it's what I remember. After a couple of hours of wandering and watching racing, there were a couple ex-Mario Andretti Lotus F1 cars on track, we get back in the ZL1 for the trip home.
And in that journey, the ZL1 uses one entire tank of fuel. And if you hadn't noticed, gas hasn't been $1.20 a gallon for about eight years. I drive away from the Exxon $67 lighter in the wallet.
Yet it's still a good deal. I think gas is cheap. Think about the journey it takes from ground to gas tank. It travels thousands of miles and gets refined endlessly to get to you, but it's around $4 for each gallon of the sweet nectar. We need to take advantage of this before it actually does get seriously expensive.
This is the same ZL1 that Chris Harris drifted around Monticello, and who knows if the tires have been changed since then. And now it's raining. In the wet, this is one lairy car. Even with all the electronic nannies in place, putting the power to the pavement in a straight line is a challenge in the wet. And around corners, it's downright terrifying.
On one of my favorite roads, the tail steps out around a damp medium speed corner. For an instant, I think I might just become the journalist that we always ridicule. You know, the one that stuffs the car into the weeds and pretends his shit don't stink. Thankfully, the electronic aides step in and right the ship. Phew.
As I head back to my house, I spot a modified BMW 3-Series approaching me. Over the last few days, I had gotten a number of thumbs up and pictures taken of the car. The driver of this BMW despises the ZL1 enough that he actually gives me a thumbs down. Must just be jealous.
But that's what's so great about driving a car like the ZL1: It has character. It's not part of the beigification that is taking over the roads. It gets a reaction.
By this time, I've put about 350 miles on the ZL1, and there's a quarter tank of gas left. Road tripper it is not. I can make it a few more miles, but another $63 fill up means I'm out $130 for four days in the car. Holy hell.
But a holier than thou fillup in a hybrid will cost less, but will the experiences in the ride fit that attitude? Talking about fuel economy with your friends will just bore them to death. But talking about vintage F1 cars and a near death powerslide, well, that's a memory.
That's why I'm so sad to see it go. I rarely grow attached to these press cars, but the ZL1 is different. Even in that ugly Big Bird yellow, I find I made a connection with it. And that's because it has a personality. If most new cars are equivalent to iPods, the ZL1 is a record. It's unfiltered and raw, there's no autotune here.
Before I drop it off, I stop for one last picture outside the Tesla dealership. At 14.9 MPG and around 230 miles to a tank, the ZL1's range is nearly equal to a Model S, but the experience is more visceral, more satisfying. It's less digital and more real. I'd much rather take a trip on a horse than in a computer. The ZL1 is that horse.