Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

There are two reasons why the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 exists right now: To give longtime Camaro fans a true track car and, according to its top engineer, to "beat the shit out of anything Ford can put out on the road." Here's how GM is going to pull that off.

(Full disclosure: GM wanted me to check out the 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 so bad they invited me and a bunch of other writers up to their proving grounds in Milford, MI, to ride shotgun — not drive — in pre-production versions with some of the company's top drivers. A production version won't be available until closer to the beginning of next year, but GM made up for it by feeding us salad and various barbecued meats and letting me do some extra laps with my driver.)

There's a story behind how the fifth-generation Z/28 — which will be in showrooms in the first quarter of 2014 but Chevy doesn't have an exact date just yet — came into existence that involves the current ZL1, an argument over the slash symbol and bringing other companies to the table. Al Oppenheiser, the Camaro's chief engineer, told a lucky few of us this story.

Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

Chevrolet originally planned to unleash the newest Z/28 in 2011. Its world debut was going to be at the Chicago Auto Show. Engineers had spent the last few years using the LS7 engine in dummy Camaro models, tuning and re-tuning them over and over with the goal of re-creating the track-ready Camaro owners from the past know and love. The LS9 was briefly considered, engineers say. But with that performance and eventual price point, it would be treading too far into Corvette territory.

They thought they had it. Suppliers for various parts had been contacted and production was slated to begin. For the Chicago show, GM took a regular Camaro body and added Z/28 badging, Z/28 wheels, track tires and some other engine and underbody components that would be used on a Z/28, but would not actually function as a Z/28. It was readied for a press preview prior to the actual show.

At the very last minute, Oppenheiser, who's also the guy who wants to beat the shit out of Ford, decided that this Camaro wasn't the right Camaro to carry on the Z/28 legacy. ("I was losing sleep over it," he said.) For one, it had magnetic ride control and too many other nannies. Second, it was too heavy. Third, it wasn't powerful enough.

Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

He presented a business plan to GM North American President Mark Reuss and a handful of other top executives. They agreed, and halted the Z/28 unveil. But they couldn't figure out what to call what they had built. SS Supercharged? Something else? Finally, they agreed to resurrect ZL1. The morning of the press preview, engineers and other designers removed or replaced all Z/28 badging, came up with hastily created ZL1 badging and worked on revising their pitch just a few hours before reporters came through. Other Chevy personnel were on the lines with suppliers informing them of the last-minute change of plans.

There was a glitch when one supplier's parts order found its way online with "Z/28" listed, but as the re-christened ZL1 debuted, engineers were already back at work figuring out how to truly revive the project. They knew the ZL1 was a solid vehicle. So they worked with that blueprint for the next two years. And here we are now.

First, engineers took out all the weight. The Z/28 ended up weighing 64 pounds less than the ZL1. To further differentiate it from the ZL1, engineers sought to create as many Z/28-specific parts as possible. But they ran into a problem: Development time and budgeting was tight at GM, and since the Z/28 is a low-volume model, it doesn't have the same kind of priorities as the Malibu. So Oppenheiser and his team called for help.

Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

Brembo, which already provided brakes for the Corvette, crafted ceramic composite brakes specifically for the Z/28. Pirelli brought 305/30ZR19 Trofeo R tires. Recaro designed the seats (though they can be swapped out for a cage). Camaro engineers also looked to GM's racing division for inspiration, and came back with Mahle pistons and Pankl titanium rods. Finally, Multimatic and Chevrolet co-developed a suspension and damping system.

Oppenheiser knows having a bunch of other names on a Chevy product might turn off some who want a true GM vehicle. But he promises those buyers won't be disappointed, and notes that a majority of the Z/28's parts were done in-house. The shifter, for one, was specially designed — and also crafted as another differentiation from the ZL1.

The biggest issue with the Z/28 was the name itself. Half of the team wanted to call it "Z28" without the slash mark. That was used on the last Z28 in the fourth-gen Camaro. But the other half wanted to bring back the slash used on prior generations. Designers crafted a bunch of badges with cardboard and engineers agonized over each one. The slash won out.

That all said, you probably want to know how the damn thing rides. Well, like I said in the disclosure — we weren't allowed to drive it at all. I rode with Adam Dean, who lapped the Z/28 around the Nürburgring in the rain at 7:37:40. (When I asked Dean about driving the Nürburgring in the rain, he shrugged it off. "Well, it was a challenge." Nice.)

The Z/28 is fast. Balls-droppingly fast. The exact specs are 505 horsepower and 481 pound feet of torque with the naturally aspirated LS7. Our top speed around the Milford course was 146 mph. That's just under the 149 mph GM told us drivers were able to get out on the track, which is designed to mimic the 'Ring, before we got there.

Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

There's a lot of air going through the intakes because the engine gets 20% hotter than the ZL1. The vents on the hood are all angled at different positions for maximum aero. It's also noticeably lowered to the ground more than any other Camaro.

I couldn't get past the Brembo brakes. They're 394 x 36mm in the front and 390 x 32mm in the back. Obviously I wasn't the one doing the braking, but they were more than capable around the curves. And you could smell every bit of them in between drives.

The interior is bare, just as you'd expect. It's a track car. It's not meant for Sunday drives. There won't be a T-top model like the last generation. Chevy put in its performance traction management system. Supposedly it works better than launch control. Only track fans will be able to tell us, but engineers here say they think highly of the system.

I asked Oppenheiser how he plans to market the Z/28 to a new generation of buyers. The last Z/28 was produced in 2001. He says the Mustang is not the only one to beat anymore. Now they've got the Nissan GT-R on their radar. And the Porsche 911. There's a new crop of drivers who aren't wedded to the idea of American muscle as the be-all and end-all of performance.

Turns out, GM researchers found that the Z/28 was the most remembered name associated with Camaro anyway. And These Kids Today also know the Camaro from the "Transformers" franchise. What does it all mean? If GM only sells a handful of Z/28s next year to a bunch of over-50 guys millionaires wanting to recapture 1968, it'll be fine. Because a few years from now, kids who watched "Transformers" will be interested in getting their own.

Why Chevy Built, Destroyed And Finally Rebuilt The Camaro Z/28S

GM hasn't announced the pricing for the Z/28 yet, but my guess is to look for something to start around the low $70s, maybe more. The ZL1 convertible tops out around 60 grand and is the highest-priced of the Camaro fleet.

I asked Oppenheiser one more thing about competition around the Z/28. His team wants it to go against the GT-R, sure. But could the Z/28 also take some shine away from the Corvette? Oppenheiser says the Corvette engineers and Camaro engineers are always in competition. And they're ready to re-tune the Z/28 if the 'Vette team comes with something stronger. So keep watching.

[Top photo courtesy General Motors; other photos by Aaron Foley]