The tweaked LSA engine that powers the Chevy Camaro ZL1 produces five hundred and eighty horsepower, about a hundred and fifty more than the previously supreme Camaro SS and about four hundred more than any human being personally needs. But that's what it takes to make the best muscle car Chevy's ever built.
Full Disclosure: Chevy couldn't have given a rat's ass if I drove the ZL1 or not, but they wanted somebody from Jalopnik there and I accepted the call. They flew me out and put up me at an Indian-themed resort in Phoenix, Arizona, where I drank every free Old Fashioned I could find.
Unlike the Corvette — Chevy's American contender against the likes of Germany, Italy and Japan's supercars — the Camaro has a scruffy-haired history of affable beastliness. The Camaro is prom dates and drag races behind the high school — petrol-powered nostalgia, and for many of us who grew up in the last two decades, a nostalgia for somebody else's nostalgia, as the Camaro of the '70s and '80s transformed from snorting pony car into something bulbous, heavy, and underpowered.
Interest in the Camaro waned to such a degree that in 2002, General Motors killed the product line (including its sister car, the Pontiac Firebird), and concentrated on other ways of reclaiming the affections of a youth market largely enamored of nimble front-wheel-drive four-bangers from Japan. The Fast and the Furious generation had found new loves.
It was another terrible movie series that helped bring the Camaro back to life: Michael Bay's Transformers reboot—a nostalgia play itself, clipped from the nerdy canon of 1980s marketing cartoons. In the movie, a nettlesome teenager (played by Shia LaBeouf) is befriended by a robot from space named "Bumblebee" who, because of perfectly logical plotting having nothing to do with marketing tie-ins or Bay's love of a brand that once paid him a metric shit-ton of money, chooses to be the doppleganger of the then-unreleased Chevy Camaro.
While the movie was shit, it was wildly popular. (I saw it on opening night and left the theater rolling my eyes but grinning; two sequels have established the franchise as one of the biggest film businesses of the decade.) And it made a hero out of a car, or at least a hero out of a robot who wore the Camaro like a tuxedo. You could buy Bumblebee toys, naturally. Bumblebee Halloween masks. Bumblebee video games. And incongruously, after General Motors started selling the all-new Chevy Camaro in 2009, you could buy Bumblebee the car.
It was, if nothing else, a brilliantly layered marketing offensive. Simply reviving the Camaro in the first place appealed to any car nut born after 1945; teenagers who were drifting away to foreign performance cars were watching an American muscle car kick robot ass in the movie theaters; for people of my generation who grew up with Transformers, well, at least we were aware that GM was making a new Camaro even if we were about as likely to buy a muscle car as we were to buy new robot toys.
The Camaro was an instant hit. General Motors sold as many as it could make, even while sales from its primary competitor, the Ford Mustang (the vehicle that invented the pony car segment in the '60s) began to slightly slip. (Both cars are sales successes by any metric, selling tens of thousands of units each year.)
Better for everyone, the Mustang had worthwhile competition again. The top-of-the-line Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang began to trounce the then-best Camaro SS, General Motors plucked the LSA engine from the skin-crackingly fast Cadillac CTS-V, resurrected the ZL1 badge for an all-new "Camaro ZL1" model (along with enough braking and handling updates to claim—a bit nebulously—that a third of the ZL1's parts were upgraded over the SS), and began beating their chest in publications (including Jalopnik) about how the ZL1 would embarrass Ford's GT500 not just on the drag strip, but also on the race track.
Which is why, even as a snow storm is covering up the sidewalks in front of my apartment in Manhattan, I'm standing in front of four Camaro ZL1s on a race track in Arizona, so fresh off the line they can't even be legally driven on the street. (They haven't been crash tested.)
I haven't driven a car in about six months.
"It feels weird, but you just have to put your foot down all the way," explains Chevy engineer Alex MacDonald. He's the man who helped develop the Camaro's "Performance Traction Management" system before scooting off the Camaro project to work on the next-generation Corvette. PTM has five modes—six if you count the default mode when it's "off," which is contradictorily when the traction, stability, and engine controls are most fully engaged. Mode 1 is for wet weather driving, something we didn't have the pleasure of testing on the desert race courses of Bondurant. The engineering team explaining how best to test the ZL1 focuses on Modes 2 and 4, suggesting we try to hit our laps as hard as possible in both so that we can feel the difference. (Mode 5 turns off all computer and sensor assistance.)
Our first laps in the ZL1 have us in Mode 2 on the smaller "Firebird" course, a simple track built around a long straight that does double duty as a drag strip, complete with tacky road surface. My first few laps are frightening more for the walls and barriers than from anything I'm doing with the car; you never want to be the guy to cream somebody else's car into a wall in front of an audience.
The ZL1 itself gives me my first scare a couple of laps in as I come around the 180-degree turn that empties onto the straight. I've decided the tires—and my abilities—are as warmed up as they're going to get. Gunning it on the straight to catch up to the Bondurant race instructor playing leader in a Camaro SS, the ZL1's tremendous torque pitches the back end of the car back and forth over the width of the drag racing road surface. The sensors that send information to the PTM system are doing a full reading roughly about every inch, so within a quarter-of-a-second the relatively timid Mode 2 has set the ZL1's fishtail back on a straight line and I'm at 100 MPH with no tail flash in sight.
I'd modulated the throttle when the back end started getting squirmy because that's what one does when getting a lot of unwanted wheel slip. But according to the Camaro's engineers, I didn't have to. In fact, had I kept the throttle smashed to the floor, the car would have still done what was necessary to keep the ZL1 from spinning out into a wall. Mode 2 is video game mode, as they put it, and it's designed to make controlling a 580 HP monster a binary decision: right pedal means go; middle pedal means stop. Mode 2 takes care of the rest by decreasing power (by stopping spark ignition intermittently but leaving fuel so detonation can come back instantly) or twiddling with braking on an inside wheel to assist with turn in. On a curvy track or in a straight line, Mode 2 tries its damnedest to keep even a lead footed imbecile on the road.
I could never trust it. I'm a relatively timid driver in the first place, preferring to shave down lap times bit by bit. (And I'm always middle of the pack when the day's racing is over.) But there's something incredibly difficult about telling your feet to stop doing what they've been doing for almost twenty years, which includes lifting off the accelerator if you're in trouble. If we'd had the chance to race on a course without barriers—a nice cone course in an open parking lot, for instance—I might have been able to make myself jam down the throttle and trust Mode 2 fully.
Mode 4, which turns off stability control, seems like more fun. The Camaro ZL1 is a heavy car, over two tons, and while the engine is more than powerful enough to get it moving, shifting the inertia of a car so heavy is an essential part of getting it around corners. I may not have done better lap times in the freewheeling Mode 4 than in Mode 2, but the whole car felt a lot smoother. I wasn't afraid to push the car into oversteering around corners because I wasn't worried the PTM system would try to temper my input.
You'd have to really hate cars not to enjoy throwing a ZL1 around a track. I could point out how it's not exactly nimble compared to lighter sports cars (including the Corvette), but that would be like belaboring the ways that bull-riding isn't like ballet.
What is important is that the ZL1 feels predictable, poised, and—get your checkbooks ready—safe. That's not an insult. You could still hurt yourself plenty in a ZL1. But it's got an even temper that was missing from older American muscle cars, which is all the more impressive when you remember that the supercharged ZL1 is the most powerful Camaro ever built.
It also happens to look especially mean, like an origami rhinoceros, with a low-slung posture and great big wheels that are ready to charge.
I haven't yet mentioned Mode 5 for a reason. (And not simply because I didn't personally have the guts to try the most untamed setting of the PTM system on the track.) It has to do with launch control, the computer-assisted function that makes getting off the line in a drag race as simple and as consistent as possible. Mode 5, in addition to removing nearly all driving assistance for going around corners and such, is configured by Chevy to be used at the drag strip, where the compound on the ground provides far more grip and traction than even clean, fresh asphalt. Alex TK made it clear that they'd developed the launch control in Mode 5 to "not embarrass" the owners of a ZL1, implying that Chevrolet is clear-eyed about the way most ZL1s will be used: occasional, Sunday drag strip runs to impress the kids. Two or three times a year, the person who can afford a $55,000 Camaro will take it to the drag strip and show it off a little—and Chevy's made sure to add a concierge of speed that makes sure Messr. Weekend Racer won't make a fool of himself.
That is the ZL1 in a nutshell: an incredible, frighting behemoth of a car, entirely too powerful for its own good, but reined in by clever engineer-wranglers who have worked very hard to allow even terrible drivers to keep themselves safe.
Didn't expect January to find me in a murdered-out Corvette (save slattern-red brake calipers) with the roof stashed in the back, stink of milkshake and American Spirits in my three-day shirt, staring over the faux adobe shopping malls of Tucson to watch the falling sun put a five o'clock shadow on the range flung beyond distant whitewash suburbs.
Driving through the south part of Tucson with the wind barely moving my greasy hair, the age old question ran through my mind: Do I look like an asshole?
That's the thing about getting older and driving a new sports car — and believe me, this car is a muscle car no longer: there's a fine line between circumstantially displaying how awesome you are and premeditated conspicuousness. That's a little bit of why I've always leaned towards the older, quirkier classics. Driving a classic sports car around for the world to see is public service.
The Camaro ZL1 is hardly a classic, despite Chevy's marketing materials that ambitiously compare it to supercars from Maserati and a Mercedes-Benz. Sure, it's affordable compared to supercars, but it's still not likely to be sold to many people under the age of 40. It's going to appeal to people who want to buy the very best version of a more quotidian muscle car rather than pay a little extra to get the lowest model of the same company's (and America's) best sports car.
But I suspect for the generation who can afford $55,000 muscle cars, Camaro has just as much pedigree as Corvette. And the ZL1 is the best Camaro ever made; I was bummed I didn't get to take one on the road, because I wanted to lean out over the high belt line and give some laconic nods to teenagers when they gawped.
I pulled up to a red light next to a hispanic guy in a rattling Dodge Stealth. He gave me the biggest grin and a thumbs up, then put his nose to the wheel as the light turned green. He punched it, but the creaking old tub had nothing to give. It rolled away from the light sounding like a tornado but moving like a flood, and even though I tried to nurse the throttle of the Corvette I was soon pulling right past the banged up old white sports car, only to see the guy inside looking at me and laughing his ass off. If he didn't care how he looked, then neither would I.
One of the pitfalls of age, I'm discovering, is greater access to experience—more money (if you're lucky) with which to buy the things you lusted after in your youth. But it's dangerous to live in nostalgia, boyhoods revisited, when the world around is merrily obviating the fulcrums of your old desires. You have the ability to pretend to be an outlaw in safety, all leather jacket and no scuff; all performance and no art.
You can't ever grade over the rough disappointments of youth, but you can leave them behind. And with cars as mad and indignant as the Camaro ZL1, you can sure as hell make an adulthood worth remembering.