It has the suspension from a Formula One car, the optional tires from the McLaren P1, and supercar-level next generation carbon ceramic brakes. But this isn't a million dollar supercar. This is a $75,000 Chevrolet. And it is one of the most amazing, odds-defying cars of the year.
(Full Disclosure: After our all too brief first encounter with the Camaro Z/28 this spring, I had been on the horn to get one back. No dice. Chevy said I had to have track time if I wanted to drive it again. Finally, an invite to the awesome Jeffapalooza track day at New Jersey Motorsports Park convinced Chevy to send us the Z/28. It's even better than I remember it being.)
The Camaro lineup has always had a very distinct separation between the models, with certain letter/number combinations representing what the car was intended for. The SS and RS were fast street models while the ZL1 was the big engined bad boy for the drag strip.
And then there was the Z/28. Let me tell you about the Z/28.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was this series called Trans Am (yes, Trans Am still exists, but it was really good back then). Trans Am cars were street cars modified for track duty. Chevrolet's entrant was the Camaro Z/28, a Camaro with a 302 under the hood, beefed up suspension, and no frills. And in order to race the Z/28, they had to be built for the road as well.
Those original roadgoing Z/28s had no creature comforts, no frills. It was built simply so GM could take their car racing. It didn't prove to be that popular, other than with people who wanted to take them on the track. After that first Z/28, each successive generation got more little bits and pieces until Z/28 became just a badge and not a synonym for hardcore.
Then the Camaro died, and the Z/28 went away with it. And when the Camaro returned, it came back as a heavy beast of a car that you couldn't see out of. The long absent ZL1 variant returned with a huge supercharged V8, but there was no sign of the Z/28 anywhere.
Well, until the 2013 New York Auto Show.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, a brand new Z/28 appeared on the stage, a car that promised to bring back the track spec of the original in a high tech, no compromise formula. Chevy wasn't kidding.
This Z/28 shaves 300 pounds from the big daddy, 580 horsepower ZL1. The hood covers up the LS7 V8, a 427 cubic inch, 505 horsepower, 481 pound-foot engine that comes right out of the C6 Corvette Z06. The only transmission option is the Tremec TR6060, a six speed manual. It has aero updates to provide real downforce on the track (just look at that splitter!). Brakes are massive Brembo Carbon Ceramics, covered by lightweight 19 inch wheels. Those wheels are shod with the Pirelli Trofeo R, which is basically a DOT competition slick with a few grooves in it to trick the feds.
Then there was the suspension. Instead of GM's patented and trusted magnetic ride control, the Z/28 uses DSSV Monotube dampers, a technology patented by Multimatic in Canada and used on F1 cars. Lighter than magnetic ride, DSSV is infinitely tunable. As Mark Stielow, the Z/28's lead engineer, told us, the DSSV suspension allows them to separate the crosstalk between compression and rebound, which makes for a stiff, controlled ride, perfect for the track. This is the first production application of this suspension, unless you call the Aston Martin One-77 a production car.
All of these components shot the price of the Z/28 up to $75,000, which sounds like a lot for a Camaro. Stielow says "I wasn't asked to make it cheap, I was asked to make it fast." And then you drive it on a track.
In my first drive of the Z/28, I said the goal was to make it "pants-shittingly fast around a race track." Mission accomplished. Forget your preconceived notion that a Camaro sucks. This car will defy everything you think about the current Camaro. And in the best way possible.
The first thing you notice on the Z/28 is the splitter, which is large enough to eat a sandwich off of. The next thing you'll notice is how hunkered down it looks. Then you see the aero detailing, the smaller, more attractive wheels, the hollowed out 'flow tie' in the grille, and the subtle Z/28 badging.
You'll also notice one other thing: The word 'Camaro' appears precisely zero times on the outside of the Z/28. And that's because this thing is so much more than a Camaro.
It's menacing. There is not one friendly element anywhere on the Z/28. The points in the splitter and nose look like they are designed to break a leg in three different places.
It's just so bad ass. It makes the Camaro 1LE look like a poseur mobile, an out of shape guy wearing sneakers and branded clothes, but doesn't have the chops to back up what it's shouting. I'm fast too, someone looooook at meeeeeee.
No 1LE. We will not look at you. If there's a Z/28 near you, we will look at that.
The parts that matter are great and covered in delightful microfiber. The Recaro seats are lightweight and supportive, though could use a tad more bolstering on the track. Not a lot, just a tad. The wheel and shifter are microfiber covered and grippy, though I did have my hand slip off the shifter during one downshift. I looked like a moron to my passenger.
But otherwise, it's all kind of bleh. The radio controls look and feel old, the door panels are hard and plasticky, and there is a general feeling of cheapitivity inside.
Not that it matters. The Z/28 was not built to be relaxing on the inside. As far as I'm concerned, the driver's seat, shifter, and wheel all work. That's all you need.
On numbers alone, the Z/28 isn't the most impressive car in the world. The 505 horsepower, 481 pound foot LS7 gets the 3,800 pound Camaro to 60 in about four seconds. Yeah, that's plenty fast, but in this world where some cars like the Nissan GT-R can effortlessly get to 60 in less than three seconds, it doesn't seem that fast.
But numbers only tell half the story. The Z/28 is a visceral experience. The sound of that engine, the feeling of a perfectly calibrated gearbox, the hookup from the meaty tires, and the response that only a naturally aspirated V8 can provide make it terribly exciting at all times.
It's also tractable. That torque is seemingly available anywhere in the rev range. There's no waiting for a turbo to spool up or a supercharger to come on song. There's no peakiness, no end to the power. The LS7 is truly one of the last great naturally aspirated engines.
Chevrolet is quick to note that the Z/28 has been thoroughly lightweighted. For Chevy, a Camaro that has been lightweighted still weighs 3,800 pounds. That is not lightweight by any stretch of the imagination. This is a large heavy car, it shouldn't stop well at all.
But when you get out on track in the Z/28, well, that all changes. These are some of the most odds defying, finest tuned brakes on the market. Chevrolet partnered with Brembo on these next generation carbon ceramics, the same brakes you'll find on the brand new Corvette Z06.
The pedal feel is spot on, with a great bite out of the brakes as soon as you stab them. These are not brakes that you treat gently either. To get the best out of them, you need to be aggressive. Go deep into the braking zone and just stand on them. And I mean deep enough where you think it won't make the corner. But you get on the brakes, and it somehow stops. Chevy was actually seeing the tires spin on the wheels under braking when they started testing the car. That's how strong they are.
The stoppers are solid with no notes of fade after a ton of laps. Just some of the most confidence inspiring brakes that I've ever experienced. They actually challenge you to go deeper and deeper into a corner every lap. Amazing.
And on the road, they aren't grabby at all, they're just easy to modulate and work great. They're like butta. Sticky butta.
This car isn't comfortable in any sense of the word. It's one of the stiffest, most uncompromising suspension setups that you can get on a factory built production car. So why does it earn such a high rating?
Well, the DSSV dampers — which are so technically advanced that the first time they were explained to me I glazed over and possibly blacked out — provide a communicative and aggressive ride that is just fantastic. You can feel what the car is doing in every part of the corner and how the road or track. You are bouncing around a lot, but the bouncing is balanced with providing the driver with actual, tangible feedback. I think that's worth it.
Also, this is a track car, it won't ride well on the street. What matters is how it rides on the track. At New Jersey Motorsports Park, the Z/28 is controlled and communicative. The dampers adjust to tackle everything thrown their way. This is a car that is settled, level, composed, and confidence inspiring in every situation. An aggressive sweetheart.
A car that's 3,800 pounds shouldn't be as agile and lithe as this. Turn in is quick and direct, and it's super neutral and controllable. This is a car that will slide, but isn't particularly built to slide. On a back road, you can't get the full measure of the Z/28. It needs to be on a track.
And that's because it has semi-slick Pirelli Trofeo R tires, which are basically cut slicks. It also has a 305 section front tire and a square profile all around, that makes for the widest front tire on a production car. The trick Multimatic suspension keeps it flat and level.
The electric steering provides good feedback and doesn't feel artificially heavy, though I do find it a bit numb on center. Still, it's accurate and quick to react.
And there's also the Precision Traction Management system. There are five settings, the least aggressive leaving everything on, the most aggressive mode leaves just a little traction control on to keep the grip down at corner exit.
You can turn it all off if you really want, but the point of this car isn't slidey antics (cue commenters saying that's the point of every car), it's fast laptime awesomeness. I left it in PTM setting 5, which leaves a tiny bit of TC on. I could still get it loose, but in the very rare situations where it loses grip, it doesn't shut you down. Instead, it modulates the power to keep you in line and to shoot you out of the corner. It's a total rocket.
And the Z/28 has that in spades, for hours at a time. Or until you run out of gas. Cornering speeds defy belief in this thing, as does the turn in. As far as I'm concerned, this is a GT4 race car with license plates on it.
Putting the LS7's power to the ground is a Tremec TR6060. Clutch take up is precise and each gear is easy to find with a short, precise throw.
I don't know what else I can say. It's a beaut. It's also great to have a car this fast and this track focused that still uses a manual gearbox instead of paddles. Lap times aren't everything. Being involved is better. That means a lot.
There is a radio in every single Z/28. That radio has one speaker. It sounds like crap. You don't care about that when you're on track.
The LS7 is theater in motion. The sound is the baddest of ass. It revs high and free, and just sounds like a race car. There are no turbos, no superchargers, just V8 thunder. It's epic in all the right ways.
There is nothing techy here. This isn't a GT-R with displays and readouts and other bullshit. The toys here make the car go faster. The precision traction management. The Brembo brakes. The aero work. The sticky tires. The lightweighting and reduction of unsprung weight.
All of it adds up to make one of the most satisfyingly fast and fun cars you can buy today. Isn't that the definition of a toy?
The Z/28 is $75,000. The one option package is $1,500, and it adds in speakers and air conditioning. You might think $75,000 is a lot for a Camaro, and you'd be right. But the Z/28 is something different. It's a Camaro in name and appearance alone.
The parts that make up this car necessitate a price tag above and beyond any other Camaro that Chevy currently offers. It also competes with cars that are far above its price level. But the difference is that the Z/28 has a singularity of focus that far outshines any other mass market production car.
There is something refreshing about a company as massive and bureaucratic as General Motors saying they want to build a car that will only be at home on a race track, and that they don't necessarily care how it is on the road. Every other "track going road car" is just that. This, for the first time in a long time, is a factory "road going track car." You just have to love that.
I think the Z/28 is a mega steal, the sort of car that we rarely see come to fruition. This is a pants shittingly fast middle finger to fuel conservation, to autonomous cars, and to the supposed "death" of car culture. I love everything about the Z/28 and everything that it stands for.
It's flat out fantastic.
Engine: 7.0L V8
Power: 505 HP at 6,100 RPM/ 481 LB-FT at 4,800 RPM
Transmission: Six Speed Manual
0-60 Time: 4.0 seconds (est)
Top Speed: 175 MPH (est)
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,820 LBS
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 13 City/19 Highway/15 Combined
Top photo, handling, toys, second brake photo: Mike Woeller/Windshadow Studios
All other photos: Raphael Orlove