ZL1. Z28. Z51. ZR2. ZR1. Z71. Z06. Z24. One of those numbers represents the pinnacle of General Motors’ performance lineup, milled from dragon steel to slay 911s, McLarens, villages full of peasants, etc. One represents an option package on your Cavalier that brought stunning 16-inch alloy wheels. One means your Silverado has locking diffs.
One goes on the Colorado. Two are for the Camaro. Corvettes take three of the spots, with the aforementioned Silverado and Cavalier wrapping up the other two.
And outside of the little circle of automotive dweebs that read publications like Jalopnik, damned near no one has a clue what any of these alphanumeric messes mean. That’s a problem Chevy should try to solve, because it does little for the customer.
To understand why, let’s talk about used car prices for the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 and the previous generation Chevy Camaro ZL1. Both vehicles were monsters for the time, with the Shelby’s massive 662 horsepower trumping the ZL1’s 580 HP.
While Chevy offered a more track-focused Z/28 Camaro at the time, the ZL1 was the General’s tire-shredding, supercharged rival to the steroidal ’Stang. Prices reflected this, with the $56,350 Camaro Zl1 coming in just above the $55,445 Mustang in 2014. The Z/28, meanwhile, stickered for a comparatively-massive $75,000.
It stands to reason, then, that a comparable GT500s and ZL1s would be offered at similar prices. And the absolute top-dog Camaro should benefit from it’s halo status and stratospheric price, commanding huge premiums in the second-hand market.
With that in mind, here are the average listing prices for 2014 models of all three vehicles, assuming 48,000 miles, no options, and good condition, according to Kelley Blue Book:
- Camaro ZL1: $33,143
- Camaro Z/28: $36,241
- Shelby GT500: $43,924
So after four years and 48,000 miles, the Shelby retains 79.2 percent of its value. The ZL1 delivers a less impressive 58.8 percent residual, which is stellar when compared to the Z/28's 48.3 percent.
At first blush, it makes no sense. Both Camaros received rave reviews on release and both are fantastic performance cars. The Z/28 was praised universally for its dynamics, and while it isn’t the pinnacle of daily drivability that never seems to hurt other small-production number cars.
And even if you assume the Camaros are less desirable cars than the Mustang based on substance alone, that doesn’t explain why the Z/28 is so close in price to the slower, heavier, worse-looking, cheaper-when-new ZL1.
So why are values both artificially low and comparatively similar for the ZL1 and Z/28? It could be a lot of things, but I’ll posit this is part of the problem: because nobody knows what the hell they are. Or at least, which is “better.”
To 90 percent of people, the term ZL1 is meaningless. That’s okay. Most people also don’t recognize GT500. Or Mercedes’ E53. Or BMW’s 760i. You can get around it in two ways: logic or sub-branding.
The 760i designation may be meaningless, but it’s also logical. As a consumer I may not know what any of those numbers mean—and the middle numbers don’t mean engine displacements the way they used to—but I know that 760i is higher than 740i. And it’s definitely bigger than 530i. This is called “math.” I don’t have to know what each number means, so long as I know that higher number = more expensive.
So what’s higher, ZL1 or Z/28? Hell, maybe SS is the range topper. It’s hard enough to compare letters to numbers, but then Chevy throws in a slash there just to mess up the calculus even further. Clearly, we won’t be figuring this out with logic.
Option two is the sub-brand. An easy moniker to market that clarifies the position, a sub-brand can be helpful when used right. For instance, if you want want the best Mercedes C-Class, the numbering system would suggest that the C350e hybrid is the one to get.
After all, the C350e has a bigger number than the C300. And it certainly beats the weak C63 and C43, right? Three-hundred fifty is more than those!
Well, that can’t stand. So rather than go on a model-number inflation spree that ends with the 2026 C250,000,000, Mercedes attaches the AMG sub-brand to separate out their performance models. Hence, C63 AMG and, more recently, Mercedes-AMG C43.
This works brilliantly not just for AMG, but for a more direct comparison: the Shelby. Sure, it has an alphanumeric name. But we don’t ever use the full name of any car. And for laypeople, it’s pretty easy to shorten Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 to the one word that matters: Shelby.
Because for decades, Ford has invested in building that sub-brand to be a one-word trump car. Which Mustang is the top dog? The Shelby. We all know that. This is America. Whether it’s on the GT350R or the GT500, the Shelby name makes the hierarchy obvious.
That’s where Chevy’s Z-designations fail. You can’t brag about them; you have to explain them. Buy a top-end Camaro and spend the rest of your life explaining that Z/28 is a historically significant name that represents peak track performance. Buy a top-end Mustang, tell ‘em you got a Shelby, and everyone will understand.
The Camaro-Mustang rivalry is the most obvious example here because of how direct the comparison is, but it applies across the board. Names, branding, and logic help us understand the automotive confusion. It’s not immediately obvious that ZR2 means anything besides an option package, but the Ford Raptor has a special name; it follows to logic that it must be a special trucks. It also sounds rad as hell in a way “ZR2” doesn’t.
That’s why I was so excited when I heard a certain mid-engined Corvette rumor. No, I wasn’t that surprised to see more word that it was coming—that’s been in the works for decades now—but there was an interesting note on branding: the new ‘Vette wouldn’t be offered in Z06 spec. Instead, they’d call the base model Stingray and offer customers a performance version called the Manta Ray.
I have no idea if this is true. But I hope it is. Because while Z-designations are steeped in history and tradition, they’re holding back the images of the often-awesome cars to which they’re assigned.
Honestly, the Cavalier Z24 deserves better.