Driven: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe

By Brandon Turkus

May 30, 2012

(photo credit: Richard Prince)
—Indianapolis, Indiana
Rain and sports cars rarely agree with one another. Too much power and not enough grip often conspire to ruin the days of even the most competent drivers in the most potent of vehicles.
Editor-In-Chief Seyth Miersma found this out the first time he drove the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, in a wet and wild session at Virginia International Raceway. Chevy's most potent muscle car faced some nasty weather, and the event was eventually washed out.
Fast forward to Memorial Day weekend, and we found ourselves sitting in the leather-and-Alcantara seats of a bright red ZL1, with the entire length of the dry, sticky tarmac at Lucas Oil Raceway outside of Indianapolis at our disposal.
[Click here to read our review of 2013 Ford Mustang V6 Premium]
The weather couldn't be much different than when Seyth drove the car. With temperatures in the low 90s and a bright, sunny sky, we'll admit it wasn't the best day to be drag racing. Still, we rarely turn down an opportunity to drag a 580-horsepower muscle car.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 head-on picture
If you aren’t familiar with the ZL1, here’s a brief primer.
The ZL1 is the fastest, most powerful production Camaro ever built. It’s powered by a 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8, versions of which are shared with the Cadillac CTS-V and Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. It sends 556 pound-feet of torque (along with the aforementioned 580 ponies) to the rear wheels by way of either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual gearbox. It tops out at 184 miles per hour, and will hit 60 in 3.9 seconds in automatic trim, and four seconds with a manual. According to Chevy engineers, it’ll run the quarter-mile in under 12 seconds.
On top of all that, it boasts the most advanced version of GM’s Magnetic Ride Control along with the Corvette ZR1’s Performance Traction Management system (detailed below).
The exterior has been given a raft of revisions, with the most noticeable being the new aluminum hood. We mean it in the best way possible when we say it looks likes it has been assaulted with a chainsaw. Four massive vents allow for better airflow, while the insert itself can be finished in either satin black paint or carbon fiber. Along with a revised front fascia, smooth underbody, and rear diffuser, the hood is responsible for the 65 pounds of downforce the ZL1 creates at 150 mph.
The tail receives a new bumper and a set of meaty quad exhausts. The twenty-inch, staggered wheels look good and are wrapped in super-sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires.
Inside, there’s a sportier steering wheel along with a new set of paddles for the TapShift six-speed automatic. The seats feature suede inserts. An optional Suede Package finishes the shift knob, shift boot, emergency brake, and steering wheel in grippy Alcantara.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Burnout picture
Not surprisingly, this was a truly quick vehicle, capable of alarming speed. Like the CTS-V, there was more than enough power at idle to send the rear tires the way of the dodo. This was an entirely optional activity, though, as the power delivery and throttle response were quite smooth. In fact, we might argue that a sharper (or adjustable) throttle response could be fitted to make the ZL1 feel just a hair quicker off the line.
Mid and high rpms packed just as much punch, as the ZL1 was happy to run to redline. This was the kind of car you could drive down the freeway in sixth gear, nail the throttle and run to 100 mph in a reasonable amount of time without downshifting. The torque curve was so broad and linear, that it made us lament all the new turbos, and wonder why there aren’t more supercharged vehicles running about.
Sonically, this was a far more entertaining vehicle than a standard Camaro SS. The quad pipes didn’t really emit much of a rumble at idle, requiring us to dig in to the throttle to get some noise. The dual-mode exhaust also meant it sounded rather civil when not being caned. Once the taps were opened, though, the ZL1 delivered a pleasant amount of acoustic anger, with a delightful growl on overrun. Still, for a 580-horsepower muscle car, it could have had a bit more presence. More noise at idle and a greater bark at speed would really fill out the Camaro’s character.
The six-speed manual gearbox of our tester felt like a massaged version of the one found in the Cadillac CTS-V. The shifter itself had a mechanical feel to it, with shortish throws and a smooth action. The clutch uptake is progressive and predictable, making it quite easy to manage.
The suspension of the ZL1 can be summed up in three words: Magnetic Ride Control. GM’s MRC system has been floating around for some time on the Corvette and aforementioned V. This third-generation system, like the ones before it, utilizes magnetorhelogical fluids to adjust the firmness of the suspension based on driving conditions. It worked a charm in the ZL1.
In Sport mode, it delivered flat, neutral handling. There was little side-to-side body motion, yet feedback through the chassis was readily available. Squat and dive were nearly non-existent. There’s plenty of grip, but even if things did get dicey, the Camaro rotated in a smooth, easy-to-manage fashion.
Tour mode is what you’ll want to use for simple highway cruising. Despite the ZL1’s overall aggressive character, Tour makes a noticeable difference in outright stability. Bumps and imperfections are still clearly perceptible, but are better absorbed and less disruptive to the ride and tracking of the steering.
The steering offered plenty of feedback and a fair amount of effort, although we’d like to see some level of adjustment along the same vein as the MRC system.
Braking in the ZL1 is an experience, thanks to the six-piston-front/four-piston-rear Brembo brake calipers and their associated two-piece-front/one-piece-rear rotors. 14.6-inch pans sit in front, while 14.4-inchers are in back. We don’t have dedicated braking data, but we suspect these things would adequately stop your average freight train. We had no issues slowing down from about 110 mph on the drag strip. There’s enough feedback through the pedal, although we’d like a bit more modulation before the brakes really bite.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Drag Strip picture
Now, at the beginning of this piece, we mentioned sitting behind the wheel of the ZL1 at the Lucas Oil Raceway outside of Indy, ready to do a spot of drag racing. Unfortunately, this was the only track time we had (support workers for any nearby road course may have been in short supply, with some little race happening in Indy).
Part of what makes the ZL1 such a great dragster is the computers. The ZL1 uses a system called Performance Traction Management. This is an umbrella term for the technology that manages the magnetic ride control, launch control, traction control, stability control, and power steering response. This is the same system found on the Chevy Corvette ZR1.
It features five separate modes:
Mode 1: Traction set for wet roads, ESC on, MRC in Tour
Mode 2: Traction set for dry roads, ESC on, MRC in Tour
Mode 3: Traction in Sport 1, ESC on, MRC in Sport
Mode 4: Traction in Sport 2, ESC off, MRC in Sport
Mode 5: Traction in Race, ESC off, MRC in Track.
Mode 5 is also optimized for drag-prepped surfaces, just like what we had at our drag strip. Oh goody.
In the automatic-equipped car, we slotted the shifter into sport, held the brake, and stepped on the gas until it hit the 4000-rpm rev limiter, then let off the brake and fed in throttle. The system works really well, although you need to be a bit more careful with the throttle, as the automatic doesn’t have the torque-managing launch control of the manual car. Still, with this much grip on offer, it wasn’t very difficult to handle.
The manual’s launch control differs slightly, in that you hold the clutch in, and with the car in first gear, floor the gas and dump the clutch. The PTM system manages the engine’s power and determines the appropriate amount of torque to actually send to the road.
As odd as it feels to just drop the clutch in a car at max rpms, we have to admit Chevy’s system works really well. We laid down times in the low 13s all day long, at speeds of 109 to 110 mph. Our best time was in the automatic, when we cracked off a 12.92 at 111.32 mph, and were only about half-a-second off the time of two-time NHRA champion and our teacher for the day, Frank Hawley. The fastest journalist time of the day was a 12.7 at 112 mph.
Chevrolet’s done a fine trick with the ZL1, building a vehicle that can dole out supercar-beating performance on the track while delivering a surprisingly comfortable and easy-to-drive way of getting home each night. Its bargain-basement starting price of $54,095 is a breath of fresh air in a world where serious performance usually starts with a check well north of $70,000. For those reasons, we can’t help but recommend the Camaro ZL1.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 front three-quarter picture
VS: 2013 Ford Shelby GT500
To the casual observer, Chevrolet’s timing with the ZL1 really couldn’t have been much worse. It debuted and is now being launched right as Ford is coming to market with its own supercharged muscle car. The Ford Shelby GT500 packs a 5.8-liter, supercharged V-8 with 662 horsepower (82 more than the Camaro) and a starting price only $105 higher.
The thing is, we really aren’t sure it matters too much. Yes, the Mustang will be the faster car in a straight line, and by a rather large margin. Ford’s claimed run to 60 only takes 3.5 seconds, four-tenths faster than an auto-equipped ZL1. But unless Ford has addressed some of the handling and feedback issues inherent in the Mustang, the ZL1 will walk all over it on a twisting road. We’ll have to wait to get a GT500 in for an official test to see if this is still the case.
As Chevy is very quick to point out, the Camaro comes ready for the track, with extra system cooling features standard on every single car. The Mustang requires you to spend $3495 on the SVT Performance Package, and then another $2995 on an SVT Track Package to get the same level of heavy-duty equipment that is standard on the Chevy. So really, to get a competitive Mustang, you may face spending $60,690.
VS: 2012 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Coupe
We won’t even be leaving the House of the Bowtie for this one. The Vette boasts a non-supercharged 6.2-liter V-8, delivering 436 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque. While those numbers are significantly lower than the ZL1’s 580/556, the Grand Sport only weighs 3309 pounds, compared to about 4100 for the Camaro (nearly an 800-pound difference).
That means these two are fairly even in terms of weight-to-power ratios, with the Vette hauling 7.58 pounds per horsepower to the Camaro’s 7.06. With talented drivers at the helm, we suspect a drag race between these two would be very close.
The Camaro might edge the Vette, simply because of the level of technology it offers. The Corvette features launch control and Magnetic Ride Control like the ZL1, although it’s not quite as advanced, and lacks the Performance Traction Management system.
The Corvette is certainly the sportier of the two cars, sitting lower to the ground, being lighter, and certainly more agile, but it’s not so much better that we’d pick it over the Camaro.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Coupe
Engine: Supercharged V-8, 6.2 liters, 32v
Output: 580 hp/556 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.0 sec
Top Speed: 184 mph
Weight: 4100 lb (est)
Base Price: $54,095