Review: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

I have mentioned several times over the years about how the opportunity to drive high-horsepower cars has jaded me.  The seat of my pants is now calibrated so that 400 horsepower is the baseline, 500 horsepower is fast, and 600 horsepower is nuts.  In other words, my expectations are probably about 150 horsepower higher than they should be.  Two hundred fifty horsepower is still plenty of power to move almost any car.  Heck, the 1985 Corvette that I borrowed to go to my senior prom had 230 horsepower.  With that being said, I think I have discovered that 580 horsepower is just as nuts as 600.  Say hello to the Camaro ZL1.

When Chevrolet re-introduced the Camaro to the world, first as a concept in January 2006 and later as a 2010 model-year production car, everyone had high expectations for the car.  The name had been dormant for several years, the Mustang had been very successfully enjoying its time as the only affordable rear wheel drive performance car, and GM had just rolled out the Holden Commodore-based Pontiac G8, which received rave reviews for its performance and suspension tuning.  With the Camaro based on the Zeta platform that underpinned the G8, and with Holden’s engineers tuning the Camaro’s suspension, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, basing a “pony car” on a full size sedan platform results in a car that’s far larger and heavier than it should be.  The concept-car styling, while it looks great to my eyes, yielded a concept car roofline and concept car visibility (or lack of).  The base Camaro’s handling (and even the handling of the high-performance Camaro SS) suffered from the car’s weight, plus it was tuned to understeer.  Also, while 426 horsepower sounds like a lot – and it is – having the SS’s weight on the wrong side of two tons didn’t help.

So how were these issues resolved?  With two letters and a number.  Z-L-1.

The ZL1 name of today’s car is a nod to the 1969 COPO 9560 Camaro from 1969.  Equipped with a hand-assembled all-aluminum 427 cubic inch engine called the ZL-1 (note the hyphen), there were only 69 ZL-1 equipped Camaros built.  Rated at 430 horsepower (gross), they produced about 376 SAE net horsepower, but could be brought closer to 500 horsepower with a tune.  The ZL-1 engine was basically an aluminum version of the L-88 427 that was installed in some Corvettes.  L-88s were known for their ridiculous power but cantankerous low-RPM operation caused by the engine’s super-high compression (12.5:1) and super-aggressive cam profile.

Many observers expected the high-performance version of the fifth generation Camaro to be called the Z28, but that notion never made as much sense as ZL1 did.  The Z/28 was the high-revving, lightweight, 302 cubic inch small block Trans Am racecar sold to the public, but it didn’ t have the biggest power numbers in the lineup.  The ZL-1 was the monster with the eye-popping spec sheet.

 What does it feel like to drive a 580-horsepower car for five days?  It depends.  If you’re trying to be a law-abiding citizen, it is incredibly frustrating.  There is enormous temptation under your right foot at all times to forget about speed limits, police, and other motorists and drive like a maniac.  Then, you glance in the rear-view mirror, see a person with a family who wouldn’t look good in prison garb (or who wouldn’t want to lose his license) and calm yourself down.  Acceleration is rapid and ferocious in the Camaro ZL1, and it’s not quiet.

Actually, the sound begins when you turn the key (that’s right – no pushbutton start in this baby).  After about a revolution and a half of cranking that sounds kind of like Chrysler’s old high energy ignition systems of the 70s, the 6.2 liter supercharged LSA V8 comes to life.  Forget a baritone voice from this guy; it’s pure bass at idle, and it rattles your bones from your feet to your skull.  Bystanders turn to look.  Your spouse and children sitting in the car may complain, and you can forget about sneaking up on anybody.

The clutch is on the firm side, but considering the power that it has to manage, it’s very easy to modulate.  The takeup point is fairly close to the floor, but I’m accustomed to that, having driven about 60,000 miles in a car with a similar clutch feel (albeit one with a much softer clutch pedal).  You’ll find that gear changes are very notchy, yet in my time with the ZL1, I never missed a gear or even put the car in the wrong gear, so from that standpoint, it’s easy to drive as well.

Aside from terrible rearward visibility (thank goodness for the ZL1’s rearview mirror-mounted backup camera) and sub-par side visibility, plus the aforementioned sound, the ZL1 is perfectly happy to putter around at low speeds around parking lots or in traffic.  As long as you, the driver, have sufficient self-control.

The seats are comfortable, and their suede inserts help to hold you in place during aggressive cornering, but they lack sufficient side bolstering given this car’s capabilities.  And by the way, both ride and handling in the ZL1 are much-improved versus the Camaro SS.  For that, you can thank a relocated rear anti-roll bar for the 2012 model year, plus the ZL1’s third-generation magnetorheological dampers that instantly adjust to road conditions.  For the first time in a Camaro, the ZL1 has electrically-assisted steering.  To me, it offered the same degree of feedback as traditional belt-driven hydraulic systems, but without the fuel economy penalty.  Plus, it’s smart enough to distinguish between forces acting on it from the road surface vs. instructions that you send to it by turning the steering wheel.

Active Handling is exclusive to the ZL1 (since it is the only Camaro that gets the magnetic dampers).  At its simplest, you can choose between tour (soft) and sport (bone-jarring) suspension settings.  Tour is comfortable, while sport is so harsh, it’s almost funny.  Your teeth will literally chatter and your head will bounce up and down by inches when the Camaro travels over imperfect road surfaces.  Active Handling, though, has five modes, numbered from 1 to 5, with 1 being “wet” with tour suspension on and all nannies activated, to 5 being full race mode with launch control engaged.

Launch control is fun, and the combination of the trick magnetic suspension, smart traction control, suspension geometry, and sticky (when warm) tires makes a full-throttle launch drama-free.  Just set Active Handling to mode 5, straighten the wheel, and push the clutch to the floor.  Floor the gas pedal, and engine RPM will settle in at 4,000.  Release the clutch quickly and hold on, and the Camaro ZL1 will explode out of the hole.  The 1-2 shift comes fast, so be ready (it’s hard to be ready for such a quick shift, even with the standard head-up display giving you strong hints in your line of sight).  No need to lift the throttle when shifting, as the ZL1 has no-lift shift technology.

Downsides of driving this bad boy?  Comfort, noise, and visibility are all issues.  Fuel economy is a big one.  The absolute best I could do, when behaving as much as possible, was 18 miles per gallon.  Over the car’s stay at the Autosavant garage, I saw about 14 miles per gallon.  The EPA says 14 city/19 highway.  Were the temptation to hoon not so great, I’m sure I would have been above the city number, at least.  It’s a cliche to say that a car is so inefficient that you can watch the gas gauge drop, but my first 19 gallon tank of premium unleaded took me about 150 miles before the low-fuel light illuminated.  At least it was fun.

It’s the most expensive Camaro, naturally (excepting the new-for-2013 ZL1 convertible), but you get an incredible amount of supercar go-fast technology for the $54,095 base price (all go-fast goodies are standard).  Our tester had the $1,300 gas guzzler tax (no surprise!), $500 interior sueded microfiber package (which primarily covered the upper dash), $470 solid dark gray stripe, and $325 rally yellow paint.  Add $900 for destination, and you get $57,590 as-tested.

We’ve not yet had the chance to drive the ZL1’s most obvious rival, the monster 662 horsepower Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 (helloooo, Ford?!), but those who have compared the two have found that what the Chevy gives up in power, it makes up for in comfort and racetrack handling.

The LSA engine is so much more fun in the ZL1 than it is in the CTS-V.  Both cars have similar curb weights, but the combination of an extra 24 horsepower with louder low-restriction exhaust really seem to spruce up the driving experience.  Were it not for the engine noise (which bothered my passengers more than it bothered me), the subcompact-sized back seat, and fuel consumption, I could see myself driving one of these every day.  Hey, maybe someday they’ll come up with a Chevy SS Performance (nee G8) with this engine, and a way to get 50% better fuel economy.  With midsize sedan insurance premiums.

But in the meantime, if you want the most outrageous, most fun Camaro, you really cannot go wrong with the ZL1.

Below, we’ve embedded a video of Autosavant’s Kevin Gordon in a ZL1 on the track, giving his impressions there:

And for a further bonus, here are Kevin’s impressions of the 2013 Camaro SS 1LE:

Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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