2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 First Drive

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I have a confession to make. Sitting at the lunch table after thrashing the 2012 Camaro ZL1 on track—unrestricted, an opportunity offered to only a few of us at Firebird International Raceway, home of the Bondurant Racing School—I made a spontaneous association and foolishly blurted it out. I compared the ZL1 to the 2012 Porsche 911.

Specifically, I realized, while mentally re-visualizing the last set of laps, that from turn-in to apex, under fast entry speeds with a fair amount of trail brake, the ZL1 felt, acted, and moved almost exactly like the 2012 911 did under similar circumstances. People around the table looked at me with a mixture of surprise and disbelief, some likely making notes to self that I might, in fact, be slightly soft in the head.

I maintain that it's a fair comparison as framed, but I also understand that it's not something most people will believe is true. It is true, but ultimately, it's also unimportant. Why? Because despite its impressive road-course capacity, that's not what the ZL1 is about, or at least it won't be for 99 percent of its owners.

The drag strip, on the other hand, is the ZL1's natural habitat, and it shows. As nimble as it might be for a 4,180-pound, 580-horsepower super muscle car, getting the ZL1 to move quickly around a road course is work. Running it down the dragstrip is effortless, in both manual and automatic transmission forms—because it was engineered to be.

The manual-'boxed ZL1 gets the Performance Traction Management (PTM) system also seen in the Corvette ZR1, but tuned uniquely to the ZL1's setup and mission. The launch control (only available on the manual) in PTM Mode 5 is tuned specifically to the rubber/grip-enhancer/concrete surface of a real drag strip. It tunes itself to suit ambient conditions through data from the built-in barometer and thermometer, adjusting launch rpms to match what it thinks will work with the available grip.

To engage it, you just select PTM Mode 5 with the console-mounted buttons, stage the car, clutch in, and mash the throttle. Wait for the lights, step off the clutch, and WHAM! it's off, scrabbling and chirping down the 60-foot, making the most of the tsunami of torque-producing atmosphere being crammed down the gullet of the V-8 engine by the supercharger.

Hit your shift points—no need to lift, it's built for powershifts—keep the wheel straight, and somewhat less than 13 seconds later, you'll cross the traps at about 115 mph. It's that easy.

It's even easier in the automatic. There's no launch control to futz with, and it doesn't really need it. Just hold the brake, run the revs up to about 1,200 rpm, and roll on the throttle at the lights. The transmission pre-fills the next gear, making its shifts quickly and affirmatively, at the perfect rpm.

After a dozen or so passes at the strip, I was no more tired than I was when I started, but I had set the fastest time in our group of journalist-drivers. And I did it by staying out of the car's way. It's that easy.

Which is exactly what the engineers had intended. The launch control and PTM tuning was built not just to maximize the car's capability (something it does beautifully, even on the road course) but to make sure its part-time drag racer owner wouldn't be embarrassed on the two times per year they bring it out to the strip. Future ZL1 owners, you will never be embarrassed by this car until you think you're better than it is.

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