Camaro ZL1 vs. Shelby Mustang GT500: Which Will Win?

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2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 first drive

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 first drive

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As history's longest-running muscle car rivalry, the Camaro vs. Mustang debate isn't likely ever to have an answer for anyone that's not already decided. If you're a Blue Oval fan, you side with the Mustang. If you're a Bowtie believer, it's Camaro or nothing. The lines are drawn, and the sides are clear. It's a holy war. But is one actually better than the other?

Maybe.

It depends on what you want from your muscle car. Do you want the biggest numbers, the best stats, the lowest price of entry? If so, the Shelby GT500 is probably your best bet. The 2012 model is no slouch, cramming 550 wild ponies under the hood, and the 2013 model finds room for another hundred. The technology outside the engine bay is pretty low, however, with the solid rear axle absorbing a lot of the vitriol from haters.

The stats

Ford has worked some real magic tuning the Mustang's platform, with Ford Racing parts (and engineers) doing their best to deliver truly balanced, track-worthy grip, both on the strip and the road course.

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

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Chevy's engineers have done the same, and taken to it with a whole lot more high-tech boffinry. The third-gen magneto-rheological shocks on the Camaro ZL1 are even more advanced than those on the CTS-V, using a dual-coil internal system that allows finer control and more dramatic changes in damping characteristics than previous single-coil systems. The whole thing is routed through a system that samples at five milliseconds--effectively reading the road through its position sensors once every inch of forward travel, and able to act up to four times per second to maximize grip or ride comfort.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 first drive

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 first drive

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The ZL1 is heavy, though, weighing in at 4,180 pounds. The GT500, in contrast, weighs about 3,820 pounds (in coupe form). That 360-pound difference is nearly 10 percent, and though the massive, grippy Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires on the ZL1 make up for some of the weight under some circumstances, the Shelby's (relative) lightness is an advantage in almost every case.

Moving beyond stat sheets and gadgetry for a moment, there's the little matter of what each is like to drive.

The drive

Having driven both the new ZL1 and numerous examples of the GT500 on track, street, or autocross over the past several years, it's a hard thing to say which is truly best. The GT500 has undeniably made leaps and bounds in its performance, refinement, and ultimate on-track capability since the 2009 and earlier models, which were as likely to punch you in the throat and take your lunch money for bodywork repair as they were to drive quickly but peaceably in the direction intended. The current models are so good we called the 2011 an M3-killer.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

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Chevy's ZL1 is no slouch on the track either, evoking a straight-up comparison to the 2012 Porsche 911, if only from turn-in to apex. It's heavy, sure, but it's balanced, controllable, predictable, and the five-stage PTM offers a sheetmetal-saving comfort zone for drivers of all skill levels. It can even be turned completely off for those willing to come to terms with the full force of the LSA brute and the Supercar tires without a safety net. Those that do, and succeed, will be rewarded. The ZL1 is fantastically tuned right out of the box.

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Enlarge Photo
Flipping the coin again, the 2013 GT500, which no one in the press has yet driven, stands to be even better than the last--and that's seriously, no-joke good. The Shelby has already transcended the pure muscle car genre to become a legitimate, world-class sports car. Add another year's suspension tuning and another 100 horsepower and people will start tossing around the "S" word. Supercar.

Here, the ZL1 comes up measurably short again: 580 horsepower was the stuff of Italian fever dreams just a few years ago, and its advanced Performance Traction Management (PTM) system makes it so usable it almost seems like more at times, but it's well short of 650 horsepower.

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