2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 First Drive Page 2

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Launching the ZL1 on your own is an entirely different matter. Huge torque, a surprisingly quick-revving engine, and the inherent weakness of street tires on the drag strip surface quickly conspire to cause smokey, spinning burnouts. Back it off just a hair, and you'll get hesitant, boggy walk-offs. Finding that magic grip level is like walking a hair-wide tightrope at the top of Camelback Mountain. Unless you're a pro, you won't make it to the other side.

Back to the road course, though. It's not that the ZL1 isn't really, really good on a road course. Its 7:41 Nurburgring time says it is, as does my own first-hand experience. It's even outfitted from the factory with transmission and differential coolers—bits the ZL1's main rival, the Ford Shelby GT500, makes optional add-ons.

Its third-generation magneto-rheological dampers are expertly tuned, with five steps of PTM gradually adding more and more control and even enhancement to the driver's abilities, interacting with damper settings to help alter the car's attitude rather than just relying on throttle and individual brake applications (though it does that, too).  With all of the electronic nannies and aids fully defeated, the ZL1 exposes no inherent flaws, just more willingness to get sideways and light up its tires. The engineers have done amazing things with both the hardware and the software on the ZL1.

Unfortunately, they aren't magicians, and they can't turn the 4,180-pound ZL1 into a light and nimble corner carver. Huge, incredibly grippy 285 mm front and 305 mm rear tires, built to spec and unique to the ZL1, give the car enough grip to perform most of the same feats a lighter car would, but at the end of the day, if you get the ZL1 out of shape, its mass overcomes the friction of the contact patch and becomes a lesson in Newtonian physics like only a truly heavy car can.

OK, so it's a serious performance car with a surprisingly round set of abilities, a few faults, and an extra dose of horsepower, but what's it like otherwise?

Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to drive the ZL1 on the road just yet, but in our low-speed reconnaissance laps and return trips from the end of the drag strip, we got a bit of an idea. It's mostly standard Camaro SS fare: a firm but not too-stiff ride, comfortable seats, and the famously low canopy that drivers and passengers either love or hate.

The interior is trimmed out in somewhat higher-grade materials and with a slightly different look from the SS, and while it's nice—and certainly on-par with the GT500—it's  by no means a luxurious space. Fit and finish are good, but not spectacular; suede elements trade off with cheapish plastic switches. It's clear where almost all of the price of the ZL1 goes: under the hood and under the fenders. We're fine with that.

I still feel a tinge of embarrassment for blurting out the 911 comparison at a table of colleagues and GM engineers, but at the same time, I'm glad I slipped up. The ZL1 is a true driver's car, and regardless of its ultimate pace in comparison with sports cars or supercars in its price, power, or performance categories, it delivers an experience that, at times, is on par with the very best of them.

The ZL1 is the best production Camaro on Earth—ever—even though it's still ultimately "just" a Camaro. There's no shame in that.


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