2015 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 first drive review

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Al Oppenheiser can rattle off from memory the Chevy Camaro's many brushes with doom. Let's not even count the one that threatens overhead--a blanket of thick, low clouds intensifying from light to dark. 

No, the pony car's chief engineer can rattle off the times and ways the Camaro skated through GM's bankruptcy while other projects were canned, to emerge not just a survivor, but a solid business case.

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The Camaro, you see, is a part of what used to be GM's Zeta family--a rear-drive clan of cars chopped one by one from GM's big block. The Camaro endured Chapter 11 while a new Chevy four-door, an unnamed Buick, and the Pontiac G8 ST bit the dust. (A shipload of STs, in fact, were on the way from Australia to U.S. dealers when GM vice chairman Bob Lutz pulled the plug.) Even the Camaro convertible was delayed more than a year, sacrificed then revived as GM recovered better health.

Do we even need remind you the Camaro wasn't even in the lineup from 2003 to 2009?

Given all that, it's all the more amazing that the Camaro now accounts for 100,000 sales a year, even now in its sixth year. Part of the reason is it keeps getting better, with a much-improved base V-6, a revamped tire and tuning setup that dialed out some of freshman- and sophomore-year understeer, then a ZL1 with a Corvette powertrain and a 'Vette-grade adaptive suspension.

And now, the Z/28. It's hard to describe the Z/28 as one of Chevy's "small-batch" Camaros when the ZL1 alone sold more than 10,000 copies last year. But among the less common Camaros with the heritage nametags, the Z/28 finally has a bell-clear mission: to be the most track-capable offering of all. 

Conceived, executed. The Z/28's a car that makes western Michigan's Gingerman Raceway seem even quicker and smaller than it is.

A half-thousand horsepower

The Z/28 badge has its roots in the SCCA Trans-Am series and in the late Sixties, but hasn't always been the go-to badgework for great machines. Oppenheiser admits GM hasn't had a good track record with the Camaro, for dubbing its finely graded models like SS, 1LE, and Z/28 in a consistent way. In this generation, the Z/28 wasn't even the first out of the workshop, with the ZL1 and 1LE emerging first.

With a short run out the door for the 2014 model year, the Camaro Z/28 hits full speed in 2015, going into production next week. Though it hasn't been bred for a specific series, it's focused on the track--Oppenheiser sees it garaged during the week, driven briefly on the road to the more interesting public and private tracks around the country, everywhere from epic battlegrounds like Road America to quicker cuts like Gingerman, to privateer palaces like New York's Monticello Motorsports Park.

It doesn't have the supercharger V-8 engine like the ZL1--it's fattened up instead with displacement, not for ultimate power but for linear performance and balanced handling. The LS7 7.0-liter V-8 gets the nod, with 500 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque here, its own induction and exhaust setups, shunting power to the rear through a six-speed manual transmission. Only. It's a union that feels like it should be illegal in a lot of blue states, what with all the guttural noises it makes every time it hooks up. The nominal 0-60 mph time of four seconds sounds like sandbagging.

Four of the showpieces are on its 19-inch wheels--they're downsized from the 20s on the SS and ZL1. They wear some expensive Italian shoes, Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R 305/30 tires front and back, checking in at about eight hundred bucks each, and good for three or four track weekends or 10,000 miles, take your pick. The brakes are Brembos, carbon-ceramic discs with fixed monoblock calipers, six pistons up front and four pistons at the rear, and 28 pounds less hanging off the body than the usual steel rotors.

Bodywise, it's stripped down and winged up, with an aero kit including an adjustable rear spoiler that can boost rear downforce to 150 pounds. From the Camaro SS stock trim, engineers have carved off about 100 pounds alone by chopping things like standard air conditioning, the rear seat pass-through, some sound deadening, fog lights, and five of the six speakers that come standard with the basic audio system. The Z/28 also loses its tire-inflator kit in most states, and gets thinner windows and a smaller battery.

The net: a 300-pound weight advantage over the chubbier ZL1, and quicker lap times too. Gingerman's no Nurburgring, where Oppenheiser says the Z/28 logged a 7:37.47 lap in the rain--but even here, it's pretty simple to see how that's possible, in just a dozen or so corners.

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