Calming the savage Camaro beast

JASON HARPER
Last updated 07:00 16/09/2012
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Washington Post

CHEVROLET CAMARO ZL1: More likely to stay on track than previous, less nimble versions.

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Driving the Chevy Camaro ZL1 quickly on a narrow road is like working with a circus bear in tight quarters. No matter how well-trained, it's still a wild animal that could bite your head off at any moment.

The modern Camaro is a blunt beast, not much given to nuance or tidy manners, so the top-of-the-food-chain ZL1 should be all fangs and claws.

It has 580 horsepower (433kW) and 556 pounds-feet of torque (755Nm) coming out of the supercharged, 6.2-litre V8 engine, and will barrel past 100kmh in less than four seconds. All that growl in a car which starts at only $54,095 (NZ$66,650) in the United States.

That power is foremost in my mind as I turn into a fast sweeping corner with a telephone pole standing at its apex. If I give it too much throttle and the back end slides out, it will be a certain and terrible bulls-eye.

But, no, the sports coupe arrows past, turning crisply. The ZL1 handles so much better than the US$33,180, 400hp (299kW) Camaro SS that they don't even seem like the same car. There's savagery in those 580 horses to be sure, but not unless you ask for it.

The ZL1 exists in pure muscle-car territory. It's the kind of boy's toy that Americans both idolise and specialise in. Ford has retorted with the release of the Mustang Shelby GT500 with 650hp (485kW) and a claimed top speed of 320kmh for US$55,000.

Such cars are usually all about straight-line speed, gunning from stoplight to stoplight. Who needs superior handling when you could make all that tyre-squealing, cackle-inducing noise?

Yet as anyone who has stepped foot in a Mazda Miata or BMW could tell you, corners should be fun. So when the GM engineers set out to create the ultimate, racetrack-ready Camaro, they knew they had to get the numb beast to actually turn.

(The ZL1 name comes from a special-edition model of the Camaro first released in 1969 with an especially potent motor.)

Except for the large intake on the hood to help suck in air for the Eaton supercharger, the exterior of the new ZL1 is mostly the same, including the low roof and tiny windows out of which you can barely see.

Fire up the engine and the noise is positively seismic - the kind of sound from the earth just before it begins to spew lava.

What you can't see are the underpinnings that separate the ZL1 from its mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging brethren. Like new Cadillacs and special Corvettes, the ZL1 gets magnetic ride control, a special suspension which firms or slackens as it senses road conditions - allowing more give on bumps, less on curves.

The reworked suspension delivers the nuance and road feel the other Camaro models lack, significantly raising the handling bar.

Still, all that power can easily overcome traction on the rear wheels (a plus when you want to show off), so the ZL1 provides four settings on its stability and traction controls.

These include a conservative setting for driving in the rain. Unfortunately, the control of these functions is foolishly difficult to change due to a non-intuitive interface.

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A six-speed manual transmission is standard and an automatic available. The stick is easy to use, engaging the clutch surprisingly effortless.

The interior is nice. Not European nice, but nice for an American muscle car, with the glove box and various bits coated in Alcantara soft-touch fabric. The feel of the steering wheel is just right, and that's mostly what I want to touch anyhow.

Most owners will find themselves on narrow roads like the one I tested on. However, the ZL1 was expressly designed to handle a race track too.

I first got a chance to test the Camaro at Virginia International Raceway, a particularly tricky road course.

Unfortunately two factors worked against me: Rain and other motoring journalists. The track was slick, so we were asked to put the cars into the highest traction mode.

After three very slow reconnaissance laps, two journalists skidded off, incurring damage in each instance. We were pulled from the cars, our day over.

I didn't blame the car, which handled very well.

My narrow and winding public road wasn't going to allow me to test the limits of the ZL1. Nonetheless, extremely wide Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres gave superior grip and the Camaro angled cleanly down the road.

The Camaro ZL1 is good. Perhaps even too good. I'm not sure most Camaro buyers are even interested in this level of handling performance. Those few who do will find that Chevy has given us the perfect tools to tame the savage beast.

-Washington Post-Bloomberg

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