Forty years after the initial muscle car wars, names like Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang continue to duel. Each contender has its own prize stallion, with the 470-horsepower Challenger SRT8 topping the Dodge lineup and Ford storing the 662-hp GT500 in its stable. For 2012, the Camaro joins the party with its 580-hp ZL1, which, by a large margin, takes the throne as Chevrolet's baddest Camaro.
The roided-up 2012 Chevrolet Camaro doesn't disappoint in the go-fast department, but its loud, brutish attitude has limited appeal when you're not banging gears or lapping on a track.
Slotted above the V-8-powered SS trim level in the Camaro lineup, the ZL1 is a stout package with 154 more horsepower, compliments of a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. Just as important as the extra power are the unique Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension, the big brake package, and the beefy wheel and tire combo.
Factor in the Camaro coupe's existing visibility problems (well-addressed in our previous evaluations), and the ZL1's appeal is limited.
Sinister is as sinister does
The ZL1's aggressiveness makes its SS sibling look tame. Listening to anything but head-banging heavy metal in the ZL1 feels inappropriate; Metallica's "Ride the Lightning" should be loaded standard in every stereo. A wicked stance, steamroller tires, a front splitter and a bulging hood with a carbon-fiber air extractor give the car a "don't mess with me" attitude. All are functional elements for achieving maximum performance.
The ZL1's serious hardware puts performance and durability ahead of comfort and day-to-day drivability. The six-speed manual transmission is a beefier unit than other Camaros use, with a rough and tough shifter and clutch pedal. Use the ZL1 to teach someone to drive stick only if you're looking to scare them away from ever driving a manual transmission car again. Driving the ZL1 smoothly in traffic takes an odd combination of finesse and aggressiveness that requires concentration and effort. By the end of a long trip that ended in stop-and-go traffic, I was ready to park the Camaro and take a cab. The roughness is smoothed out when it's time to romp on the ZL1; with faster shifts the gears engage smoothly and quickly. A six-speed automatic transmission is optional, for $1,185.
The standard Magnetic Ride Control suspension adjusts shock firmness on the fly and is in "go go go" mode all the time despite selectable firmness modes. Buttons on the center console select Touring and Sport settings. They have distinguishable differences over rough roads: Touring is less bouncy compared with the Sport mode. Touring is very aggressively tuned for a "comfort" mode; you won't mistake the ZL1 for the downright comfy Cadillac CTS-V, which has a similar magnetic suspension.
A Performance Traction Management system has five driving levels that vary both the Magnetic Ride Control firmness and how active the stability and traction control systems are for street and track use. The most aggressive mode, PTM 5, unleashes a third suspension setting, Track, and deactivates stability control.
A menacing exhaust matches the ZL1's looks. A standard dual-mode exhaust system increases exhaust flow during heavy acceleration by opening up valves in the mufflers. Unlike the Corvette's dual-mode exhaust, which has quiet and loud states, there's really only one mode in the ZL1: loud. On multiple occasions, the bass-heavy exhaust set off car alarms in our parking garage. The exhaust is a huge departure from the Camaro SS, which, by comparison, is as tame as an economy car. I'm all for loud, but the ZL1's unavoidable drone wore on me after a few hundred miles at highway speed.
The Challenger SRT8 is a far more livable car for everyday commuting, though a horsepower deficit puts the big coupe somewhat out of its league against the ZL1 and GT500. But then, it's also $10,000 less expensive.
For 2013, the GT500 is an all-new beast with a ludicrous 662 hp. It's also lighter than the ZL1 by a significant 270 pounds. The GT500 doesn't just gain power: Much of the car has been revamped, and it now offers electronically adjustable shocks as part of a $3,495 Performance Package. The Camaro's Magnetic Ride Control suspension is standard. Oddly enough, the ZL1's and GT500's base prices are exactly the same once you factor in the destination charge: $54,995. The SRT8 costs $45,120.
Grip it and rip it
When the time comes to blast into turn one on a track, boy, does the ZL1 work well. Our playground for tracking the ZL1 was Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin's Road America road course. The ZL1 proved to be one of our staff's favorite rides at an event that included about 30 track-worthy cars from various automakers.
The ZL1's rough nature on the street cleans up on the track, where it's easy to drive fast despite all indications it would be unpredictable and too much of a muscle car -- meaning big power but little handling capability. The smart magnetic suspension and stability systems combine electrical help with mechanical grip that got the most out of the track experience. The ZL1 feels stable and predictable blasting through corners, where the car is downright sprightly. The stopping and turning power is amazing considering the ZL1 isn't a lightweight, weighing in at roughly 4,100 pounds.
When taking off in 1st gear, even the default traction control setting does a commendable job balancing wheelspin and engine power without killing acceleration. The best way to drive the ZL1 fast is to not show any mercy to the shifter or clutch pedal. Slam into 2nd gear, and the ZL1 doesn't miss a beat the way some performance cars do, losing steam between gears. In 2nd, there's an immediate surge of power that passengers said made their stomachs drop.
The ZL1 sure stuck to the tarmac well, but I would like to feel more resistance in the steering wheel at high speeds. That lightness wasn't a hindrance during street driving, though; it was actually welcome.
The ZL1 has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety equipment includes frontal and side-impact airbags, as well as side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants.
Given the Camaro's poor visibility, the standard backup camera is an invaluable feature, even though it's tiny and located in the rearview mirror. The backup camera is a must-have feature no matter which Camaro you choose.
A blind spot monitoring system is a missing feature that we'd like to see added to the Camaro to ease our nerves while changing lanes. Even with the mirrors adjusted correctly, I'm uneasy changing lanes because over-the-shoulder visibility is lacking.
Camaro ZL1 in the market
If you can live with the Camaro's visibility issues, you've already accepted a substantial ZL1 drawback. For a little less money than a Corvette Grand Sport, the ZL1, at $56,295 (including a $900 destination charge and $1,300 gas-guzzler tax), is the baddest Camaro ever, with all the performance goods ready to hit the track. If you live more than an hour away from that track, though, you may want to tow it there.