What's it like?
Fast enough to stretch your adjectives, yet also impressively usable for something so brutal. The V8 delivers huge urge whenever you want it, the supercharger starting to blow hard from around 2500rpm and overlaying the already brawny low-rev soundtrack with a whine reminiscent of a Mad Max film. It pulls harder and harder to the 6500rpm limiter, with the top end savagery that means throttle-pinning opportunities in normal use will be few and far between. It leaves no doubt of its ability to match GM’s claimed 3.5-second 0-60mph time, with U.S. magazines having run quarter miles in under 11 seconds.
Yet it’s far from being the sort of crude muscle car that can only deal with straight lines. I didn’t drive it on a track, but the regular ZL1 coped well with some of Michigan’s rough and heavily cambered backroads, the chassis finding serious grip and impressive traction for a fair percentage of those horses. The handling balance is predictably rear-led, even with the stability control fully on the rear end tenses and sometimes squirms under load. But it’s not wayward and gives the Camaro a sense of excitement even at a scant percentage of its potential. The ride is predictably firm, even with the adaptive dampers in their softest “Tour” setting, but the ZL1 remains impressively compliant for something so hardcore.
The steering rivals the engine as the Camaro's star feature. The fat Alcantara-trimmed wheel feels heavy, but every bump and contour of the road is passed through it outstandingly, and the ZL1 can be placed with an accuracy that belies the savagery of its performance.
The ZL1 1LE is much more hardcore and, away from its natural track habitat, much more of a handful. The track-biased suspension loses the compliance of the regular ZL1, even in what is supposed to be its road settings thanks to motorsport grade spool valve dampers which deliver every bump into the cabin unfiltered. It will be truly mighty on a circuit, but on normal roads I preferred the better compromise of the standard car.
The 1LE’s manual gearbox also illustrated the key dilemma facing ZL1 buyers – which gearbox to choose. The manual is one of the best out there, with a nicely weighted action and mechanical precision that makes it a tactile delight, but it undoubtedly carries a speed penalty over the optional auto. Under gentle use the 10-speed torque converter box does a stellar job of taming the supercharged engine’s power delivery, although at the cost of constantly shuffling between its many ratios. But adding pace transforms the gearbox’s character, delivering shifts with a twin-clutch rivalling snap and – in the punchier Sport and Track modes – cutting fuel on upshifts to give a satisfying exhaust pop. It’s good enough to have even dedicated fans of clutch pedals wondering whether to keep the manual faith, especially as the V8’s heavy flywheel makes it hard to rev-match on downshifts with the six-speed ‘box without activating the throttle-blipping system.