by Karl Furlong
The ZL1 sits right on top of the extensive Camaro Coupe range. From its price to its power and the way it looks, the ZL1's mission is clear: conquer the best that the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger can offer. Just the sight of the ZL1 seems to be enough to do the job, but of course, it'll need the firepower to back up its in-your-face styling, too. Thanks to a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine with 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft, the quickest Camaro needs just 3.5 seconds to complete the zero-to-sixty dash, and with the most fantastic V8 scream accompanying the neck-snapping pace. The ZL1 is a seriously good handler, too, and can be equipped with a track package that can see it post dramatically fast lap times. The price to pay for all of this fury and excitement is limited day-to-day ability: the rear seats are tiny and the Camaro is awful to see out of clearly. It's best, then, to look straight ahead while enjoying one of America's most powerful and desirable muscle cars.
Less powerful Camaro models (reviewed separately) have received a number of updates for 2020, but only two minor additions apply to the ZL1. It's now available in a new Rally Green Metallic exterior color, while red kneepads are an option, too. That's about it, as Chevrolet obviously thinks that the 650-hp V8 - rather than an excessively long list of features - is more than enough to keep the driver occupied.
Suitably angry, the ZL1 treatment sets this hyper coupe apart from less powerful Camaros. Forged 20-inch alloy wheels are fitted with Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires for heightened grip when driven at speed on a track. Other standard features include heated exterior mirrors, LED daytime running lamps, and a special ZL1 rear spoiler. Gaping air intakes and wind deflectors improve the hottest Camaro's aerodynamics, and the available 1LE Extreme Track Performance package adds a carbon-fiber rear wing, lighter alloy wheels, and special air deflectors for even more downforce.
The ZL1 shares the 110.7-inch wheelbase found on lesser Camaros, but it's marginally lower and longer than those models with a height of 52.9 inches, a length of 190.2 inches, and a width of 75 inches excluding the side mirrors. Curb weight is a quite heavy 3,907 pounds.
The scream from the Camaro ZL1's tailpipes is matched by a color palette with some shades that scream just as loudly. There are ten standard shades such as Black, Summit White, newly introduced Rally Green Metallic, and the more exuberant - and appropriately named - Red Hot. It's the premium colors that will really get you noticed, though. Each costing $395, they are called Crush (an intense orange), Shock (a yellow/lime hue) and Garnet Red Tintcoat. A Black Metallic center stripe is a $470 option.
If you want to go as fast as possible in a Camaro, go for the ten-speed automatic option which will help the ZL1 reach 60 mph in only 3.5 seconds. The quarter-mile is dispatched in 11.4 seconds at a speed of 127 mph. The full 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque are sent to the rear wheels exclusively thanks to a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 engine shared with the Z06 Corvette. A top speed of over 200 mph is on the cards, according to independent tests. The six-speed manual is slower, but not by much, and both models are relentlessly quick in any scenario. The ZL1's straight-line pace also contributes to some sensational lap times - in 2017, it managed a Nordschleife time of just 7:16:04 when equipped with the 1LE track package. The Dodge Viper ACR did it quicker, but the ZL1 was faster than some true supercars like the Porsche 911 Turbo S and the Ferrari 488 GTB, putting into perspective what a performance bargain the Chevy actually is.
The 6.2-liter LT4 small-block V8 engine features supercharging and direct injection to achieve the honor of being the most powerful power plant in the Camaro range, with 650 hp and 650 lb-ft all sent to the rear wheels. A six-speed manual gearbox with Active Rev Match is standard, but a ten-speed automatic with paddle shifters is available as an option.
The car feels as if it wants to be pushed hard most of the time, even if cylinder deactivation kicks in when you're not pressing on. When you're in the mood, it's easy to see the rear tires lose traction thanks to the prodigious power underfoot. Once you're off the mark and on the move, vicious acceleration and passing power are the order of the day. The ten-speed auto shifts gears remarkably quickly, but the manual is equally up to the task and can easily handle aggressive shifts. The supercharger whine and the V8's roar are intoxicating, matched only by the scenery blurring by as the Camaro ZL1's full abilities are unleashed.
Not only was the ZL1's bodywork carefully honed in a wind tunnel for ultimate aerodynamic efficiency, but it gets a number of mechanical upgrades over cheaper Camaros. An electronic limited-slip differential is standard, as is magnetic ride control, special tuning for the springs and magnetic dampers, a rear differential cooler for maintaining optimal temperatures at peak performance, and a drive selector that includes a Track mode.
Handling is exceptional in this segment, with a precise helm and great composure for what is a heavy V8 coupe. With its Multimatic dynamic suspension spool valve dampers, lighter curb weight, and adjustable rear stabilizer bar, the 1LE package further transforms the Camaro into an incredibly effective track tool. The dual-mode exhaust system provides full access to the V8's roar and this, coupled with the planted and confident body control, amounts to a seriously entertaining driver's car.
It's not a one-trick pony, though, because the adaptive dampers actually manage to provide the ZL1 with a surprisingly compliant ride. The suspension soaks up surface changes and mid-corner bumps impressively well, especially taking into account the large wheels. Along with powerful Brembo brakes with six-piston calipers in front, the Camaro proves that a muscle car can be confidence-inspiring whether or not it's on the drag strip.
Unsurprisingly, no Camaro uses more fuel than the ZL1. In manual guise, EPA-rated estimates work out to 14/20/16 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles. The automatic model is slightly thirstier in city driving, returning a similar 13/21/16 mpg. Fitted with a 19-gallon gas tank, a combined cruising range of about 304 miles is possible. The ZL1's consumption is similar to the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350.
Recaro front seats, a suede flat-bottom steering wheel, and sporty aluminum trim immediately prepare you for hardcore driving antics in the Camaro ZL1's racy cabin. Although reasonably built, there are clear signs inside the cabin that this is where Chevrolet saved some money as many components fall well short of German sports cars. It's not the biggest problem in this interior, though - that honor goes to the terrible outward visibility. You also wouldn't want to squeeze anyone into those minuscule back seats. At least there is a modern eight-inch touchscreen, plus driver safety aids like forward collision alert and side blind-spot alert.
Officially, the Camaro is a two-plus-two, which means it should have space at the back for two adults over shorter journeys. That's a generous description, however, because the rear seats are really only suitable for kids. Things are better in front, where six-foot-tall adults will have sufficient space and enjoy the mix of comfort and support afforded by the standard Recaro seats. While it's not unusual for rearward vision to be an issue in a sporty car, the Camaro also suffers from diminished front and side views, due to claustrophobically high windowsills and large A-pillars. Shorter drivers will find their view out to be especially hampered. Ingress and egress are fine for the driver and front passenger, but the same can't be said for those consigned to the back seats.
Unlike the exterior, Chevrolet keeps things simple with the ZL1's primary interior color - your only choice is Jet Black with Red accents. The combination of leather and microfiber is attractive and suits the car's sporty nature. There are a couple of individual interior upgrades to customize your Camaro, though, from an embroidered center console lid to red seat belts, red knee pads, and carbon-fiber instrument panel trim. None of these upgrades can completely conceal the presence of hard plastics that lower the impression of quality.
Even for a sporty coupe, the Camaro's trunk is disappointingly small and measures only 9.1 cubic feet. This lags behind rivals like the Ford Mustang which has a much more practical trunk. Not only is the space minimal, but the Camaro's trunk opening is tiny and, together with a liftover height that is impractically high, it's a challenge to load heavier items. The rear seat can, however, be folded to increase cargo-carrying ability.
Other than cupholders that are well-sized, the Camaro's armrest storage compartment and door pockets are both undersized. Of course, you can use the back seats for extra storage, but that won't stop small items from rolling around.
Being the top-line Camaro, the ZL1 is well-specified with features like an eight-way power driver's seat with a memory system, heated front seats, wireless charging, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, a head-up display, and a heated steering wheel. Ambient lighting comprises 24 different color selections, while a power trunk release and keyless entry improve convenience. The ZL1's safety specification is quite good, with standard driver aids like forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert, rear park assist, and lane change alert with blind-spot monitoring. A power sunroof can be specified as an option.
The Chevrolet Infotainment 3 Plus System features an eight-inch diagonal HD touchscreen. The system is easy to fathom and encompasses Bluetooth audio streaming, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, USB ports, and voice recognition. A 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot is also standard, as is SiriusXM with a 12-month trial subscription. Being the range-topper, the ZL1 enjoys a nine-speaker Bose premium audio system. An upgraded infotainment system with navigation is available as an option.
The Camaro's overall J.D. Power rating of 83 out of a maximum 100 ranks it above the Dodge Challenger and the Ford Mustang. The Camaro's specific quality and reliability score of 79/100 is also better than its chief rivals, despite some cheap-feeling interior trim. The 2020 Camaro was part of a recall for a missing pressure regulator for the fuel pump. If the fuel pump cracks, this could pose a fire risk. Last year's model hasn't been affected by any recalls.
Chevrolet's bumper-to-bumper warranty runs for three years or 36,000 miles, whichever comes first. There is also a standard five-year/60,000-mile powertrain/drivetrain warranty, a three-year/36,000-mile corrosion limited warranty, and rust-through cover for six years or 100,000 miles. One scheduled maintenance visit is included, but only for the first year.
While the NHTSA has not provided an overall safety rating for the Camaro, it did rate the coupe four stars for the frontal crash test and five stars for the rollover test. According to the IIHS, the 2020 Camaro achieved a maximum Good rating in all major crashworthiness tests besides roof strength, for which it was rated as Acceptable.
The Camaro is fitted with eight airbags as standard, including head airbags and knee airbags for both the driver and front passenger. Other features that improve the coupe's safety score are LED daytime running lamps, a rearview camera, the StabiliTrak electronic stability control system (with traction control), a teen driver function, and tire pressure monitoring.
Standard driver aids comprise rear park assist, rear cross-traffic alert, lane change alert (with side blind-zone alert), and forward collision warning. The rear parking sensors and the blind-spot monitoring system are especially vital considering the Camaro's poor outward visibility.
For the price, the Camaro ZL1's supercharged 6.2-liter V8 provides exceptional performance that competes with supercars costing well over six figures. Unleashing the full 650 horsepower and reveling in the 1LE track package's enhanced handling capability are, on their own, enough reason to recommend the ZL1. Along with a generous list of standard features, aggressive styling, and ride quality that you can happily live with every day, the Camaro ZL1 is a more than worthy adversary to fellow American muscle cars from Ford and Dodge. It's just a pity that the impractically-sized trunk, small rear seats, and woeful visibility detract from the overall package. While these issues will be bothersome in day-to-day driving, they're fortunately less of a concern on a track, an environment that the ZL1 seems to have been honed for. For the diehard enthusiast, this remains a sports coupe with massive appeal.
The top-tier Camaro ZL1 carries an MSRP of $62,000, although this excludes tax, licensing, registration, a gas guzzler tax of $1,700 ($2,100 for the automatic), and a destination freight charge of $995. If you want the fastest acceleration, you'll need to get the ten-speed automatic which adds a further $1,595 to the base price. Once you've added the popular ZL1 1LE Extreme Track Performance Package, you're looking at a fully-loaded ZL1 that will cost in excess of $70,000.
The Camaro ZL1 Coupe is only available in a single trim, although that does get you a nearly full house of features and the standard fitment of that beastly 6.2-liter supercharged V8 with 650 hp. Rear-wheel drive is standard and you can choose between a six-speed manual and a ten-speed automatic transmission. Other mechanical enhancements that transform this into the ultimate track tool are an electronic limited-slip differential and a launch control system, while standard adaptive dampers provide a compliant ride for such a sporty car.
The bold exterior features LED daytime running lights, 20-inch alloy wheels, dark-tint tail lamps, and a ZL1-specific rear spoiler. In the cabin, there are power-adjustable Recaro seats for the driver and front passenger, while dual-zone automatic climate control is fitted, too. Chevrolet's infotainment system sees an eight-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard that integrates Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. Providing rich sound quality is a nine-speaker Bose audio system, while navigation can be specified optionally. Standard driver aids include a rearview camera, forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot detection. An available 1LE package enhances the ZL1's track capability with additions like an adjustable rear stabilizer bar, lighter wheels and special dampers.
6.2-liter Turbo V8 Gas
The primary package on offer further enhances the ZL1 Coupe for track use. Called the ZL1 1LE Extreme Track Performance package, it goes for a steep $7,500, but the upgrades are quite comprehensive, from a performance suspension with special dampers to adjustable camber plates, 19-inch black-painted alloy wheels, a carbon-fiber weave hood insert, and a Satin Black hood wrap.
Other than that, you can choose from standalone options like a power sunroof ($995), a visible carbon-fiber weave hood insert ($600), an upgraded infotainment system with navigation ($495), and a performance data and video recorder ($1,300). Another dramatic - and expensive - upgrade is a massive ZL1 1LE-spec carbon-fiber spoiler at $5,495.
Although the 1LE package is tempting, the standard ZL1 is hardly a languid handler and offers an exceptional price/performance ratio. We'd spec ours in Garnet Red Tintcoat paint and with the carbon-fiber instrument panel trim which gives the interior a nice lift. Together, these options add under $1,000 to the ZL1's base price.
There aren't many cars on the road that can out-muscle the Camaro ZL1, but the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is one of them. Over 700 horsepower and a quarter-mile sprint time of just ten seconds solidify its position as one of the ultimate dragsters. Both make intoxicating noises from their V8 engines and will entertain their drivers for hours on end, limited only by the regular gas station stops you'll have to make. The two muscle cars start to diverge when it comes to driving dynamics, though - the SRT may have more power, but the ZL1 is much more agile through the corners and it's the one to choose for track use. But the Challenger fights back with a much more accommodating cabin where normal-sized adults can actually sit at the back. This makes the Dodge the much easier car to live with, whereas the ZL1 is the sharper driving tool.
The horsepower war rages on unabated. The latest GT500 comes out on top here with a wild 760 hp, a phenomenal 110 hp more than the ZL1 Coupe. However, the ZL1 isn't the default winner in the handling stakes any longer - Ford has improved the GT500's dynamic balance to a point where it's blisteringly fast off the line and when the road gets twisty, too. The Mustang also has better outward visibility and a larger trunk than the Camaro, aspects that make it easier to live with every day. We do love that the Chevy comes with the option of a six-speed manual, though, whereas the Mustang only has a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. At over $8,000 more than the ZL1, is the Mustang's extra power worth it? With the GT500's improved handling, we're inclined to say that it is.