The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 coupe has been the thorn in the side of the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger SRT for some time, but since those brands released the GT500 and Hellcat Redeye versions of their coupes, the hardcore ZL1 has been playing catch-up. It's getting a little long in the tooth now, but it's still an incredible machine, thanks to a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 sending 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels. What keeps it exciting is the fact that it's still available with a standard six-speed manual transmission, although a slick ten-speed auto is also available. But is a stick shift enough to keep the ZL1 relevant?
The ZL1, and the rest of the Camaro range, has only received minor updates over the last couple of years, and unfortunately, 2021 is no different. Rally Green Metallic paint, which was only introduced last year, has been removed from the color palette and replaced with a new Wild Cherry Tintcoat, while Garnet Red Tintcoat has been removed altogether. The only other change is the addition of wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto.
6.2L Turbo V8 Gas
Telling the ZL1 coupe apart from its lesser siblings isn't too difficult, thanks to massive 20-inch forged alloy wheels, a unique rear spoiler on the trunk, and a unique hood. You also get a special front end that features LED running lights in the headlights, black bowtie badges, a front splitter, and some ZL1 badges. A quad-exit exhaust in a faux diffuser adds further aggression, but you'll want the available 1LE Extreme Track Performance package with a huge carbon fiber rear wing and unique canards, if standing out is your thing.
Like its convertible sibling, the 2021 Chevy Camaro ZL1 has a wheelbase measuring 110.7 inches. Other dimensions include a length of 190.2 inches and a width of 75 inches, with wing mirrors taken into account. It is not quite as low as the 52.6 inches of the drop-top, though, at 52.9 inches in height. In comparison, lesser coupes are not quite as long and are both slimmer side-to-side and taller in height. The figure that is most disappointing about a focused sports car like the ZL1 is its curb weight, which is rated at 3,907 pounds. Although this is pretty hefty, it is still around 260 lbs lighter than the Mustang GT500, which weighs a truly lardy 4,171 lbs.
As mentioned earlier, one exterior color - Rally Green Metallic - has been swapped out for Wild Cherry Tintcoat, a $495 option. Garnet Red Tintcoat has also been removed from the palette while Crush, an orange shade, and Shock, a bright yellow, are $395 each. The standard finishes are plenty attractive, too - the no-cost options include Red Hot, Satin Steel Gray Metallic, Summit White, Black, Shadow Gray Metallic, and Riverside Blue Metallic. For ultimate menace, we'd opt for black. If you want all the grilles and accents to stand out better, along with the whole car itself, Red Hot is a great choice.
There is only one powertrain option here, but it can be configured with one of two transmission choices - a default six-speed manual or a ten-speed automatic. The Chevy Camaro ZL1 is impressive regardless of which transmission you opt for, but it's the automatic that is the quickest, achieving 0 to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds, although the manual variant is only slightly slower. Top speed is rated at 198 mph, although some have managed to nudge 200 mph in independent tests. That incredible performance is thanks to a 6.2-liter supercharged LT4 V8 engine that the C7 Z06 also made use of. It produces an incredible 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque, but the ZL1 is more than just a straight-line missile. This is the Camaro you buy if you enjoy corners and hard-charging on the track. Proof of this can be found in the ZL1's Nurburgring lap time, which was 7:16.04 - quicker than a Ferrari 488 GTB.
The standard configuration sees that LT4 supercharged 6.2-liter V8 paired with a six-speed manual transmission, and it's a remarkably fun combination - although we suspect 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque could still be fun, even with a CVT. Despite sticky and very wide tires, the ZL1 is easily capable of performing long, gratuitous burnouts at will. If you just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible, a high level of restraint with your right foot will be required off the line, but once the initial inertia is overcome, you'll be able to overtake almost anything with ease, rarely needing to downshift. The ten-speed auto is a great transmission, too, with smooth and sharp shifts that never interrupt your acceleration. With so many ratios, cruising is a breeze too, but you can take manual control if you like through the responsive steering-mounted paddles. Combined with that addictive supercharger whine and roaring V8, the ZL1 Camaro is a beast that will thrill every day but can be relatively civilized on the daily drive too.
This is the aspect of the ZL1's persona that has been developed the most: this is a track car with license plates. Chevrolet's engineers took developing this car very seriously and even honed the bodywork in a wind tunnel to optimal aerodynamic efficiency, which is rather handy when your car can do close to 200 mph. There's plenty of mechanical grip too, thanks to specially tuned springs and magnetic dampers, while an electronic limited-slip differential helps you continue to face the tightest corners with confidence. There's also an adjustable rear stabilizer bar, and the result is a car that steers and handles with incredible poise, despite all that power. The Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires are another neat touch that help you go as fast as possible. Sure, you can slide this thing with ease, but learn to make the most of its Track mode, and you'll be able to take corners far faster than you ever thought possible. Brembo brakes do a great job of slowing your progress when necessary too, while hardcore enthusiasts can opt for the 1LE package for even better downforce and control. Still, it's not unbearable on the road, as those adaptive magnetic dampers do an excellent job of smoothing over big and small bumps alike.
Gas mileage from an engine producing this much performance is unsurprisingly poor, but what is a little surprising is that the automatic version of the ZL1 is just as bad as the manual. While the six-speed returns horrendous figures of 14/20/16 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined cycles, the ten-speed auto has an even worse rating in the city with 13/21/16. Sure, the highway figures are better, but when you need your economy most is when crawling through the city. Nevertheless, with a 19-gallon gas tank fitted to both, you can expect around 304 miles of mixed driving per tank. This is on par with what you achieve in the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.
The overall design and look of the ZL1's cabin is not much unlike those in lesser Camaros, but this interior features all the goodies. You get oodles of leather, sueded microfiber, and contrast stitching, much of which can be seen on the stunning Recaro front seats. The D-shaped steering wheel is a nice touch too, while the inclusion of wireless smartphone integration with this year's model makes it friendlier for daily use than ever before. However, the rear seats are still inhospitable, and outward visibility is just as poor as build quality and overall feel.
The Camaro claims to be a 2+2, but unless your friends are all toddlers, you won't be having many of them join you for a spin - at least not from the second row. Riding shotgun is a possibility, though, as six-footers are accommodated with adequate headroom and legroom. Both front passengers are also seated in grippy Recaro bucket seats that manage to tread the line between comfort and support with impeccable execution. However, the driver will still take issue with one aspect of the Camaro's cabin, and that's outward visibility, which is rather poor in all directions. This is a problem that is only magnified if you're a little vertically challenged.
Although you get a great choice of colors for the paint, the interior is strictly a red and black affair, with the former shade being attached to the stitching and, if you spend $195, the seatbelts. The latter hue is applied liberally to the leather components, but some faux aluminum does break things up a little, while an abundance of gray microfiber suede gives a sporty feel. You can also spec red knee pads for $350 or a fake carbon fiber shift knob for 95 bucks, but this cabin, despite its best efforts, already feels tacky and cheap, so adding to that is probably not a great idea.
Considering this is a sports car, you aren't likely expecting much in the way of trunk space, but the Camaro ZL1 coupe's offerings in this respect are especially poor. The official claim is 9.1 cubic feet, which is considerably less than a Mustang and a little more than half what the Challenger's 16.2 cubic-foot trunk can accommodate. The trunk opening on the Camaro is also high, so we wouldn't toss much more than a gym bag in the back unless you really need some space and choose to fold the rear seats.
In the cabin, you get decent cupholders, but the door pockets are tiny, and the center armrest compartment and glovebox are minuscule. Still, at least there won't be anyone in the back seat, so you can chuck some overnight bags back there for a weekend holiday.
Since this is the ultimate Camaro available at the moment, you'll find a lot of features not available on the base model. You get an eight-way power driver's seat with memory, cruise control, heated Recaro front seats and a heated steering wheel, wireless charging, a 24-color ambient lighting system, keyless entry, a power trunk release, and a head-up display. You also get forward collision detection, blind-spot monitoring with lane change alert and rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking sensors. A power sunroof is available on the options list.
As standard, the 2021 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 comes with an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment display running Chevrolet Infotainment 3 Plus software. The screen is high-definition and displays clear images, and is easy to navigate. It offers Bluetooth connectivity, wireless Apple CarPlay, wireless Android Auto, voice control, and two USB ports. You also get a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, a nine-speaker Bose premium audio setup, and SiriusXM satellite radio as standard. However, navigation is an option.
Reliability is important on a car with a massive, supercharged V8 engine, and fortunately, the 2021 Camaro ZL1 has thus far been free of recalls. However, it's worth mentioning that the 2020 model suffered one recall towards the end of November 2019 for a missing fuel pump pressure regulator.
If that's a concern, Chevrolet provides a bumper-to-bumper warranty for the first three years or 36,000 miles of ownership along with a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, and rust-through coverage for the first six years/100,000 miles. One complimentary scheduled maintenance visit is also thrown in.
Safety is very important, especially when you see horrific crashes occurring regularly in all parts of the USA. Sadly, the 2021 iteration has not been fully rated by the NHTSA - the partial safety review for the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 does include a score of four stars in frontal tests, while rollover protection achieved a full five stars. On the other hand, the IIHS awarded the 2020 Camaro with an overall score of Good in all reviews barring roof strength, which was considered Acceptable. The bottom line is this: keep the ZL1 on the track where it belongs or take it easy on the road.
Speaking of safety, the Camaro ZL1 comes standard with all available features for the range. This means a rearview camera, forward collision alert, and eight airbags, including knee airbags for both front passengers. You also get a teen driver mode, rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and lane change assist, and the usual traction and stability management systems.
If you've driven a GT500 hard on track or felt the raw acceleration of a Challenger Hellcat Redeye, the ZL1 will probably still excite you - it's that good. Yes, it's old, and yes, its interior isn't of the highest quality, but the way it handles and accelerates is still ridiculous. It's also still a good-looking car despite becoming a little dated, and we like the long list of standard features. Considering its asking price, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is a bargain in more ways than just performance. And let's not forget that it comes with a proper, old-school, fun manual gearbox as standard. What it lacks in interior space, cargo volume, and build quality, it makes up for with charm, supercharger noise, and the fact that it's still the only pony car that pulls off the whole Autobot thing convincingly. What's not to love?
While we're on the subject of cost, both manual and automatic versions of the ZL1 carry an MSRP of $63,000 along with a destination charge of $995. However, while the manual carries a $1,700 gas guzzler tax, the automatic charges you $2,100 for its consumption. Thus, the manual ends up with a final base price of $65,695 before options or discounts, while the auto lands up at $66,095. Depending on how much you're willing to spec additionally, a fully loaded ZL1 can have a price that exceeds $70,000.
There are only two configurations of the Camaro ZL1 on offer, but this is roughly double what most competitors will offer for their top-tier sports car. While the competition usually only offers one automatic gearbox lately, the Camaro is available as standard with a six-speed manual or, for an added fee, an automatic variant. The default motor is a monstrous 6.2-liter supercharged LT4 V8 that sends power to the 20-inch rear wheels exclusively. A trunk wing, LED running lights, a quad-exit sports exhaust, Brembo brakes, launch control, and magnetic adaptive dampers are all standard. Inside, you get heated power Recaro front seats, a nine-speaker Bose sound system, and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment screen that supports wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The interior is a mix of leather, sueded microfiber, red stitching, and some cheap plastics meant to look like aluminum. Tiny rear seats and a small trunk are unfortunately also part of this car's repertoire, but at least the availability of the 1LE package makes the car even more exciting.
The most important package is called ZL1 1LE Extreme Track Performance. This adds a rear bench seat, a satin black hood wrap just ahead of visible carbon fiber weave, and performance suspension with DSSV dampers. You also get a unique front splitter, front dive planes, gloss black wing mirrors, darkened taillamps, special 19-inch wheels, adjustable camber plates, rear stabilizer bars, and front spring seats, along with red calipers and Supercar 3R tires. However, this is not cheap and will cost an extra $7,500. If you just want the visible carbon fiber weave hood insert, that can be had for $600, while a power sunroof will set you back $995.
Considering the high cost of the 1LE package and how good the ZL1 already is, we'd recommend sticking with the standard setup, especially with its manual gearbox. We may splash out on some paint and go for Wild Cherry Tintcoat, but beyond that, you're spending excessively on a car that you're unlikely to use every day. If you do plan to drive it daily, we recommend a test drive first to ensure that you're happy with that outward visibility problem.
The supposedly normal Challenger SRT Hellcat is just as much a performance bargain as the ZL1. It starts at just $58,995 and also comes with a 6.2-liter supercharged V8. This one is a real monster though, producing a simply absurd 717 hp and 656 lb-ft of torque. Like the ZL1, you can have it with a six-speed manual or an automatic if you prefer, but it's not just power where the Hellcat demolishes the ZL1. It's also much roomier and more comfortable inside, has a massive trunk, and simply feels sturdier. In addition, if you're willing to spend as much as a fully loaded ZL1 1LE will set you back, you can get a Hellcat Redeye. This gives you an earth-shattering 797 hp and 707 lb-ft of torque. Whoever said power isn't everything may have been right, but it certainly makes us lean more towards the Dodge on this one.
At the moment, there is no 2021 variant of the Shelby GT500, but there will be a Mustang Mach 1. Unlike the Shelby, this one will come with both a manual and an automatic gearbox. The idea is that it will be the ultimate Mustang not built especially for the track. Despite this, it will produce 22 percent more downforce than a regular Mustang, with a lot more available through an optional handling package. It'll be a lot less powerful than the Camaro ZL1, though, producing just 480 horsepower. Like the ZL1, it'll be fitted with magnetic dampers and big Brembo brakes. We'll have to wait to drive it for a final answer, and with pricing not yet confirmed, we can't declare which car gives you more for your money. That said, it looks to be exciting, and we'd hold off on a new pony car if the Mach 1 name means as much to you as it does to most of the US.