by Gabe Beita Kiser
The history of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is deeply rooted in racing. In 1969 the Camaro was in its third model year when Chevy decided to have some fun. One of the company’s more loony engineers thought it would be a good idea to put Chevy’s 427-cubic inch (7.0-liter) V8 built for the Can Am racing series into production versions of the Camaro. The secret code to order the limited-edition engine? ZL. And thus a legend was born.
Flash forward to the modern revival of the muscle car wars. Chevrolet has been hard at work creating the sixth generation Camaro to compete with the modern and hugely capable Mustang. Versions of the 'Stang like the GT350 threaten to give the Corvette a run for its money. Chevy can’t have that, so the ZL1 was also brought forward into the sixth generation. The previous ZL1 proved to the world that American muscle cars could execute corners without later being found mangled in the bushes. Huge brakes, track-tuned suspension, and a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that oozed 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque out of the rear wheels ensured that the car was a serious contender at track days.
How serious? Well the fifth generation ZL1 managed to lap the Nurburgring faster than the die-hard track-ready Porsche 911 Turbo S. The only thing that plagued the previous generation ZL1 was a hefty 4,100-pound curb weight, which ensured that the wide and sticky racing tires wouldn’t last long during a track hustle. If the fifth generation Camaro was one of the first signs of GM’s rise from the ashes of poor quality and questionable business decisions, then the new ZL1 edition should smash the haters away and bury the misconception that Chevy is a laughable automaker. Not only does the engine get a huge boost in power for generation six, but the chassis is better too.
The 6.2-liter supercharged V8 stays as the ZL1’s heart and rambunctious soul, but it now makes 640 horsepower and 640 lb-ft of torque. It can be mated to a six-speed manual with rev-matching capabilities, which is a better track alternative to the seven-speed stick found in the Corvette. Buyers can also opt for an automatic with paddle shifters and a bewildering 10 speeds. That many gears seems excessive for a car with so much torque, but if GM gets the transmission right then corner exits should be a ride to remember. GM’s Alpha platform, highly regarded in the Cadillac ATS, will help reduce the coupe's weight by 200 pounds and keep the car as stiff and predictable as an IRS accountant's personality.
Buyers are treated to Chevy’s Magnetic Ride control suspension system as well as a host of other goodies from the Corvette stash including a limited-slip differential, launch control, a flat-bottom steering wheel, and Performance Traction Management. Also available is the ZL1 convertible, which will provide buyers with an emotion-based purchasing option. The mechanics and reinforcements involved with chopping off the roof should negate the 200 pound weight loss that the Alpha platform provides, but if the convertible can still keep up with the previous ZL1 coupe we'll call it a win. The coupe will likely start at a Porsche-beating $60,000 while the convertible will probably go for $65,000. At that price both sound like a steal to us.