If you’re in the target demographic for the new Camaro ZL1, you are old enough to remember the end of the muscle car era. 180 horsepower, 350 cubic inch V8 engines choked with “electronic” carburetors and first-generation catalytic converters that were the ecological equivalent of a potato shoved up the tailpipe. Even yours truly, born in 1968 and driving in the ominous year of 1984, thought he had seen the high water mark of automotive performance come and go. The first car ever purchased with my own money, a 1971 Pontiac GTO with a 455, seemed like the most brutal, best-performing car I would ever hope to drive.

I don’t like to be wrong, but in the case of the Camaro ZL1, I couldn’t be happier to admit I had it totally and completely incorrect. That old Goat of mine, while definitely an epic muscle car, also had a tendency to try to kill me every chance it got. Part of that was a youthful lack of a sense of self-preservation on my part, but it also had a lot to do with the very limited capabilities of the chassis and tires to deal with all that power and torque. Now, after getting the chance to wring out the best Camaro Chevy has ever built, both on the winding tarmac of Virginia International Raceway and the surrounding two-lane public roads, I can say without reservation that the Golden Age of Performance is right now.

The new Camaro ZL1 couldn’t be more different from that old Pontiac. In every way, save perhaps nostalgia, it’s a better car. It’s also a far better car than the “run of the mill” Camaro SS, and not just by virtue of the extra power provided by the supercharged, 580 horsepower LSA under the hood. It’s best described as what you would get if you took the wish list of every engineer who worked on the original 2010 Camaro, threw out the totally impractical (after all, there is only so much weight that can be taken out of the platform, and the sight lines from the driver’s seat will always be what the production sheetmetal and greenhouse dictate), then implemented the rest.

More Than Just A 580-Horse SS

With a starting price tag just shy of $55 grand, ZL1 purchasers can rightfully expect more than the same 5th Gen Camaro we’ve seen since the 2010 model year with a few extra ponies under the hood. In addition to the obvious cues like the vented hood with a carbon-fiber insert, rear spoiler, and front fascia, a host of other changes were required with the ZL1 to make sure that the supercar-level performance potential was accessible to mere mortals, like the journalists invited to Virginia International Raceway to sample the car first-hand.

The car’s aerodynamics received a nose-to-tail overhaul, including things you won’t see without access to a chassis lift. For example, the pair of belly pans that minimize turbulence under the car and help to contribute to an astonishing 65 pounds of overall downforce at 150 miles per hour, compared to 200 pounds of lift for the SS. Clearly, this is an important consideration for a car with a published top speed of 180 for the manual and 184 for the automatic.

Beneath the ZL1, you'll find aerodynamic refinements that set it apart from an ordinary Camaro. A racing-style splitter on the front fascia helps keep excess airflow from reaching the underside of the car, without severely restricting ground clearance. What air does find its way beneath is directed by a belly pan beneath the engine cradle that incorporates ductwork to improve transmission cooling.

We understand what people are going to do with this car, and we hope they go out and do it. – Tony Roma

Other race-ready features include a rear differential cooler which can reduce temperatures in the rearend housing by more than 100 degrees F, integrated engine oil and transmission coolers, and brake cooling ducts. All of these features point to the ZL1’s dual role as both the ultimate road Camaro and a track-day-ready car that won’t require special prep or meticulous maintenance to survive the kind of 10/10ths running many owners will subject it to. Tony Roma, the ZL1’s Performance Manager, says it best: “We understand what people are going to do with this car, and we hope they go out and do it.”

Unlike the Brand F competition, the Camaro ZL1 will require no special upgrades for track day duty, and we've been assured that warranty claims (within reason) won't be an issue.

Your Own Worst Enemy

Of course one of the challenges of designing a car like this is making sure that its performance won’t just be useful to the innately talented, or downright dangerous to the enthusiastic-but-unskilled. Back in the heyday of muscle cars, about the best you could hope for was that buyers smart enough to check the boxes for the right options on the order forms knew what they were doing. However, the institutional knowledge of today’s army of engineers, programmers, and test drivers who all contributed to the development of the ZL1 has been distilled into the countless ones and zeros tucked away inside a part of this Camaro that may be even more important than the LSA engine under the hood – the Performance Traction Management system.

Understanding Performance Traction Management

The ZL1 offers five different Performance Traction Management (PTM) modes that integrate magnetic ride control, launch control, traction control, electronic stability control, and electric power steering response into a coherent system that adapts the way the ZL1 responds to driver input and road conditions to better handle different situations. While the technology was pioneered on the flagship Corvette ZR1, in many ways the PTM in the ZL1 is even more sophisticated. Here’s a breakdown of how the different modes operate:

 

 

"For launching the car at the dragstrip, Mode 4 has launch control enabled and it's tuned for these Goodyear tires on the street," Roma explains. "Go into Mode 4, hold full throttle, and it calculates the RPM it needs - it looks at ambient temperature and other things, and will hold between 3-4000 RPM. You do a moderate release on the clutch - not side-step it, or feather it, just a nice moderate release - and it will maximize wheelslip for forward momentum. It's very repeatable on the dragstrip - you can beat the traction control system, but it will do the same thing, all day long. If you just want to get a good launch, or you're at a stoplight, it's the 'don't embarrass me in front of my girlfriend' mode."

Laws of Physics Still Apply

Despite all the magic baked right in to the ZL1, it’s still limited by the basic laws of time and space. The chief criticism of the 5th gen Zeta platform is that the resulting Camaro is no lightweight. We found that even with 580 horsepower, enormous wheels, tires, and brakes, and superhuman PTM reflexes, the ZL1 still has to contend with inertia. Stomp on the gas in first, and (assuming you haven’t gone all “Mode 5″ and put it sideways into the weeds in a cloud of tire smoke) the ZL1 moves out all right, but the LSA doesn’t exactly feel like it’s reeling in the horizon as if it were strapped to a bungee cord.

One of the many details that set the ZL1 apart from its lesser brethren are the front tire deflectors that help direct airflow around the rotating wheels and tires to reduce both lift and drag. Compared to a traditional air dam, these deflectors make the car less sensitive to changes in pitch - obviously important in situations where the Camaro is transitioning from braking to acceleration.

As a practical matter, while circulating around VIR’s sweeping road course (and trying to keep Roma, behind the wheel of the instructor ZL1, from becoming a dimensionless point in the distance), I found it all too easy to constantly bump off the LSA’s rev limiter – take a look at the dyno graph and you’ll see why. There’s no big hit as the car comes “on the blower” and no fade as it climbs through the tach. This is an engine that feels like it’s just getting started when it’s really time to select the next cog. It can be deceptive until you get used to the idea that you need to shift even though the car doesn’t feel like it’s breathing hard.

ZL1 Fun Fact: One of the six available options is the "Bright Aluminum Wheel Package" - for an extra $470, instead of the black standard wheels, you get polished aluminum versions made from the same forgings, without the individual spoke separations machined out.

Up front, the ZL1 uses two-piece brake rotors for optimum stopping performance.

Obviously, the engine is the Main Event here, but if you manage to focus your concentration away from the horsepower for a moment, you notice that the PTM (and all the other engineering changes) are doing exactly what they’re advertised to do – keep the amateurs (like myself) out of trouble, and give the gifted an extremely capable platform to throw around the track.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to put a wheel wrong with the ZL1 – as a matter of fact, the day before I got to drive them at VIR, another journalist managed to run off-track and into a tire wall in (admittedly) wet conditions. However, you really do have to try hard to make this car misbehave. While some people will lament the intervention of on-board computers and cars designed to save you from yourself, the take-away I got from the driving experience was that the ZL1 is a car that’s designed to let you learn to separate the scary from the truly dangerous, without punishing you for putting a toe over the line.

Sizing Up the Competition

With the announcement that the 2013 Shelby GT500 will be rated at 662 horsepower “at the brochure”, the obvious question is whether or not the ZL1, despite being the Best Camaro Ever, is enough Camaro to take on the Ultimate Mustang. Will an independent rear suspension, the incredible sophistication of PTM, and the fact that the Camaro design team actually intended for people to, you know, drive their ZL1’s at the limit without things breaking or the service manager voiding your warranty be enough to keep the Blue Oval at bay?

All we can say is that the Camaro ZL1 feels like a car that is just the beginning – there’s a whole lot of room left to grow, and we can’t wait to see what happens once the hordes of 5th Gen tuners who have been honing their craft since the 2010 model year get their hands on the ZL1.

The Camaro ZL1 boasts a Nurburgring time of 7:41.27, putting it into the elite group of performance cars with a sub-8-minute potential on the incredibly demanding German road course. For comparison, the Corvette ZR1, with a price tag of more than double that of the Camaro ZL1, has run a best lap of 7:19.63 on the Nordschleife course.