Modern Day Muscle: Camaro ZL1

Modern Day Muscle: Camaro ZL1

Story by Gerry Frechette, Photos Courtesy of GM Canada

“What’s old is new again.” Nowhere is that saying more appropriate in an automotive context than in the modern-day muscle car wars, where many of the models and even colours of the iconic cars of exactly 50 years ago are being used to market today’s high-tech supercars.

Chevrolet plays the game as well as anybody, being well-known for just taking the order code number and making it the actual model name. Z28, Z06, ZR1……and, of course, ZL1, the model name of today’s top dog Camaro. Like all the others, ZL1 has its beginnings in those halcyon days half-a-century ago that those of a certain age remember fondly.

In the late 1960s, there was a road-racing series called Can-Am. It was essentially unlimited in terms of engine specs and nearly everything else, and by 1968, big-block V8s were becoming more common. The fuel-injected Chevrolet 427 was the engine of choice, but of course, to run out front, the teams wanted more power and less car weight. Chevrolet developed the all-aluminum big-block ZL-1 (with a hyphen) for 1969, and it powered Team McLaren to victory in every race that year.

Of course, the concept of an all-aluminum 427 didn’t escape the notice of drag racers, and one enterprising Chevy dealer (Fred Gibb in Illinois) used the famous COPO dealer ordering system that generated many 427-powered Chevies in the day, to order a bunch of Camaros equipped with the ZL-1 engine that saved 100 pounds over an iron 427. With that much less weight on the front of the car, it would allow the Super Stock drag racers to reach the required class minimum weight with 100 pounds more on the rear of the car, with the expected benefits for traction. It also generated horsepower thought to be in the 525-550 range, even though it was officially rated at 430.

Since NHRA required that a minimum of 50 examples of any car intended for Super Stock be built for sale, that is how this race engine was adapted for street use, and that is how many Gibb ordered, perhaps in an effort to corner the market. As it turned out, the ZL-1 engine added an amount – $4,200 – that was more than the Camaro itself cost, for a total of over $7,000 in 1969 dollars, so sales were slow. But NHRA approved the car for racing, and the legend was born. In the end, 69 Camaro ZL-1s were built in 1969, with around 20 of them being raced as Super Stocks.

In subsequent years, the ZL-1 moniker was applied by Chevy to a few styling exercises and crate engines, but it wasn’t until 2012, with the escalation of the horsepower wars between GM, Ford, Chrysler and the foreign brands, that the ZL1 (without hyphen) model name was once again applied to a Camaro, in this case the fifth-generation model. It established the blueprint from which all subsequent ZL1s would be built, with supercharged LSA pushrod V8, Brembo brakes, Magnetic Ride suspension…lots of gear that it shared with the Corvette.

So, here we are in 2019, 50 years after the first ZL-1, and “what’s old is new again.” The Camaro is now in its sixth generation, introduced for the 2016 model year, and Chevrolet didn’t wait as long this time to launch the ZL1 model for 2017, given the intense pressure brought by its competitors. Chevy’s 6.2-litre supercharged V8, originally and still found in the Corvette Z06 and known as the LT4, is currently the ZL1’s engine, and the key number here is 650, as in both horsepower and pounds-feet of torque.

There are two transmissions available – a six-speed manual for those who just have to shift for themselves all the time, and a new ten-speed automatic, which is a full ‘traditional’ torque converter design, not a new-fangled twin-clutch manumatic, which seem to have shown themselves to be a little less durable. With this kind of power, a strong transmission is a wise choice. We do somewhat question the need for ten ratios in a car with such prodigious torque. Family sedans and SUVs need multiple ratios to keep the revs in the engine’s most efficient powerband, but this engine has so much torque from idle to redline, and efficiency is such a small concern, that an old three- or four-speed autobox would probably perform nearly as well. In any case, the ten-speed proved a smooth performer in our test unit, with crisp shifts up or down via the paddle shifters. It’s claimed by GM to shift quicker than the Porsche PDK, which is very quick in its own right.

It is the chassis performance of the ZL1 that is its advantage in the muscle car wars, especially versus the Dodge Challenger. It all begins with the Magnetic Ride suspension, which one might call GM’s ‘ace in the hole’ when it comes to the handling of its performance models. It reacts to vehicle and road conditions in milliseconds to deliver the optimal suspension setting. If a car could be said to “corner on rails,” and still provide a decent ride, this would be it.

The rest of the hardware is equally impressive. The differential is electronic limited-slip. The brakes are Brembos, with six pistons clamping on mammoth 15.35-inch discs up front. And the tires are Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar, 285/30ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear, mounted on forged aluminum wheels. This stuff is state-of-the-art in high-performance parts.

Inside, the ZL1 is equipped to a level befitting the top-of-the-line status of it. The front seats are suede-and-leather Recaros; on the other hand, the rear seats are vestigal at best, suitable to throw some hand luggage on. The full gamut of modern technology is accounted for here. Wi-Fi hotspot with 4G LTE. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration..Bose audio system. You get the picture.

The picture you won’t get quite as easily is a view of the outside world. Like all coupes, the rear-3/4 view is seriously compromised by the wide C-pillar. But the Camaro goes one step beyond that, as the high beltline and low roof result in gun-slit side and rear windows, and the feeling that you are sitting in an automotive bunker. I suppose that such matters are mundane in a car with so many other talents.

We drove the ZL1 on some winding country roads, as perfect an environment as one could hope for, short of a race track. Given its weight, (around 4,000 lbs), it is extraordinarily nimble, while still possessing the capabilities of an automotive sledgehammer. Acceleration (0-96 km/h in 3.5 seconds), deceleration (96-0 km/h braking in 107 feet (35 metres)) and lateral grip (1.02 g) are impressive by any measure.

And yet….there are those for whom this is not enough performance. Those who have access to a track and plan to use their ZL1 on it,  have the 1LE package to consider. That code in itself is yet another historic one in Chevy lore; remember the factory-built Camaro and Firebird race cars that ran in the Player’s/GM series 30 years ago? They were 1LE cars too.

The ZL1 1LE gets lots more downforce from its carbon fibre rear wing and full front splitter package, and boasts a tunable suspension featuring Multimatic DSSV damper technology of the type that Formula 1 cars use. Tires are 305/30R19 front and 325/30R19 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R, nearly racing slicks, that contribute to maximum lateral grip of 1.10g. We have not had the chance to drive a 1LE, but have seen them driven on track by veteran race car drivers, and they emerged with big smiles. It has been said that the 1LE is really a step too far for a daily driver, and that the regular ZL1 is plenty entertaining for most enthusiasts, even on a track.

So, the Camaro ZL1 is a very capable car. And it has more than enough power for street use. Doesn’t it? Maybe not to the GM marketing folks, who see the Dodge Challenger Hellcat with up to 798 hp, and the recently announced Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 with around 700. The “mine is more powerful than yours” horsepower war is still raging, and having a mere 650 might be considered a handicap in this battle. Will Chevy drop the Corvette ZR1’s 755-horsepower LT5 V8 into the Camaro?

We say that 650 hp is obviously plenty, and that the ZL1 is just fine as it is. It is the fastest, best handling, highest tech, and most expensive Camaro ever. That should be enough for any Camaro fan.