2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1 First Drive: VIRgin territory

2012 Camaro ZL1 at Virginia International Raceway

The 2012 Camaro ZL1, shown at VIR, is this year’s penultimate ‘barn find’.

To paraphrase one C. Dickens, it was the best of times…it was the wettest of times. And while we’re sure Chuck had ample experience with wet roadways, he never needed to navigate them behind the wheel of Chevrolet’s newest Camaro, the oh-inspiring ZL1. While Mr. Dickens was invariably limited to no more than four horsepower, the men and women responsible for the ZL1 specs have assembled some 580 horses (think of the feed bill for Dickens…), distributed to the rear wheels via a well-connected 6-speed manual or available automatic. And Chevy’s recipe for success seems oh-so-right – until it rains. And rains.

After grabbing most magazine covers in the last thirty (or so) days, it was time to flex Chevy’s latest muscle car for enthusiast media serving you, the online community. Using Virginia International Raceway (VIR) as its developmental home-away-from-home, the road course at the tip of southern Virginia is generally a way-hospitable venue for racers and enthusiasts from the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Its pavement cuts a beautiful path within the area’s heavily wooded topography, and is but 75 minutes – via Camaro SS – from the Raleigh-Durham airport.

As those devoted followers of GM’s pushrod V8s already know, the ZL1 designation originated on an all-alloy 427 installed in a handful of Camaros for Chevy dealer Fred Gibb in 1969. Forty-plus years later they remain highly coveted, receiving auction bids which transcend most domestic fare and often match the values of highly desirable Porsches and Ferraris. Of course, 427 cubic inches in 1969 certainly offered git-up-and-go, but there wasn’t much in the way of stopping or turning. And that – we’re happy to note – is provided in abundance by its 2012 iteration.

Today’s Camaro ZL1 is a total exercise in engineering and design, and is but the latest example of the new GM’s commitment to an ‘all hands on deck’ philosophy of product management. A 6.2 liter supercharged LSA V8 provides the ‘go’, generating 580 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, along with 556 lb-ft of torque at a relatively modest 4,200 rpm. The LSA benefits from a Roots-type blower incorporating a four-lobe rotor set, along with compact intercooler and a dual-mode exhaust system; the exhaust note – we’ll admit – is to die for.

Opt for the manual trans (anyone with two lower limbs should) and 0-60 comes in but four seconds. That is one-tenth-of-a-second slower than the six speed auto, but we’d simply leave one-tenth of a second sooner. For those with a private drive at least 1,320 feet in length, it can be covered from a standing start in just over twelve seconds, and the ZL1 will have reached almost 120 miles per hour before hitting your mailbox.

With 580 horsepower under the hood, and – we’ll guess – GM’s legal team looking over his shoulder, Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser mandated some chassis upgrades to better corral those healthy horses. The Camaro’s all-independent suspension is controlled by the third generation of GM’s Magnetic Ride Control, providing optimal comfort when you need it along with maximum composure when your backside begins twitching. Acceleration is enhanced by Performance Traction Management and a launch control feature which automatically modulates engine torque. In short, while you can certainly do ‘stupid’ behind the wheel of a Camaro ZL1, the potential for ‘expensive stupid’ is significantly reduced.

That, regrettably, wasn’t the case on a rain-soaked VIR. Our time behind the wheel was limited to two laps at roughly sixty miles-per-hour. And while – even at that relatively low speed – we could appreciate the ZL1’s ride quality, sharp turn-in and precise 6-speed trans, an orange ZL1 with (we’re guessing) the devil himself behind the wheel went into the tire wall not once but TWICE during an abbreviated morning session. With one more wave of media due to arrive that afternoon, the decision was made to pull the plug on that morning’s carnage. Chevy runs deep, but then, so do VIR’s puddles…

With limited time behind the wheel it’s hard to provide a full assessment, but we do know this: With all of the performance-oriented mods and track-ready capability, the Camaro ZL1 – at a well-equipped base of $55K – may be the showroom bargain of this still young decade. The ZL1 arrives in Chevy showrooms this spring, followed by a 2013 convertible this summer.