Motoring | News

Camaro ZL1 driven hard in Dubai

The 2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is constantly at odds, with suffering looking over one shoulder, pleasure the other. Dejan Jovanovic reckons that’s a great thing

  • By Dejan Jovanovic, wheels magazine
  • Published: 18:00 November 14, 2012
  • Wheels

  • Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • That front splitter is not just for show, it really does make a difference.
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English poet William Blake once wrote a book called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I don’t know what the pages are on about, because I’m only interested in the title, and a couple of lines.

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Boy, right about now I must be wiser than a whole parliament of owls. (It is perhaps ironically inappropriate that owls are wise, yet a bunch of them make up a parliament.) I have just been excessively overdosing on excess, just hogging that road, gate-crashing the palace of wisdom in a slithering display of smoking rubber and belching fuel, announced by the shrill of manic supercharger rotor lobes.

Let’s read on... Blake also wrote that “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.” Well, he forgot to mention that excess of horsepower shreds 305/35 R20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tyres developed specifically for the ZL1 with hysterical ease. Hmm, so much for his poetic philosophising…

But in this Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who is the heaven, and who is the hell? We could argue endlessly when it comes to the 2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible. I’m thinking hell is a Camaro chassis, and heaven is a Corvette 6.2-litre V8. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, if the thought of 580 horsepower conjures frightening images of a ZL1 careening through all nine of Dante’s gates. Sideways.

Actually, thinking about it, this isn’t really a marriage. It’s more like swinging. The ZL1 is a collection of the best that a Camaro, the Corvette, and Cadillac’s CTS-V can offer. General Motors’ engineers have created a supercar in the guise of a pony car, powered by an LSA to a quarter mile that dips into the elevens, and motivated by the company’s third-generation Magnetic Ride Control and magneto-rheological suspension and chassis to blitz the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7:41.27. If that means nothing to you, that’s right around the times posted by independent
testers in a Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera and Murciélago LP670-4 SV.

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The ZL1 is most certainly not a quick and easy solution: drop a big-block into a tight chassis and put your foot down. Mostly because the LSA is a small block motor, but the details go into much more, er, detail than that, revealing the Camaro ZL1 to be just about an entirely new car. If Chevrolet had called it something else completely, we’d have easily believed it to be an all-new model range (Coupé and Convertible are available), and then questioned Detroit’s logic to give us a cheaper Corvette.

But logic flew out the window the moment we wheel-spun off the line anyway. The ZL1 gets from 0-100kph in less than five seconds, if you only start counting once the tyres stop spinning senselessly and finally grab some pavement. Use the launch control, and you’ll see 3.9 seconds. Everything about the ZL1 is over the top, except one thing (the price), but it’s more fun to start with the ridiculousness. The ZL1 name comes from the 1969 Camaro ZL1 all-aluminium 427 cubic inch motor, or 7.0 litres to you and me. The design is almost offensively glaring, with Victory Red paintwork and contrasting matte black stripe, a cartoonishly aggressive face with deeply set headlights, a black air dam hovering above an effective splitter, and a rear spoiler with a hint of Nascar in it. There are also ZL1 badges all over the car — I think I counted 13. This car shrugs its shoulders at overkill.

The engine, powering the rear wheels through either a butch Tremec six-speed manual or like on our tester, the six-speed Hydra-Matic 6L90 automatic (which actually makes the car faster), is a flood of torque with fervent acceleration in any gear. You can shift down a couple of times with the paddles behind the wheel, quite abruptly and neck-snappingly, and disappear into the distance as 754Nm of torque smash the wall of air ahead. All the while the sixth-generation 1.9-litre Eaton supercharger (bigger than my daily-driver’s entire engine) is whining away making its presence heard.

The LSA here has a high-flow head, and its own unique air intake system with a sports filter, dual inlet paths and improved flow through the blower. The crankshaft is forged steel and everything is balanced, with new high-strength pistons pummelling the 16 push-rod actuated valves. Yes, it’s got one camshaft and 16 valves, so what? The way I see it, it’s fewer things to go wrong. Old school thinking ensures that this unit makes more power than any number of high-tech modern engines — it’s 18bhp stronger than a Ferrari 458 for Pete’s sake — and the delivery of its 580 horses manages to be both linear and brutal at the same time.

Thinking back to my first encounter with a Camaro SS back in 2009, the most startling aspect of the ZL1 is the chassis. GM claims that the fifth-gen Camaro platform was designed from the get-go with a Convertible in mind, so the body structure and stiffness suffers very little while delivering Coupé-like dynamics. In the base car that’s hardly true, but in the ZL1 the Convertible leaves little to be desired. There is no scuttle shake, yet plenty of vibrations from the brawny drivetrain — a stronger driveshaft and larger rear axle, and a heavy-duty limited-slip differential.

Engineers reinforced the chassis with a butch strut brace under the bonnet, a stiffer transmission and underbody tunnel brace, as well as a front X-shaped reinforcement and a rear V brace. Look, the drop-top Camaro SS is an obese thing weighing in at almost 1.8 tonnes, which makes this one, at a little over 1.8, a pretty good deal considering the engine alone weighs over 250kg.

The end result is a ZL1 Convertible that’s confidently adept at staying flat through the corners and kicking the rear out at the call of your right foot. Visibility is naturally much better than in the letterbox Coupé, and even with the deceptively huge bonnet bulge ruining your ability to precisely place the car onto apexes, you quickly get into the stride of simply trusting the ZL1 to remain poised. Its willingness to dart through quick transitioning bends and violent weight shifts is also remarkably baffling for a large drop-top, and I also can’t help but feel that the centre of gravity in this car has to be a fair bit lower than in a Cadillac CTS-V Coupé, which feels a bit clumsy in comparison.
The steering in the ZL1 could use more immediacy though, an even quicker ratio, and better communication from the front tyres, which take something away simply due to their 285/35 dimensions — that’s what a base C6 Corvette wears. At the rear…

GM’s clever suspension is also a huge highlight of the ZL1, balancing the duties of cornering ability, even power delivery, and then going on to feel perfectly supple if you’re just pottering along. The ZL1’s magnetic ride control also features a unique Performance Traction Management system incorporating launch control, traction control, electronic stability control and power steering response. It’s tasked with modulating engine torque left to right for best acceleration, and works in conjunction with the mechanical limited-slip diff to throw in an electronic nanny and allow you to feed too much power in on the way out of a corner.

Engineers are proud of the fact that the ZL1 creates zero lift at speed thanks to careful wind-tunnel tuning and that rear spoiler worth 70kg of downforce. Perhaps that’s what gives the ZL1 the feeling of a low centre of gravity, although to be honest I never encountered 200kph corners in Dubai during my test drive…

The Brembo brakes are superb, 370mm up front and 365mm at the rear with six and four-piston callipers respectively. The pedal has a solid resistance to it time and time again with a smooth travel.

Like all its look-at-me features, the ZL1 Convertible is just as shouty inside, with a new 2013 cabin strewn with ZL1 logos, black leather, suede, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, aluminium pedals, and a useful head-up display. There is now also a screen in the dash with available satellite navigation, a frameless mirror, rear camera system, and a remote vehicle starter if you spec the auto ’box.

But you’ll buy this car not for its slightly improved interior, but for its excessive nature, brutal powertrain, beastly looks, and approachable handling. With the 2013 Camaro ZL1, Chevrolet’s passionate engineers have created a devilish car with angelic manners.

Hell hath no fury like a Camaro scorned.

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