Testing Chevy’s most fearsome ponycar in its natural environment
Muscle cars of the 1960s were originally conceived with one thing in mind – accelerate as fast as possible in a straight line. Today, their modern equivalents can do a good deal more, such as stop and go around corners.
Still, the primary reason for having a large V8 engine under the hood is about standing on the gas, which is why Chevrolet says most customers who buy the 2012 Camaro ZL1 will likely have it on the drag strip before the ink on the sales contract has even dried.
Chevrolet also says that the ZL1 is a fully capable 11-second machine in the quarter mile (Chevy engineers having clocked an automatic at 11.93 seconds and a six-speed manual at 11.96), yet one you can drive home afterward, with air conditioning and your favorite tunes blaring out the stereo. To get the original, 1969 Camaro ZL1 to run 11 seconds, you had to re-jet the carburetor, install open headers, rear slicks and traction bars and even then, there was no guarantee.
So in order to illustrate just how far we’ve come in muscle car (and ZL1) circles, we found ourselves at Lucas Oil Raceway, just outside Indianapolis. Those familiar with the sport of quarter mile thrashing will recognize this track as the home of the NHRA Nationals, so if there’s one place to really test the effectiveness of the new ZL1’s progress it is here. Also on hand, was Frank Hawley; legendary racer, former NHRA champion and founder of Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing school. If you want to learn how whittle down your ETs and improve your launch technique, you can’t get better instruction than that from Frank.
At the track, both manual and automatic versions of the ZL1 were on hand for our little test, though as Frank and GM engineers pointed out, launching each successfully requires a different technique.
For the 6L90 six-speed automatic, the best option is to roll across the beams, put your left foot on the brake pedal and raise the revs to 1500 rpm. With the transmission placed in M (sport mode) but still shifting automatically (no use of the shift paddles), release the brake as soon as the stage lights on the tree come on and progressively apply the throttle, to the point your foot’s to the board within the first 60 feet of the track. You want to make sure that you don’t apply the throttle too quickly, because with 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque on tap all you’ll do is either: A, spin those monster 305 section rear tires or; B, if the track surface is grippy, kill power to the engine, or bog, since the ECU will override in an effort save strain on the driveline (the car nevertheless features asymmetrical rear axle shafts and a stout 9.9-inch differential carrier to withstand repeated hard drag launches).
As Frank mentioned during a pre test seminar “your Elapsed Time doesn’t begin until the car leaves the stage beam, that’s why the way you launch the car is crucial to achieving a good ET and trap speed.”
Although atmospheric conditions were not ideal during our test session (the air temperature was in the high 90s and the humidity well above 70 percent), we were able to improve our times with each run.
Our first with the automatic yielded just a 14.08 second ET at 109.29 miles per hour – room for serious improvement. Smoother throttle modulation on subsequent runs yielded better results, culminating in a 12.9 at 112.5 mph; all this on the stock tires and with no pressure adjustments.
1. According to instrumented tests, a Camaro ZL1 automatic will do 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds.
2. A coupe is offered exclusively for the 2012 model year, with a convertible arriving for 2013.
3. Engine and transmission coolers, along with brake cooling ducts and a differential cooler, are factory installed on all ZL1s.
4. The ZL1’s 6.2-liter LSX V8 sports a four-lobe Roots supercharger, enabling it to crank out 580 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 556 lb-ft of torque at 3800.
5. Exposed carbon fiber hood insert is a $600 option.
DOING IT MANUALLY
In drag racing circles, stick-shift drivers truly are a special breed. It takes remarkable skill and experience to be able to come close to the consistency of an automatic. Nevertheless, for those buyers who opt for the standard six-speed Tremec 6060 gearbox on their new ZL1, Chevy offers a number of aids to help improve your technique.
Key among them is the car’s Performance Traction Management system, an umbrella of driver aids that includes traction control, launch control, the latest third generation Magnetic Ride control, as well as electric power steering response and stability control.
For running the quarter mile, the launch control function is designed to modulate engine torque to ensure optimal acceleration off the line without inducing wheelspin. There are actually four different modes for this system, but on tracks with the start line coated in VHT, engineers suggest using Launch Mode 5.
The first time you try this, it feels a little strange. By pinning the throttle to the floorboard, the launch control holds engine rpm at a pre-determined speed. It does this to maximize the available traction by modulating the engine’s spinning velocity at a whopping 1,000 times per second. However, in order to prevent killing the power or hooking up too quickly, a fast, but smooth release of the clutch pedal is required. It’s not a particularly easy technique to master but again, like everything else, practice makes perfect.
One thing that becomes readily apparent is that despite such driver aids, the Camaro ZL1 still feels like an untamed beast, even in a straight line. On multiple launches, as soon as that clutch pedal is released, the car nudges sideways, then straightens up as the tires hook, with another kick from the rear as you bang second gear. Nevertheless, compared to a vintage big-block Camaro it steers virtually arrow straight down the track. And once you reach the quarter-mile, the brakes actually work.
Mode 5 on the launch control has also been tested with 18 and 20-inch drag radials, so it’s been optimized for higher rpm launches, with softer compound rubber. That means for experienced drag racers, 11-second runs under optimal conditions should be a matter of routine. And remember, this is a 50-state, emissions certified OE street car.
Back in 1969, each of the original Camaro ZL1s, cost around $7,300. Factoring inflation, today that would be approximately $46,100. Although the new ZL1 stickers for another 10 grand more ($54,995 with the $900 destination charge), plus an additional $1,195 if you opt for the six-speed automatic), it’s a car that you can launch hard and fast all day long, yet at as the sun sets, jump in, select your favorite tune on the stereo and blast home with air conditioning cranked at full capacity. That’s something you most definitely couldn’t with an original ZL1 even when the car was new.
LOVE IT LEAVE IT
Power, power, power Cartoonish styling
Superb shifting automatic Weight
Refinement (for a muscle car) Launch control not for everyone
GALLERY: 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1
Plus: Read AutoGuide’s 2012 Camaro ZL1 Review Here