Usual test drives for automotive reviews last merely a week, with only a few hundred miles racked up – if that. This is not a usual automotive review.
|1. The ZL1 is powered by a 6.2L supercharged V8 producing 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque.
2. Two six-speed transmissions are available; an automatic or a manual.
3. Fuel economy is 12/18 MPG (city/highway) with the automatic and 14/19 MPG for the manual.
4. Beginning at a price of $61,745 our test vehicle came in at $65,475 after destination charges and gas guzzler taxes.
Every once in a while we get to do something different; really different. For years now I have been a part of Rally North America, a not for profit charity organization that uses our mutual love of the automotive culture to give back to communities across the continent. Every year 80 or so teams gather for a three day automotive scavenger hunt across scenic back roads in search of checkpoints – all while raising money for charity.
This year Rally North America organized the ‘Rally New England 2013’ which raised over $90,000 for the event’s charity of choice, Camp Sunshine. Camp Sunshine is a retreat camp for children with life threatening and terminal illnesses. More than that, the camp specializes in catering to not just the children with the illness, but their entire family; parents and siblings are welcomed to the camp and attend group activities with others going through the same hardships.
MY WEAPON OF CHOICE; THE ZL1
Hearing of this worthy cause, Chevrolet Canada wanted to be a part of the road rally and agreed to loan me a vehicle for the event. Knowing that we would be visiting the camp on day two of the rally, I wanted to bring a vehicle that the children of the camp, as well as their parents, would think is cool. I needed something that would bring the inner 10-year old out in all of us. After a quick discussion, Chevy and I agreed it had to be a Camaro. Not just any Camaro though; but a ZL1 convertible.
The Camaro ZL1 was introduced last year to take on the likes of the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. The ZL1 ditches the naturally aspirated 6.2 L V8 for a supercharged variant with the same displacement, sourced from the Cadillac CTS-V. Power is bumped up in the ZL1 to 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque and a choice of six-speed transmissions are available; a manual or an automatic.
To overcome the nearly 100 hp deficient this Camaro has compared to the Shelby, Chevrolet spent a lot of time tweaking the rest of the car as well and added magnetic ride control, beefy anti-sway bars, massive Brembo brakes and four steamroller sized tires – 285/35ZR20 fronts and 305/35ZR20 in the rear.
With the Camaro are stickered up adorning the sponsors who made donations to the charity, Team AutoGuide (AKA me and my dad) set off for the start line in Ithaca, New York. Our Camaro ZL1 Convertible came in bright Summit White with the interior sueded microfiber package that puts faux suede microfiber on the steering wheel, gear knob and small inlay on the dashboard.
Unfortunately our convertible also came with the automatic transmission; a bit of a killjoy in a 580 hp pony-car monster. And this is not just because we couldn’t change our own gears. By selecting the automatic, the rear gear is lowered from a 3.73 ratio to 3.23, and, adding insult to injury, the automatic is rated at 12 mpg city and 18 mpg highway compared to the manual being rated at 14 mpg city and 19 highway.
At least the auto transmission is an acceptable unit. Like so many of the ZL1’s mechanics, it is lifted from the Cadillac CTS-V, and behaves predictably. Upshifts and downshifts are neither quick nor slow and the overall programing of the gearbox in regular drive mode is to keep the car in the tallest gear possible at all times. Switch it to sport mode, or use the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, and the transmission awakens a bit, and at least allows the V8 to enter the ‘fun’ zone.
As we began cursing through New York State it became apparent that this vehicle is going to require full attention at all times. Thanks to the Camaro’s wide stance and extra wide tires, the ZL1 pulls from left to right early and often as one of the massive tires hooks into a rut or groove left by years of heavyweight transport trucks reshaping the asphalt. It isn’t all that dramatic, but requires constant, small corrections.
AWAKEN THE GOD OF V8 THUNDER
Another trait that shines through immediately with the Camaro is its ability to accelerate. Get on the throttle hard and the big Chevy leaps forward with authority. Unlike pushrod motors of old, this V8 is not only about down low power. As the rpms climb so does the power and the supercharged 6.2 L loves revving up to redline.
A faint whine from the supercharger is heard over the bellowing V8 rumble pouring out of the dual stage exhaust. But, back off the gas and the secondary flaps on the exhaust close returning the Camaro to a relatively sedate highway cruiser. The flexible engine is just as happy purring along at fewer than 2,000 rpm as it is screaming at full boil; a trait not shared with many 550 hp vehicles.
As we travel through the first two days of the rally, we are beginning to appreciate the unexpected comfort found in the front seats. Even after hours in them, we do not feel sore or tired and are ready for the nightly festivities. Being a fairly skinny guy, the seats are a bit too wide for me as they seem designed for people with a little more girth, and the weird-shaped headrests dig into my upper back. Thanks to the fake suede inserts in the center of the seats, lateral support is ample while driving through some switchback roads in Vermont.
The rest of the interior, however, is not so good and feels cheap; very cheap. The hard plastic doors flex far too much when pressed and none of the materials used inside hint at quality. But then again, who is buying a Camaro for its quality interior anyway? Not buying a Camaro due to its cheap interior is like not buying a Porsche due to its crappy cup holders.
Being that day one and two of the road rally have been rain free, we are spending a lot of time with the roof down on the Camaro. The trunk is only rated at 10.2 cu-ft with the top up, and is significantly reduced with the top down. This would have been an issue for us, but since the rear seats with their 29.9-inches of legroom are basically useless for humans, we have all of that area to store luggage as well.
OVERWHELMED AT CAMP SUNSHINE
We arrive at Camp Sunshine during the early evening of day two and are welcomed by an overwhelming response. My plan to bring an attention-getting car works, though the ZL1 is overshadowed by a replica Jurassic Park Jeep Wrangler.
Even I have to admit spending a lot of time pawing over this excellent recreation.
A few fellow event participants as well as Camp Sunshine attendees comment on how the ZL1 is one of the best looking vehicles there; not bad for a bone stock car amongst a lot of modified ones. With rain threatening I put the top up, which doesn’t really hurt the Camaro’s good looks since the cloth top mimics the regular coupe’s profile to a passable degree.
Day three begins at a drag strip and I am anxious to have a run against the Shelby Mustang that is in the event with us. Unfortunately, the day before the modified ‘Stang suffered from an alternator issue and is a no show.
This just left two good friends, one with a 2013 BOSS 302 Mustang and the other with a modified 2008 Bullitt Mustang, who want to run down the strip. The convertible ZL1 does not have Chevrolet’s launch control system called ‘Performance Traction Management’ found in the coupe. This, combined with a 1/8 mile strip that had not been prepped in anyway meant traction was going to be at a premium. Even with a roughly 500 lbs. weight penalty, neither Ford was able to overcome the 140 hp horsepower advantage the ZL1 has on them and once traction was found in 3rd gear, the big Chevrolet thundered on to victory.
OVERACHIEVER IN HANDLING
Although this power is impressive, it is the handling on the ZL1 that is nearly unbelievable for a 4,300 lb vehicle. In Sport mode, the magnetic shocks keep the Camaro flat even under hard cornering. Despite a set of nearly worn-out tires, the amount of lateral grip the ZL1 can achieve is phenomenal.
The worn tires are, however, a sign that perhaps the most important part of this car’s handling prowess is the rubber; something that won’t be cheap to constantly replace.
At the end of day three after crossing the border into Canada we arrive in Saint John, NB and sadly another rally is over. But the adventure is not. My drive route home includes a long stretch across the province of New Brunswick, which, being a province in the Canadian Maritimes means it rains; a lot. Of course, today is no exception and the skies open. It is time to put the roof up which, unlike many other convertibles, doesn’t really hurt sightlines. In fact, roof up sightlines are better in the convertible than in the coupe thanks to there being no B-pillar allowing for better ¾ rearward visibility.
But not all is good during this water-logged drive home. The two lane freeway through New Brunswick features significant truck grooves that are pooling up into deep puddles and soon I’m carefully steering the hydroplaning ZL1 like a champion wakeboarder. To be fair, this has as much to do with the road (and the obliterated tires) as it does the car and my friend in the Bullitt Mustang wearing 275 width tires is slipping and sliding as well.
Team AutoGuide finally arrives home after eight days on the road and 2,483 miles driven. The Camaro ZL1 surprises in that it is a great long distance cruising car, as long as it’s not raining on a poorly maintained road, and you’ve got a lot of gas money for the journey – I averaged a thirsty 17.7 mpg on this mostly highway trip.
Back country roads are where the ZL1 wants to be – incredible power, a booming V8 soundtrack and great handling make this high performance Camaro highly entertaining. But, at $65,475 after destination and gas guzzler charges, the convertible automatic ZL1 is more GT cruiser than sports car, and for that price a Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible with an automatic and the magnetic ride control can be had.
As enjoyable as driving top-down can be, when the weather permits, the real ZL1 to get is $56,550 manual transmission coupe. It looks better and is an amazing performance bargain…until the Z/28 arrives.