2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 HD Video Review

It’s easy to make a car look fast, just bolt on some of the normal high performance visual cues like spoilers, splitters, carbon fibers graphics and the like.  But dressing for success is no substitution for true motivation. Just like in people, success requires a deep burning passion. The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is what you might call an over achiever.

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ZL1 is far more than a Camaro with a big engine.  Nearly every part of it is changed.  There’s liquid-to-liquid oil cooling, extra body bracing, underbody aerodynamics, revised and strengthened transmissions and even asymmetrical half-shafts.  The subtlest thing about the car is the discreet badging.

ZL1 gets its name from a legendary all-aluminum V8. Chevy stuffed this motor into 69 street legal Camaros back in 1969, though they were really intended for drag racing.  It made 439 horsepower though with a little bit of tweaking a guy could get nearly 100 more.  While these cars are much sought after now, they were hardly popular back in the day.  They sat on dealer’s lots for months, some were even bought back by GM.

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The New Torch Bearer

ZL1 borrows its supercharged 6.2-liter V8 from Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V.  It makes 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft using high-strength hypereutectic pistons and piston oil squirters.  The twin exhaust is symphonic, I’m pretty much ignoring the great Boston Acoustics audio system with iPod and Bluetooth integration.  This all-aluminum small-block requires premium gasoline.  The EPA rates fuel economy at 12 city, 18 highway.  This should be no surprise though it makes the Mustang Shelby GT500 look like a Prius at 15 city, 24 highway.

A high-performance fuel system has additional pickups on the primary side with the secondary fuel pickup moved outboard for continuous fuel feeding during high-g cornering fun.  Loads of additional cooling keeps your investment protected.  Chevy claims the manual and automatic transmissions are completely track-capable with the standard factory-installed cooling package.

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20-inch lightweight forged aluminum wheels are ZL1 specific, so are Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G2 tires.  Large Brembo brakes (14.6-inch up front, 14.4-inch in back) help tame the power.  With repeated violent 60-0 stops I could not get them to fade, I quite before getting ill.  The suspension has sophisticated Magnetic Ride Control that instantly firms and softens the dampers depending on what’s happening.

0-60 and the Real World

Yes, this is a very powerful car.  A factory stock ZL1 did the Nurburgring in 7:41.27, but that means very little during the daily commute when you’re fighting with a car that’s twitchy and high strung.  Fortunately, the ZL1 isn’t.  It’s actually pretty easy to drive in stop-and-go city slogging.  Impressive considering there’s not an awful lot of places to actually use 580 horsepower.  At least not here in Seattle proper.

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In the country (or even more recommended, a track) the uber Camaro means business.  It’ll run to 60 in four seconds.  The combination of sonic thunder and velocity is pure automotive meth.  Top speed is 184 miles an hour (not experienced BTW).  At 40 mph, spinning the rear tires with a quick blip of the throttle is effortless.  There’s an unlimited amount of power on tap, so budget for extra tires and gas.  Heed Ben Parker’s words- With great power comes great responsibility.  A configurable head’s up display shows speed and engine revs.  It’s a helpful reminder that I’m always driving this car way too fast.  Tried to photograph it but it’s pretty tough.  Sorry.

Gaining Traction

The Performance Traction Management has five modes including three different suspension settings.  Buttons near the unfortunately low-mounted gauge cluster allow quick access to a tailored driving experience.  The “Tour” setting offers a fairly comfortable ride, things start getting very firm on “Sport”. “Track” is bone jarring, as expected. So really, handing is what you choose it to be in the moment.  In “Sport” mode there is no body roll, cornering limits are epic.

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To begin to find the limits of the ZL1 you’d have to track it.  A warning- Camaro’s look attracts a lot of attention, and the deep rumble of the ZL1 gets law enforcement interested in a hurry.  Ask me how I know…

There are two six-speed transmissions- a manual that handles 30 percent more torque than the box in the Camaro SS, and an automatic that I’m driving which gets beefed up to handle the massive torque. vYes, there are paddle shifters.  No, there’s no launch control.  It is only available on the manual (at least on the 2012 model I’m driving).  That means you’ll spend a little time getting to know the electronic traction control during hard acceleration but back to reality, it much easier to drive the automatic if the ZL1 is going to be pressed into daily use.

Some people like big cars, others like them smaller.  Camaro feels larger than Mustang but smaller than Dodge Challenger.  Simply put Camaro ZL1 is a muscle car’s muscle car. There is nothing subtle about it.  There’s less road noise than engine noise and as I’ve said before, the exhaust note is musical.

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Peering Inside

ZL1 gets the best interior money can buy in a Camaro.  The cabin gets dressed up with suede-like material on the instrument panel that makes a difference. That said, it remains on the plain side with metallic painted door trim panels. Camaro’s interior design has never been a strong point, the dashboard is big and wide with all of the controls crammed into a small little pod designed for use in the space-critical Spark.

If you like bright airy cabins and panoramic visibility, Camaro is not for you.  Black is the only interior color available with ZL1.  Side windows are very narrow, the large sweeping C-pillar restricts the view rearward.  It could really use a blind spot warning system.

Thank goodness for the backup camera in the rearview mirror and audible parking sensors.  Deeply bolstered and heated front seats get grippy suede fabric.  Skinny guys will rattle around in them, they’re on the wide side.  ZL1’s pedals are optimized for track use.

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Not a lot of tech doodads in the Camaro, you start ZL1 without a pushbutton and climate control is manual.  For 2013, Camaro gets a touch screen with an available navi system.  I relied on downloaded audible directions from OnStar which rocks.

As For Your Friends…

Obviously, people don’t buy a Camaro for practicality.  There are belts for two in the back, average sized adults won’t be overly happy since they’ll hit their noggins on the roof.  It’s fine for kids though with surprisingly acceptable leg and foot room (for a coupe).  Only one seat pocket, and no power port or cupholders.

When it comes to cargo carrying capability, even the mighty ZL1 looses its oomph.  Space-saving hinge arms maximize the space and a fold down seat back is always handy.  Like many cars these days there’s no spare, only a repair kit.  The trunk opening is high and narrow making it awkward to get large stuff in.  Try as I might, the fun stops at four packs of the two-ply in the TP trunk test.  And really, I spent a good amount of time trying to get a fifth in.

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Supercar Design

Camaro’s design is a like concept car that improbably made it past GM’s lawyers and bean counters.  Apparently, Ed Wellborn, GM VP of Global Design considers the shape one of his biggest successes.  It’s a very American shape but if it wore a prestigious European nameplate, people would probably worship the swept silhouette more than they do.  Camaros are common and we take the dramatic sheetmetal for granted.  It’s great fun to just walk around and study.  For 2013, it will be offered in convertible form.

ZL1 gets a unique front fascia with splitter, subtle sill revisions and a rear wing, all of which actually help the car remain stable at speed.  Side mirrors are small and don’t fold.  The optional carbon fiber hood panel is not just a sticker graphic, it’s the real deal and like the other pieces, is fully functional.   A sunroof is available.

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The obvious competition is the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.  Best of luck wrangling test-drives in each of these cars unless you know the dealer on a first name basis.  Most prospective buyers know which camp they’re in anyways. ZL1 prices start at $56,295, which includes delivery and the $1,300 gas-guzzler tax.  My tester is nearly fully loaded and goes 61 large.  This car is no poser.  Considering the supercar performance and the exotic sheetmetal, Camaro ZL1 is a pretty powerful deal.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOS ARE PROVIDED BY GM. VIDEO IS SHOT BY TOM ON HIS BRAND NEW PANASONIC AG-HPX370 CAMERA AND EDITED ON APPLE FINAL CUT X.

7 Comments

  1. raghu4026 says:

    2013 Accord Touring V6 review please!

  2. Goliath says:

    As much as I would love to have a ZL1 for a track day, the Camaro SS is still exciting and everyday liveable. I think the ZL1 is impractical both financial and feasibly for someone shopping for a Camaro and if I had 61K to spend on an impractical sports car, I’d buy that Porsche Cayman you reviewed recently.

    • Goliath says:

      Oh man, been re-watching so many of your reviews lately, I only just realized the Porsche Cayman review was 2 and a half years ago. Still, at 61K, a Cayman S is what I’d have instead.

  3. Facepalm says:

    Speaking of the Spark, is that on your to-review list? Would you consider putting it up there if it wasn’t? I’m not thinking of buying it but I’m wondering how it would stack up with Scion’s iQ and the Smart Fortwo.

    Great review on the ZL1, by the way.

    • TV says:

      If I can get a press car I’ll do it. I’ve been seeing a ton of them around Seattle for some reason. I think a number of them are rentals but I’ve seen more than a handful that are clearly new ones from the dealer.

  4. Shabanger says:

    The computer in my car says I average 28 miles per hour in between fill ups. This car would be frustrating to drive in everyday traffic. Would love to take it to a track on weekends though.