Ford versus Chevy. It's one of the greatest rivalries in the world, joining the likes of Coke versus Pepsi and Michigan versus Ohio State. While the Mustang and Camaro can't be credited as the first two vehicles to start the Blue Oval and Golden Bowtie wars, it's fair to say the two muscle cars kicked the battle into high gear in the 1960s.
Wherever there are rivals, you can be sure there will also be healthy levels of both respect and distaste for one another. In fact, emotions from Ford fans following the debut of both the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 culminated in Camaro lead engineer Al Oppenheiser being unwittingly cast in the lead role of another Downfall Hitler overdub spoof. Perhaps it was something he said...
Of course, none of this ZL1 versus GT500 smack-talk will amount to anything if either car isn't up to snuff. With that in mind, At Chevrolet's behest, we traveled to the Bondurant Road Course just south of Phoenix, Arizona to put the 2012 Camaro ZL1 through its paces.
It used to be that the only meaningful bits of Camaro or Mustang performance data could be measured in a straight line. We're talking 0-60, 0-100 and the ever-important quarter-mile time and trap speed. Let's get them out of the way right now.
The Camaro ZL1's 6.2-liter supercharged V8, which shares its basic spec sheet with the Cadillac CTS-V and Chevy Corvette ZR1, puts out 580 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 556 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. The official 0-60 time is 3.9 seconds and the quarter mile is dispatched in 12 seconds flat. Top speed is listed as 184 miles per hour, thanks in part to an aero package that includes a new front fascia, a carbon fiber hood with functional air extractor vents and an undertray with NACA ducts for cooling.
The official 0-60 time is 3.9 seconds and the quarter mile is dispatched in 12 seconds flat.
Those data points still matter in a big way, and will undoubtedly be the most oft-quoted stats by Ford Fanatics and the Bowtie Brigade. But, these days, you've got to be able to do more than go fast in a straight line to impress the true diehards.
And that's where the orange corner is placing its bets with the ZL1. Perhaps the most significant change to the ZL1 over its SS sibling, besides the supercharger, of course, are the magnetorheological dampers fitted at all four corners. We've seen this technology on a number of high-performance vehicles – from various Ferrari GTs to GM's own Cadillac CTS-V and Corvette ZR1 – but these shocks boast a new generation of both hardware and software that makes it all tick.
Chevrolet makes full use of the MR shocks' computer-controlled adjustability with the ZL1, and it pays big dividends on the track. The driver can choose from five settings using a trio of buttons just ahead of the shifter on the center console. A quick two-tap routine engages Performance Traction Management mode. The first stage of PTM is for adverse weather, and in the sunny climes of Arizona, we skipped it. PTM Mode Two affords moderately skilled drivers – even those unfamiliar with the car – the ability to have fun on a track with little danger of losing control. Modes Three and Four gradually allow more tire slip, stiffen up the Magnetic Ride Control and quicken the steering for drivers who have outgrown Mode Two.
And then there's Mode Five. This is the setting Chevrolet recommends for the track, and it's tuned to improve lap times of even the most highly skilled drivers. It works. Countless algorithms are programmed into all facets of the car's most technological bits and pieces, particularly the MR shocks and traction control. The suspenders get race-car stiff and the rear wheels are allowed just the right amount of slip to help a trained driver eke out the most corner exit speed possible.
Thankfully, the ZL1's brakes have also been upgraded to cope with the power of its engine. The six-pot Brembo pistons clamp down hard on two-piece ventilated rotors up front, while single-piece rotors with four-piston calipers do the deed out back.
The ZL1 rather impressively managed to lap the Nürburgring in seven minutes and 41 seconds.
To say we were impressed by the overweight Camaro's ability at Bondurant would be an understatement. With an official curb weight of 4,120 pounds, this car should be more of a linebacker than a ballerina. And it is. But it's a linebacker wearing a fluffy pink tutu and those crazy lace-up shoes with blunt-tipped toe boxes... and we mean that in the best way possible. After all, the ZL1 rather impressively managed to lap the Nürburgring in seven minutes and 41 seconds. That's almost 40 seconds quicker around the 'Ring than the 2009 Chevrolet Camaro SS.
If there's one place its devotees would expect the ZL1 to shine, it's at the drag strip. Bowtie fans will not be disappointed. The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 will easily eat up 1,320 feet of asphalt and spit out a time slip in the low-12-second range. We know, we tested it in far-from-ideal conditions ourselves and have slips to prove it. It won't take much more than good weather, a manicured track surface and adequate seat time to drop a few tenths from the mid-12s at 114 miles per hour that we instantly recorded.
Part of the ZL1's race-car-in-drag performance can be attributed to good old-fashioned horsepower and wide, sticky tires. There are 20-inch forged alloy wheels at all four corners, available in either black 10-spoke or polished five-spoke designs, to which 285-front and 305-rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires are mounted.
We also noted good throttle response, predictable clutch feel and a slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. These items alone should be all a seasoned drag racer needs to post the best numbers possible. For those who will only take their shiny ZL1 to the drag strip once or twice a year, Chevrolet has a trick up its sleeve to keep you from red-faced embarrassment and endless excuses.
PTM Mode Five is optimized for drag strip launches. As Chevrolet explains it, the starting line of a quarter-mile track is normally a death sentence for traction control systems. Right off the bat, a huge spike of G forces are loaded into the drivetrain at launch from the sticky surface, so the car gets full power from its computer. Then, the street tires (not low-pressure racing slicks) break traction, and all that power goes up in tire smoke. To combat this problem, the ZL1's PTM incorporates launch control into its bag of tricks. Nothing measurable is left to chance, from temperature and barometric pressure to the heat of the engine, the computer's megahertz-addled brain figures out the proper way to leave the lights.
Here's the step-by-step for launching the ZL1 in Mode Five: Pull up to the staging lights, mash the throttle and step off the clutch right about the time the last yellow light is lit. Keep your foot planted to the floor as you row through the gears – the ZL1 is equipped with no-lift-shift programming – until you pass the last set of timing lights. You've just managed a quarter-mile pass in the 12s. Congratulations are in order... there were only a handful of muscle cars in the 1960s or '70s that could manage such a feat, and they all command well over a hundred thousand dollars in today's horsepower-fueled classic car market.
Want to know a secret? There's an even easier way to dominate the drag strip. Opt for a 2012 Camaro ZL1 with the six-speed automatic transmission and you'll be rewarded with eminently repeatable time slips by following just one simple step: hit the gas. Well, first turn off the traction control completely and put the shifter in manual mode. But then hit the gas and let the transmission row the gears – the auto-equipped ZL1 will pre-select the next gear and upshift right at redline in this mode, though it will sit at its fuel-cutoff point all day long otherwise.
Opt for the six-speed automatic and you'll be rewarded with eminently repeatable time slips.
Would we buy the automatic? No. While the 6L90 gearbox is a fine unit, we'd choose the six-speed manual every day of the week. And while we're on the subject, we'll also mention that the steering wheel paddles of the auto-box'd ZL1 are flimsy plastic pieces that feel utterly out of place on a performance car.
There are downsides to the ZL1 package that apply to any Camaro model, including piss-poor visibility, overtly large exterior dimensions and an elephantine curb weight without the interior space to match. Worst of all, a complete dearth of headroom is exacerbated when wearing a helmet at the track. Finding a comfortable seating position was a big problem for our six-foot-two long-torsoed frame.
Finally, as you might expect, fuel economy is bad. Like, really bad. The EPA estimates you'll get 14 miles per gallon city and 19 mpg highway driving a ZL1, which means it's also subject to the federal government's Gas Guzzler tax. If its similarly tuned corporate cousin, the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, is anything to go by, that should add an extra $1,300 to your tab for a manual-equipped model and $2,600 for an automatic. Ford fans will freak if we don't also mention that the more powerful 2013 GT500 is efficient enough to earn exemption from the GG tax. And naturally, the ZL1 only drinks premium.
The Gas Guzzler tax should add $1,300 for a manual-equipped model and $2,600 for an automatic.
Fortunately, there are a boatload of positives that manage to outweigh the negatives, including a comfortable ride from the magnetic shocks, a highly refined drivetrain and suede interior inserts that dress up the otherwise kitschy cabin. And, lest we forget the big V8 underhood, there's an active exhaust system that belches out one of the most glorious petroleum-fueled soundtracks in America, with just a hint of whine to remind you of the supercharger nestled atop the vee.
Perhaps the most impressive feat performed by the Camaro ZL1 isn't that it's fast – that's to be expected, right? – it's that the ZL1 will be fast for anyone, with almost any talent level, each and every time. And it will do so for the price of $54,095. That's certainly a lot of coin to spend on a Camaro, but we think it's a bargain in the world of performance. And the best part? All the go-fast goodies are standard equipment, including the magnetic suspension, PTM computer and heavy-duty cooling for the engine, transmission, brakes and rear differential.
By comparison, GM reps are happy to point out that Ford recommends three additional coolers from its official parts catalog for any GT500 that will be subject to track use... and makes it clear that such use may result in the loss of warranty coverage. That is, at least for the 2012 model. Need we also mention the Mustang's live rear axle, as opposed to the fully independent setup affixed to the Camaro? As if to place the ball squarely in Ford's court, the Camaro team we spoke to at the ZL1 launch seemed quite sure that their baby would beat the 650-horsepower 2013 Shelby GT500 around any race track with curves... and possibly in a straight line.
The Camaro team seemed quite sure their baby would beat the 2013 GT500 around any race track with curves.
While the upcoming ZL1 versus GT500 fight is sure to go down guns blazing, without having driven the future Shelby alongside this super Camaro, we're not ready to concede the victory to Ford based on spec sheets alone. Until both cars line up head-to-head, the endless pokings and proddings from Ford and Chevy fans will be nothing but a chorus of predictions.