A Racing Circuit Best Reveals The Beast Within

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Back in the 1980s, the Chevrolet Camaro was a real badass. The sleek two-door coupe was the epitome of reasonably priced sports cars, easily going head-to-head with competitors like the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA, Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7. At the top of the Camaro pecking order was the IROC-Z, an $18,000 American muscle car with a naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V8 pumping 215 horsepower to the rear wheels. If its five-speed manual gearbox was shifted perfectly, the 3,430-pound coupe could blast to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds leaving nothing but a pile of rubber from its 16-inch Goodyear Eagle VR50 Gatorback tires. At the hands of an expert, the hatchback could lap the Big Track at Willow Springs in 1:44.

Twenty-five years later, the Chevrolet Camaro is again at Willow Springs. But this is no old F-body clunker. Instead, we are holding the keys to a pristine 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the IROC-Z's direct descendant. Under the hood of this range-topping coupe is a supercharged 6.2-liter V8. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, as automotive engineering hasn't just crept forward since the 1980s - it has advanced exponentially. And thankfully, so has the Chevrolet Camaro.

Our initial taste of the Camaro ZL1 was earlier this year, when our own Jeremy Korzeniewski put a red coupe through its paces at Bondurant Road Course just south of Phoenix, Arizona. He found much to like with the muscle car, but we wanted more seat time. So Chevrolet offered us a white ZL1, with a six-speed automatic transmission, and told us to have some fun. We did.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 side view2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 front view2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 rear view

The Camaro's visit just happened to coincide with a planned day on the track with Open Track Racing, a private group that rents Southern California racing circuits and holds events for enthusiasts. While we weren't technically racing (that's a whole different ballgame), the opportunity would allow us to run flat-out on a very familiar circuit against some of the ZL1's biggest adversaries. As an added bonus, the track is more than 100 miles away, which meant that the high-performance sports car would have to coddle us on the pre-dawn drive to the track, hold its own against its competition on the track and then pamper us again for the long evening drive home.

It will rocket to 60 mph in just under four seconds flat and continue running through the quarter mile in 12.3 seconds at 119 mph.

While Korzeniewski did a great job covering all of the technical details of what mechanically and cosmetically differentiates the ZL1 from its six other siblings, a brief recap will help set the stage.

Residing under the ZL1's ventilated hood is a supercharged 6.2-liter LSA V8. After being borrowed mostly intact from the Cadillac CTS-V, the engine is upgraded with a two-stage exhaust (borrowed from the Corvette) and it receives a revised intake system. Add premium fuel and the result is 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque. While a six-speed manual gearbox is offered, our test car was fitted with GM's Hydra-Matic 6L90 six-speed automatic (the torque converter-equipped 'box features a strengthened input gearset with two additional pinion gears, additional clutch plate and a strengthened output shaft and gearset, says Chevrolet). With the help of launch control, the Camaro will rocket to 60 mph in just under four seconds flat and continue running through the quarter mile in 12.3 seconds at 119 mph. Top speed, if you can find the real estate, is 184 mph.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 engine

In addition to a much more substantial driveline (just about everything is beefed-up to handle the massive bump in power), GM has upgraded the suspension, brakes, wheel/tire package and steering.

The ZL1 steering is electrically assisted, unique in the Camaro lineup.

The independent suspension is fitted with GM's third-generation MagneRide shocks at each corner. With two electromagnetic coils on each shock (instead of one) and a more powerful electronic control unit, the system adjusts damping 1,000 times per second (about one adjustment per inch of vehicle travel at 60 mph, says the automaker). The revised system is not only quick enough to firm up the shocks during spirited driving, but under braking, too.

Inside each of the special 20-inch forged alloy wheel is a massive rotor, also borrowed from the CTS-V, albeit upgraded with a two-piece design for better thermal resistance. Up front are six-piston aluminum calipers, with four-piston aluminum units in the rear. The tires, gummy Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 compound (285/35ZR20 front and 305/35ZR20 rear), are equally as capable. The ZL1 steering is electrically assisted, unique in the Camaro lineup, engineered to automatically suppress unnecessary kickback while responding more precisely to driver input.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 hood vents2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 badge2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 wheel detail2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 exhaust tips

The cockpit layout remains much more of a styling exercise than an attempt at well-executed ergonomics. While your author didn't like the overall layout, his six-foot two-inch frame found the driver's seat comfortable. More importantly, the placement of the primary controls (pedals, steering wheel and shifter) was good. It's an environment that is tolerated, but don't let anyone tell you that the cabin isn't dark, hard to peer out of and claustrophobic (even my kids hated sitting in the rear seats as they couldn't see out the tiny triangular windows).

Despite a climb over a mountain pass, our highway fuel economy averaged 18.2 mpg.

We would never want to be sports car engineers, unless we had MagneRide shocks in our bag of tricks – they really do perform miracles. Just as we praised the system in our Corvette ZR1 review, we found the magnetorheological damping system spectacular in its ability to make highway travel pleasant in this 4,118-pound coupe. The ride out to the track at dawn was nearly two hours long and the road is notoriously rough. Yet thanks to the impressive damping, the ride was comfortable. Credit not only goes to the innovative electronic suspension (set on Tour mode), but good cabin insulation too.

Highway miles passed under the chassis effortlessly, and the throaty exhaust note rumbling outside the windows reassured us of the power on tap. Passing was a non-event, but holding our speed down below the legal limit was a challenge. We didn't like the manual climate control, as it required fiddling with the settings each time we passed through different microclimates en route to our desert destination (a single-zone automatic climate control should be standard in a $55,000 vehicle). Other passengers in the vehicle also complained about a lack of cabin lighting at the time of our dark early morning departure and a hard center armrest that bothered elbows. Not in any hurry, we kept the gearbox in Drive and ran at just over 70 mph trying to use cruise control as much as possible. Despite a climb over a mountain pass, our highway fuel economy averaged 18.2 mpg, according to the trip computer (the official EPA rating is 12 mpg city and 18 mpg highway).

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 interior2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 front seats2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 auxiliary gauges2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 sill plate

The private event we attended was populated with a mix of cars including the Porsche 911, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette.

Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, located north of Lancaster, California, is known as "The Fastest Road in the West." The 2.5-mile circuit (opened in 1953) features nine challenging turns and plenty of elevation changes that make it a favorite for high-horsepower vehicles. The private event we attended was populated with a mix of cars including the Porsche 911, Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette. We also stumbled upon a track-ready Pontiac GTO, Shelby Cobra replica, Lotus Elise, Honda S2000 and a lot of other interesting iron.

To protect Chevrolet's new press car from rocks and other debris thrown up when trailing vehicles that drop a wheel or two, we used blue painter's tape on the front fascia and removed everything loose from inside the vehicle. The ambient temperature was hot (60-degrees F when we started, but the desert shot to over 100 F just after our first session), so we constantly bled the tire pressures down in an effort to keep them at about 35 psi on all four corners despite the heat. After a technical inspection and driver's meeting, we hit the track.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on track2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 grille2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 front fascia

We still found the traditional automatic much slower than today's best dry dual-clutch gearboxes.

Our first few laps were used to orient ourselves with the ZL1, warm up the tires and toy around with the traction system. The ZL1 is fitted with Performance Traction Management (PTM) as standard equipment, offering five different modes to manage suspension, stability control, traction control and launch control. Mode 1 is for wet conditions, with Mode 5 designed for racing. We started with Mode 3 (Traction control set on Sport 1, with stability control on and Magnetic Ride Control set on Sport) and briefly tried Mode 5 (Traction control set on Sport 1, with stability control on and Magnetic Ride Control set on Sport). We eventually decided that Mode 4 (Traction control set on Sport 2, with stability control off and Magnetic Ride Control set on Sport) was best suited for our non-competitive event – there was plenty of oil and dirt on the surface (thanks to one amateur participant failing to drive off the line when his engine blew up) and we didn't need any off-track excursions.

The Hydra-Matic 6L90 automatic transmission has three different drive modes: Drive, Sport and Manual (with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters). While Drive was more than adequate for the street, we found Manual mode best for the racing circuit. GM boasts that it delivers "incredibly fast shifts," and it shifts soundly, but we still found the traditional automatic much slower than today's best dry dual-clutch gearboxes. We did, however, appreciate the fact that "manual mode" will not automatically initiate an upshift at redline (other automakers, please take note).

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 paddle shifters2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 shifter

We have seldom found ourselves having this sort of fun in such a big vehicle.

The ZL1 coupe tips the scales at about 4,120 pounds. Nobody goes out of their way to track a two-ton vehicle, as weight is the kiss of death on a road circuit, but owners of the ZL1 should make the exception – this hot-rod coupe is insanely capable in skilled hands. After a few orientation laps, we spend the better part of an afternoon blasting around Big Willow, picking off Mustangs, Corvettes and Porsches. The Camaro is big and deliberate in its actions, but it responds to every command from the left seat like an obedient St. Bernard. We have seldom found ourselves having this sort of fun in such a big vehicle.

Kudos to the ZL1's grip, as the race-inspired Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 tires stuck tenaciously to the hot track. Their performance for a street tire was exemplary, nearly on-par with a dedicated R-compound tire. Thanks to an asymmetrical and directional tread design (and the massive outboard tread blocks), there was virtually no squirm and the compound held up to our repeated abuse. The ZL1's head-up display, in Track mode, said that we were consistently corning Turn 2 sustaining more than 1.1 g (we saw a peak of 1.12 g at one point), and we had no reason to doubt it.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Kudos to the ZL1's suspension, as the MagneRide system held the chassis steady under load with virtually no body roll, keeping each tire planted firmly over rough pavement. We dove into the corners repeatedly and the Camaro settled right down – a characteristic that allowed us to jump back on the power much more quickly than the other guys. Big Willow also has its share of unsettling dips and bumps, but the magnetorheological damping system gave us the confidence to fly around intimidating Turn 8 and Turn 9 without a death grip on the Alcantara steering wheel.

Kudos to the ZL1's brakes, as the huge rotors absorbed every bit of heat we could pump into them. The pedal felt solid, even after 15 minutes of hard abuse, and the system showed no signs of fade. Only the slightest bit of pad material was transferred to the face of the rotor (completely expected under the conditions), but even then there was no vibration or squeaking to mention.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on track
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on track2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on track

The Camaro ZL1 showed signs of stress after several relentlessly long and hard runs in the 100-plus degree conditions.

Kudos also is due the ZL1's engine, as its power delivery was as predictable as the sunrise. Most of the time, superchargers provide massive boosts of power but with a strong surge (unfriendly mid-corner). The blown 580-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 was very easy to control and modulate. We took a gentle approach in each corner and then climbed back on the throttle to keep the rear end behind us before blasting out of the corners. Achieving escape velocity down the main straights was as simple as waiting for a point-by and planting a right foot.

For the most part, we tend to shy away from forced induction on the track as it generates massive amounts of heat. We always seem to run into problems at these hot Southern California desert venues. The Camaro ZL1, despite a liquid-to-liquid engine oil cooler identical to the system on the Corvette ZR1, showed signs of stress after several relentlessly long and hard runs in the 100-plus degree conditions. The oil temperature, normally in the 200-degree range, slowly crept up past 300 more than once and the ZL1's self-preservation mode kicked-in. Rather than risk tying up a hot track with a hampered car threatening "limp mode," we pulled into the pits and opened the hood to let things cool down (for the record, we've had the same thing happen to many other high-performance cars under much less demanding conditions). After a short wait, we headed out again and never missed a session, and once we left the track, the oil temperature never climbed into that temperature region ever again.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 rear 3/4 view

After our last session, with more than a handful of enthusiast trackside admirers now flooding us with questions about the lightning-fast ZL1, we pulled the blue tape off the Camaro (the front façade was peppered with kitty litter residue from the track cleanup) and headed over to the pumps to refuel. After starting the morning session with a full 19-gallon fuel tank, only a quarter remained. The on-board computer read an understandably thirsty 4.7 mpg.

There is no denying the ZL1 carries several hundred pounds too much weight, but there is also no discounting how well it can run with it.

With a belly full of premium unleaded, we cranked up the air conditioning, set the transmission back into Drive, left PTM in default mode and toggled the MRC to Tour – the ZL1 was again transformed into a very comfortable cocoon. Quite exhausted at this point, we settled into the number two lane and set the steering wheel-mounted cruise control at five over the limit. The two-hour ride home, complete with stop-and-go traffic, was pleasant and uneventful.

While most of us still struggle with the Camaro's retro design and cabin layout, mechanically speaking, the ZL1 is one fabulous machine. There is no denying that it carries several hundred pounds too much weight, but there is also no discounting how well it can run with it. While other traffic prevented us from timing a clean lap that day, we did get a strong feel for the ZL1's capabilities. Remember the flashy 1987 Camaro IROC-Z's time of 1:44 around the Big Track at Willow? We'd bet that the 2012 Camaro ZL1, now with performance to back its muscular appearance, can easily do it 10 seconds quicker.