Tech Ride: Camaro ZL1- The American Everyday Supercar
Chevrolet's relaunching of the Camaro has been an unqualified success by every measure. To capitalize on that nostalgia-fueled frenzy, they've developed the awe-inspiring 2012 Camaro ZL1. The first and last car to officially wear the ZL1 badge was the 1969 ZL1 COPO 9650. In the 43 years since, the haloed model has been tucked away deep inside GM's performance laboratories; hitting the weights, doing advanced calculus and getting more retro-future than we could have imagined. Since the introduction of the current generation Camaro, fans have been waiting patiently for the arrival of the Shelby GT500's nemesis. The engineers at GM answered their prayers and set out to build a track-ready super-muscle car. Just like the original ZL1 COPO, the 2012 ZL1 brings big performance to a new generation of power-hungry, muscle car fans. But the trick here isn’t just big horsepower and retro looks. The boys at GM have cleverly packaged 21st century aerospace technology under every inch of the ZL1’s chiseled body. The key to success for the ZL1 lies in balancing on road civility with aggressive on track performance, which is a tall order, especially for a $55,000 coupe. However, the ZL1 is up to the task thanks to a deep bench of GM high performance parts, and the technical know how of some pretty awesome guys in lab-coats. The end result is a 7:41 lap around the Nürburgring, a massive 39 second improvement over the standard $30,000 Camaro SS’s 8:20 lap time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=1LH_4yanwlc Putting that kind of speed into context can be difficult, so we stacked the ZL1 against the gold standard of sports car performance: The Porsche 911. To illustrate the bang-for-your-buck jump from the SS to the ZL1, we'll pit the Porsche 911 type 997 Carrera S ($82,500) against it’s pumped up brother the 911 type 997 Turbo ($137,000). Both cars get around the Nürburgring faster than a roadrunner on meth, with a time difference of about 12 seconds (7:50 and 7:38 respectively). The cost of that extra speed? A pricey $4,500 per second. The ZL1, on the other hand, is a downright steal with a premium of only $630 per second over the Camaro SS. Not too shabby when you consider the ZL1 is only three seconds slower than the 911 Turbo. So how did Chevrolet manage to make the Camaro so much faster than the SS for next to nothing? Mostly through clever engineering, and incremental improvements resulting in 1/3 of the SS's parts being replaced. Changes include a state of the art traction control program, the latest generation of GM’s Magnetic Ride suspension, and a solid bump in the horsepower department. The Heart The 6.2-liter supercharged LS motor in the ZL1 retains many of the same components of the original LSA, which was first featured in the Cadillac CTS-V and carried over from the LS9 in the C6 Corvette ZR1. The ZL1’s LSA utilizes the same four lobe-roots type Eaton TVS Supercharger found in previous iterations. With some careful massaging including a freer flowing air filter, dual inlet paths, more efficient intercooler, and improved housing, the supercharger breathes better across the entire rev range. Throttle response is improved with a generous boost in top-end power to the tune of 28 additional ponies. The end result is a staggering 580 hp and 566 lb-ft of torque.
The big step-up in horsepower raised a number of issues for the ZL1 development team. First was keeping the drivetrain components cool, second was reducing lift in order to improve high speed balance. The new front splitter, and the fantastic looking power bulge hood may be a nod to the original COPO ZL1, but it's more function than nostalgic form. The functional vents move cool air into the engine bay, and then up over the hood helping to increase pressure on the top side of the car. The front splitter, hood, side rocker panels and rear spoiler all work together to provide 160 lbs of downforce (↓), compared to the SS’s 200+ lbs of lift (↑) at the same speed. Those may not seem like very big numbers, but the end result is increased driver confidence. The additional cooling provided by the sharpened aerodynamics means the ZL1 can withstand merciless hot-lapping, session after session.
Weighing in at around 4,120 lbs, the ZL1 is by no means light. With over two tons of inertia to wrestle with, the suspension and brakes have some serious work cut out for them. Which is why the improved bodywork was directly linked to the development of the Brembo brakes, and Magnetic Ride Suspension. The air rushing over the front splitter not only creates downforce, bit helps cool the six piston 14.6-inch front rotors. The massive binders, front and rear (14.3 inch), are capable of hauling the King Camaro down from 60 to 0 mph in 108 ft. The increased cooling helps resists brake fade, while the increased stability allows for later, more purposeful braking into corners.
The Magnetic Ride Suspension (MRS) is probably the most significant bit of technology on the Camaro ZL1. It features three modes of adjustability: tour, sport and track, which alter dampening stiffness.The shock absorber at the heart of the MRS system is like an infinitely variable pogo stick with an electromagnet buried deep inside.When current passes through the magnets, it causes the metal particles to turn solid. As the suspension compresses, the firm particles help the tires maintain predictable contact with the road surface, squeezing as much grip as possible out of the massive Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. When the current is removed, the particles are loose and the damper is as soft as warm pudding.
This allows the suspension to freely absorb bumps, undulations, and surface changes with ease and composure. The electronic control unit constantly tweaks the stiffness of the shock, aligning and dispersing the particles, over 1,000 times per second. This allows the ZL1 to be driven more aggressively than a conventionally sprung car on the track, but also for more supple ride control on Detroit’s crumbling roads. This is pretty impressive stuff, especially when you consider the ride quality of other Nürburgring stars on anything but glass-smooth tarmac.
The second major piece of ZL1 techno-porn is the Performance Traction Management (PTM) System. When it first appeared on the Corvette ZR1, it was the only thing that kept the Blue Devil from becoming the widow-maker to end all widow-makers. The latest version of PTM in the ZL1 allows for varying slip angles across five different modes. In PTM mode 4 the system monitors grip at about 50 times per second, matching torque to the amount of grip available. The most extreme is PTM mode 5, which is specially designed for use with “drag radials” or slicks .
Basically you can set it in PTM mode 4 or 5 and do low 12 second, or even high 11 second, ¼ mile runs all day. Yes, Chevrolet wants you to drive this car to the track and drive it hard till the cows come home. So no matter the surface, whether it’s a sticky drag strip, or a dusty road course there’s always a bit of a safety net to help you belt out consistent times. If you’re a hot shoe then you can probably do better, but there’s no guarantee you won’t end up writing the whole thing off.
The big takeaway with the ZL1 is the accessibility of all that performance. It's a big rolling contradiction. The price is at odds with the power, and it still manages to be athletic despite its heft. No doubt the technology has a lot to do with how capable the ZL1 can be in the right hands. We’ve been scratching our heads wondering what could possibly deliver this much performance and usability at this price. Maybe a used Nissan GT-R could do the trick, but not much else. A Shelby GT500 sure, but it may lack the finesse to make it fast anywhere but at the drag strip. Besides, Ford has yet to release an official Nürburgring time for the 2013 Shelby GT500.
Which is what we like about the ZL1, it impresses the hell out of us with its bat-shit performance stats, and we know the (relatively) average-Joe can get pretty close to those numbers all day. We’ve seen it in action. Though we're still kind of shocked by the finished product. All this for under $60,000? There has to be a catch.
See more of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 here