Driving the quickest production pony car the world has ever known.
– Oliver, British Columbia, Canada
From the outside, the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE is a caricature of what a performance car should be. As the hardcore track-day version of the not-at-all timid Camaro ZL1, the ZL1 1LE’s rear wing might as well double as an ironing board, and the hyper-aggressive dive planes in front would be right at home on a nuclear submarine.
Anyone driving something in the ZL1 1LE’s crosshairs, however, from the Shelby GT350R to Porsches with similarly protracted alphanumeric names, would be foolish to dismiss the Camaro as a superficial plaything for those with an extra $69,995 in their bank accounts. Everything new on this car, both what’s visible, and especially what isn’t, is there to turn it into a precision instrument on the race track.
Around a road course, the ZL1 1LE stands alone as the quickest pony car ever put into production, a claim to which its 7:16 lap time around the Nürburgring attests. Simply put, this is the best of the breed, and it’s not even close.
Goodyear spent three years developing two brand new tires solely for this car – one for the front, and another for the rear, each with a different fundamental behavior.
“ZL1,” of course, is the option code for an all-singing, all-dancing, 650-horsepower, 650-pound-feet supercharged V8, complete with all the trimmings – much like “SS” denotes a 455-hp V8, or “LT” signifies the four- or six-cylinder option. Adding the “1LE” designation to the end of the ZL1, SS, or the V6 LT brings about the kind of beefed-up cornering prowess one would expect of a serious track package option.
With each step up in the product line, from LT to SS to ZL1, the list of 1LE go-fast goodies evolves into an increasingly serious package. For the ZL1 1LE, Chevrolet held nothing back, leveraging existing business relationships to execute a tour de force of corporate R&D.
This isn’t a limited edition, though Chevy only anticipates annual sales of somewhere between 800 and 1,000 units. It’s a halo car designed both to draw attention to the engineering excellence of Chevrolet’s engineers and its corporate partners, and to drive sales for Chevrolet’s Performance Parts Catalog, in which the ZL1 1LE’s most important go-fast goodies will be available à la carte. Success revolves around how brightly the ZL1 1LE shines against its competition.
Goodyear spent three years developing two brand new tires solely for this car – one for the front, and another for the rear, each with a different fundamental behavior. Multimatic, the Canadian firm best known for its Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers, completely re-engineered some of the most crucial front suspension components. Even the Mercedes Formula One wind tunnel got in on the action.
More on all of that in a minute, though, because none of it matters if the car isn’t a stud in its native environment.
The car rotates with a finesse more commonly associated with a svelte Miata than a 3,820-pound behemoth.
Area 27 takes its name from the Ferrari racing number synonymous with Canadian F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve. Carved into a hilly wine valley in rural British Columbia, it’s a highly technical track filled with blind corners, double apexes, tight hairpins, and fast sweepers at the end of even faster straights. And Chevrolet’s team has lined it with 1LEs.
Turn 5 here is a tight left-hand corner that’s the second half of a double-apex complex, and you crest a hill while you’re still steering. As I approach, I lightly tap the brake with my left foot just a bit later than the Camaro I’m chasing, a 455-hp SS 1LE piloted by a professional Canadian racer. I trail off the slow pedal as I turn in. The car rotates with a finesse more commonly associated with a svelte Miata than a 3,820-pound behemoth, and I’m able to get on the throttle earlier than the other guy.
... And then I have to back off, lest I risk shoving those Red October-sized dive planes right up his tailpipe.
Turn 6 is a high-speed, uphill, right-hand sweeper that leads immediately into a heavy braking zone. I again lightly squeeze the brake pedal to transfer just a touch more of the ZL1 1LE’s weight onto the front tires, and smoothly turn the steering wheel while looking up the hill.
I wind up taking the corner with my right foot firmly pressed to the floor, climbing up the hill as the head-up display ticks past 100 miles per hour. Just like that, I’ve caught right back up to a car that only six months ago was arguably the best performance bargain in America, if not the world.
This is a legitimate trackday superstar with more than enough engineering pedigree to satisfy even the most dedicated enthusiast.
Turn 11 at Area 27 is a fast, blind, left-hand kink that sits right at the crest of a hill. You can’t see the track on the other side until you’re already there, and the topography is perfectly set up to unsettle a car. In the lesser SS 1LE, understeer is prevalent as the front tires pass the crest, but then it nervously transitions to oversteer as weight comes back down on the front and the rear crosses the crest. In the ZL1 1LE, however, the effect of the wing and dive planes is evident, and the uneasiness is much less pronounced.
The aerodynamic additions might look like a Fast & Furious appearance package, but they’re absolutely functional. The wing in particular was developed using the Mercedes F1 wind tunnel in Brackley, England, to determine both its height and the exact mounting point on the trunk. It generates 300 pounds of downforce at 150 mph. The aim isn’t pure downforce, though, but rather to keep the car as perfectly balanced as possible.
With the same supercharged 6.2L LT4 V8 as the “base” ZL1, the ZL1 1LE’s drivetrain is unchanged, save for a minor tweak to sixth gear and some fine tuning to the software controlling the active differential. The suspension, though, is a marked improvement, taken straight from the pages of The Track Junkie’s Handbook.
As both a top-level supplier and an engineering firm, Multimatic carved out a name for itself by helping teams at the absolute highest levels of racing win myriad championships. The company’s revolutionary DSSV dampers are found everywhere from the 2010-2013 World Championship-winning Red Bull F1 cars, to the Ford GT, to the Camaro Z/28, to even the Chevy Colorado ZR2 truck. And now the ZL1 1LE.
The car inspires the confidence needed to push the envelope whether the speedometer reads 20 mph or 120 mph.
For the ZL1 1LE, Multimatic’s engineers developed their own strut housing. The new aluminum bits not only save over 18 pounds from the front of the car – helping to offset the additional weight of the supercharger – they’re stronger, too. Adding to that rigidity, the subframes use hard mounts, rather than squishy rubber bushings that tend to deform under heavy use. In layman’s terms, the suspension geometry remains consistent, so the handling is predictable at any speed. The car inspires the confidence needed to push the envelope whether the speedometer reads 20 mph or 120 mph.
Much of the suspension is adjustable, allowing knowledgeable owners to adjust the setup to their driving style or home track. For those new to the black art of suspension adjustment, Chevrolet will provide a cheat sheet to help understand all the permutations. The ride height is variable by up to 10 millimeters to enable balance adjustments. The rear stabilizer bar is adjustable to allow further fine-tuning. To better take advantage of the barely-DOT-legal, ZL1 1LE-specific tires, engineers added easily adjustable camber plates to this Camaro, too.
At a fundamental level, all of this means that the front end grips the pavement in a way in which few front-engined production cars are capable, let alone one that tips the scales at more than double the weight of a Lotus Elise. The steering is precise and highly communicative, and the whole front end reacts enthusiastically to mid-corner throttle or brake adjustments.
The revolutionary nature of those DSSV dampers has been discussed at length elsewhere, but running over the kerbing at corner-exit highlights their brilliance. They simply absorb the bump and control the motion, allowing the car to settle down with an almost imperceptible quickness. The same simply can’t be said of other cars in this class, and even very good options like the SS 1LE and Shelby GT350 require a driver to wait patiently until the chassis is ready for further instructions.
The Camaro ZL1 1LE works as a cohesive piece of racecar engineering applied to the street.
In other words, the ZL1 1LE’s suspension enables drivers to get on the throttle, turn, or brake without delay, and that advantage adds up over the course of a lap. The most dramatic evidence of this is the ZL1 1LE’s 13.5-second advantage over the non-1LE ZL1 at the Nürburgring, a track that places a premium on such stability.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the ZL1 1LE’s magic, though, is the role of the tires. Engineers from both Chevrolet’s street tire division and its race programs went to 11 different tracks. They mixed various chemical compounds to develop the right one for this specific car. They hand-carved tread blocks based on computer modeling, then re-carved them time and again after getting feedback from test drivers.
The 305-millimeter wide front tires are designed with turn-in, responsiveness, and communication in mind. The monster 325-millimeter rears are meant to allow a driver to take advantage of that suspension by getting on the throttle earlier without suddenly snapping into oversteer.
The car works as a cohesive piece of racecar engineering applied to the street. No doubt aided in part by Chevy’s excellent Performance Traction Management, the car powers out of the corner with absolutely zero drama as it accelerates down the long straight.
Slowing from north of 135 mph to around 90 mph for the long, fast turn two sweeper, everything comes together for the ZL1 1LE. The tires talk directly to the driver, without rubber bushings muting their feedback. Push too hard, and they’re sticky enough to save you and compensate for your ham-fistedness, but they tell you via a subtle scrubbing sensation if you’re trying too hard. Back off ever so slightly, and they sing a melodious note as they settle into their sweet spot.
Driving the ZL1 1LE is truly a dance: to be fast one needs only to pay attention to what the tires are telling you, and lightly manipulate the throttle accordingly.
The ZL1 1LE is more than just a heavy American pony car with prodigious power. This is a legitimate trackday superstar with more than enough engineering pedigree to satisfy even the most dedicated enthusiast. At the same time, though, its race track demeanor is so user-friendly that GM can sell it to a novice driver without fear of immediate recrimination. This is a car that can bludgeon lesser cars into submission even at the hands of an unskilled driver. For the experienced track addict, though, it’s a nuanced instrument, a scalpel capable of carving up considerably more expensive machinery.