Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part comparison test between the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. We've already discovered which car was quickest around Gingerman Raceway with professional driver Alex Lloyd behind the wheel and spent a day at Milan Dragway laying down quarter-mile times. Read on to find out which car is our overall favorite after a day of road driving.
The results are in: the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is quicker around Gingerman Raceway than the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500, yet the GT500 outmuscles the ZL1 when blasting through a quarter-mile. But are those two performance metrics enough to proclaim one a winner? Not in the least.
Insane horsepower figures, ludicrous top speeds, and seven-minute Nuerburgring lap times are enough to win friends and influence headlines, but they don't provide a full portrait of any car. While the ZL1 and GT500 are built to go fast, speed is not their sole objective. Concoctions like the COPO Camaro, the Mustang FR500, and the Mustang Cobra Jet sacrifice civility and street legality in the name of performance. The ZL1 and GT500 have to cater to more rational buyers. These two cars are also expected to function as usable daily drivers when not being flogged at open track days or test-and-tune nights at the strip.
So, how do these mega muscle machines fare while driving in the real world? We put them to the test on some of the most entertaining (and, at times, bumpiest) roads we could find in Southeastern Michigan.
The King of Horsepower: Ford Shelby GT500We're first tossed keys to the outright king of horsepower: the 2013 Shelby GT500. If looks could kill, this car would be locked on death row, convicted of triple homicide, and in select states, ordering its last meal. Strip away the retina-searing Grabber Blue hue and white stripes, and this latest iteration of Shelby Mustang still has a wild, menacing visual presence thanks to flared fenders, a raked stance, a large chin spoiler, and a new grille insert. Actually, perhaps we should say a lack of a grille insert: save for a couple small pieces tucked into the corners, the grille opens directly to the radiator. Ford says this helps increase cooling, but darned if the GT500 doesn't look even more deranged as a result.
Inside, the Shelby's revisions aren't as noticeable. Apart from new illuminated door sills that celebrate SVT's 20th anniversary, little has changed from the 2011 GT500. Much of the interior is standard Mustang, but Shelby-spec models do gain a faux engine-turned finish on the dash trim, rolled-and-tucked leather door panel inserts, and white striping applied over black leather seating surfaces. Spend another $1595, and the stock front buckets are replaced with an excellent pair of Recaro-sourced seats, which provide incredible lateral grip while remaining supportive and comfortable over long stints behind the wheel. We still wish Ford would bless Mustangs - all Mustangs -- with a telescoping steering column. A heavy clutch with lots of travel may tempt you to scoot the driver's seat forward, but doing so places tall drivers uncomfortably close to the dashboard.
These gripes are literally and figuratively silenced as soon as the supercharged 5.8-liter V-8 fires up. The aluminum-block erupts with a ferocious bark that turns heads and sets off car alarms before it settles into an intoxicating baritone rumble. Just rolling away from a stop triggers flashbacks of the golden era of muscle cars: the ultra-heavy clutch is best described as binary, while the six-speed transmission's short-throw shifter requires a firm hand and a hefty throw. These are minor concerns once up and moving, but around town, they'll certainly strengthen and tone your left calf and right forearm. In thick bumper-to-bumper traffic, they'll likely drive you mad.
There's no changing the gearbox's persona, but the driver can adjust some of the GT500's mannerisms from behind the wheel. The GT500's electric power steering rack isn't the most communicative right off the bat, but you can dial in a little extra weight by selecting sport mode. Opt for the $3495 SVT Performance Package, and you can also play with two-stage adjustable Bilstein dampers, selecting between a normal mode and an incredibly firm sport mode that's probably best relegated to track use.
Sadly, those trick Bilsteins don't hide the fact that the Mustang continues to use a live rear axle. Ford has done a commendable job in making the most of this arcane setup, but on broken back-county roads, the GT500's tail hops and skitters over road imperfections, resulting in a car that feels busier than it feels composed.
The Muscle-Car Sophisticate: Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
If the GT500 is the warrior in warpaint, the ZL1 is a covert agent. It doesn't look anywhere as maniacal as the GT500, but it does look subtly aggressive. The car is no lower, no wider, no longer than a standard Camaro SS, but the rising hood bulge, the gaping front air intakes, and blacked-out wheels infuse it with a pinch of sinister flavor.
Stepping inside the cabin feels as if you're sliding into a small bank vault - a feeling amplified by the heavy door thumping shut. Narrow windows and a high beltline may trigger some claustrophobia, but on paper, the Camaro doesn't lose much interior space to the GT500. Front headroom is about an inch less than the Ford, but other interior dimensions - notably front and rear legroom, along with rear headroom -- are almost identical to the Mustang.
Pity the front seats don't follow that trend. These buckets, which are the same as those in the Camaro SS save for embroidered logos and grippier Alcantara inserts, don't match the lateral grip and comfort of the Shelby's optional Recaros. The Shelby also bests the Camaro in terms of visibility. Objects flanking the passenger-side rear fender are particularly well hidden. One redeeming factor: it's far easier to find a comfortable driving position here than in the Ford, thanks in part to a shorter clutch throw and a telescoping steering column.
Firing up the ZL1's supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 - the same engine used in the Cadillac CTS-V and a distant cousin of the LS9 found in the Corvette ZR1 - is surprisingly anticlimactic. Compared to the Shelby, its exhaust note isn't quite as stirring, and it doesn't permeate the cabin as freely. The Camaro is far easier to launch and coax through city traffic than the GT500, as its clutch is firm but not overwhelming, and its shifter requires less muscle to move from gate to gate. Remarkable, considering the power at hand - and, for that matter, that both cars make use of the same basic Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual.
We have a chance to open the Camaro ZL1 up once we escape the city and work our way into rural lands. The ZL1 doesn't feel as raw and visceral as the Mustang, but it does feel incredibly sophisticated - as if someone wrapped the skin of a Camaro around the framework of a Corvette ZR1. This car handles in an agile fashion that belies its 4120 pounds; as we noted at Gingerman, turn in is quick and body roll is minimal. We're most surprised by the tour mode offered by the ZL1's magnetorheological dampers - yes, it softens the ride, but it's far from floaty, and vertical travel is kept in control. Our only dynamic complaint lies with the steering. Yes, we know electric assist has its limitations, but the ZL1's wheel doesn't have the same weight as the GT500's does at speed.
Hail To Which Victor?
Both the 2013 Camaro ZL1 and 2013 Shelby GT500 may boast similar powertrains, target similar customers, and carry similar price tags - but that's about where the similarities end. Each car has its own unique strengths and personalities, which will polarize buyers shopping in this class.
The GT500 will likely still win buyers over looking for the meanest, most brutal muscle car available from the factory. The power is insane, the look is intoxicating, and as we've found, the 662 hp on tap (along with launch control) makes it one of the quickest factory-built muscle cars. If quarter-mile times, a 200-mph top speed, horsepower bragging rights, and a raw, muscle-bound feel are what you seek in a muscle car, the GT500 is far and away your dream machine.
That said, the Camaro ZL1 objectively feels like the all-around victor. Despite its 82-hp and 268-pound disadvantage, it managed to set outstanding times on a road course, impressive times at the strip, and feels far more genteel and tractable on a daily basis. It may aim at the same customer demographic as the GT500, and share a similar powertrain configuration and price tag, but drive the two back to back, and they hardly feel as if they're direct competitors. The ZL1's well-rounded behavior, both on and off the track, and respectable performance numbers earn it a victory - though it may well be short lived. Ford is hard at work on a new Mustang that finally gains independent rear suspension. We know little about that car, but it should be obvious to all that the pony car wars are far from reaching a cease-fire.