Chevrolet knows damn well how to build a sports car. Evidence: the Corvette. Ever since the mid-1950s, it has defined the very idea of what an American sports car is. Attempts to create a second Chevrolet sports car, however, have been met with less success. Excepting the Chevelle SS and a handful of Camaros -- and maybe the Corvair Monza if we're being generous -- it's been rare to find a performance Chevy as inspired as the Corvette. The 2010 revival of the Camaro raised our hopes, until its sloppy handling and performance-numbing obesity torpedoed our expectations. The 2012 Camaro ZL1 changes all of that with huge power, sophisticated technology, and exceptional handling.
As the Camaro to redeem all other Camaros and a car that can run against Chevy's icon, the ZL1 sets the stage for the most dramatic sibling smackdown since my sister dropped a log on my four-year-old head. The Chevrolet marketing folks are adamant that no one will cross-shop a Corvette and a Camaro, and that may be true. Problem is, someone dropped a log on my head as a child, so I can't help but draw imaginary parallels between two bow-tie sports cars with mid-$50,000 prices and four-second 0-to-60-mph times. When Chevrolet invited us to drive the Camaro ZL1 for the first time, we showed up with a pair of driving shoes, our Vbox test equipment, and a Corvette Grand Sport.
The ZL1's tortured gestation began in August 2006, just seven months after the reincarnated Camaro concept wowed the Detroit auto show. As engineers and designers hurried toward a 2009 production start, director of high-performance vehicle operations John Heinricy and engineering manager Tony Roma flew to Australia to verify that the Camaro's platform could accommodate a high-performance variant. The Zeta architecture could support a ZL1. The threat of bankruptcy three years later could not. Even before General Motors filed for Chapter 11 reorganization on June 1, 2009, work had stopped on the ultimate Camaro. Looming financial doom led executives to declare a long-term delay for the project. GM rank-and-file know what "long-term delay" means: canceled.
You can thank your well-spent tax dollars that you're reading this story. Just days after the taxpayer-funded restructuring was approved, Tom Stephens, then head of global product development, called chief engineer Al Oppenheiser and reactivated the program. The ZL1 was alive, but the political sensitivity of the $50 billion bailout meant that its existence would remain hidden. The staff was kept small. Face-to-face meetings replaced e-mails. Not even then-CEO Fritz Henderson was told that his employees were working on what would become the Camaro ZL1. The board of directors officially approved the project in early 2010; no one flinched when product development promised a ZL1 in less than two years.
About fifty engineers -- many with experience on the Corvette and the Cadillac CTS-V and at the defunct GM Performance Division -- redesigned roughly a third of the Camaro SS's parts to create the ZL1. By the spec sheet alone, the result of their efforts reads much like a CTS-V: 6.2-liter supercharged LSA V-8, magnetorheological dampers, limited-slip differential, and a tad too much weight. But with the Camaro, engineers sacrificed some of the Cadillac's civility to place greater emphasis on tuning the ZL1 for days at the track and nights at the drag strip.
During development, one ZL1 endured 600 clutch-dumping launches as part of the most demanding driveline durability testing program in the history of General Motors. For road courses, engineers borrowed the Performance Traction Management system -- the most sophisticated, most unobtrusive electronics package this side of a Ferrari -- that's available on the Corvette Z06 and ZR1. Details like a differential cooler and brake-cooling ducts enable heat-sensitive components to stand up to extended abuse.
The supercharger is still a four-lobe, Roots-type unit compressing the intake charge to a peak pressure of 9 psi, but thanks to a revised induction system, the ZL1's blown small-block sends an extra 24 hp and 5 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels compared with the CTS-V for a total output of 580 hp and 556 lb-ft. As in the V, buyers can choose a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic with performance-minded logic and marginally quicker acceleration times. The water pump for the supercharger's air-to-liquid intercooler is plucked from a less likely donor: that bastion of efficiency, the Volt. No matter how many Volts are ever sold, consider that car's R&D cost justified.
Third-generation Magnetic Ride dampers charge and discharge faster than earlier examples, allowing for more precise control of damping rates. Their flexibility and bandwidth also allow the ZL1 to use the same springs as the Camaro SS. Sport and tour buttons just ahead of the shifter adjust the dampers accordingly, and a third mode -- track -- is available when Performance Traction Management is active. Unlike most cars, in which sport mode alters throttle calibration for quicker acceleration with less pedal travel, the ZL1 makes the throttle-pedal mapping less aggressive to allow for finer modulation.
The five-mode Performance Traction Management system influences damper tuning, steering effort, stability control, and traction management. There's a level for every driver and every condition, with stability control becoming less intrusive with each step. The brake-based bacon-saver is disabled beyond the third mode, but the fourth and fifth settings continue to manage traction with spark and fuel control, allowing you to get on the throttle earlier as you exit a corner. The sharp, machine-gun blats of the traction control in action evoke the sound of a Formula 1 car bouncing off its speed limiter as it bowls down pit lane.