Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part comparison test between the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500. Tomorrow, we’ll run the two cars at the drag strip to record quarter-mile times and consistency. The third installment will explore on-road behavior and render our final verdict.
The fight for pony-car supremacy has been raging for decades. Chevrolet Camaro versus Ford Mustang is a duel without a definitive ending. Battles are fought and won with every new variant and each model year change, yet there's never enough momentum in any one direction to decide the war.
While this feud won't end anytime soon, the stakes are higher than ever in the latest Mustang-Camaro skirmish. The 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 and the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 are the heavy guns in the pony-car arms race, representing the pinnacle of performance and technology. A win here is as close as it gets to declaring victory.
On paper, this round should be a no-brainer. The GT500 has been granted 112 additional ponies for 2013, now totaling a barbarian-like 662 hp and 631 lb-ft of torque delivered from its bored-out, supercharged V-8 motor. By comparison, the most powerful Camaro yet brings a mere 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque with its 6.2-liter supercharged V-8. The GT500 has a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds besting the ZL1's 4.3. The top speed of the Camaro is impressive at 180 mph, but it is consummately thrashed by the Shelby, which will do a staggering 200 mph.
If this was a battle of numbers, clearly we had a winner. If this was a matter of subjective opinion -- well, the diehard fans have already picked sides. So this part of the test isn't about who has the burliest bicep or whose chiseled abs can undress a Victoria's Secret supermodel. To settle this bout, we brought in a neutral third party: a racetrack. This test is about which car can turn a lap fastest. To find out who would be victorious, we visited Gingerman Raceway in Michigan, a 2.14-mile venue capable of unearthing any unsavory habits hiding behind those impressive horsepower figures.
As I wheeled the Shelby GT500 around Gingerman, the first thing to strike me was how long the gear ratios are. A full lap needs only second and third gear, a preposterous fact when you realize I was maxing out at about 130 mph on the back straight. Having just two usable gears really limited my choices and I often felt either over- or undergeared for each bend. Additionally, the Tremec six-speed transmission's shifter isn't the crispest; its throws are long, causing slow but at least consistent shifting.
Entering the turns, the Shelby displays a boatload of body roll. That's not completely surprising given the GT500's humble origins, but I expected more from the Bilstein two-mode adjustable shocks, which are part of the $3495 Performance Package. The car wallows like a stuck pig and I desperately attempted to load up the outside wheels on corner entry. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't calm the Shelby to precisely attack a corner. To make matters worse, the understeer in the fast turns was significant, meaning I was unable to carry the speed through the important fast sections of the lap. Power down, however, was solid and when the rear did break loose, the car was easily manageable.
Even with the long gear ratios, power is always underfoot in the Shelby. The GT500 charged down the straights with unrelenting acceleration and unquestionable authority. Shortcomings in the handling seemed of little concern to a car that could make such quick work of the space between corners. The Ford logged a best lap time of a 1:45.21.
Clearly, for the Camaro to come out on top, it had a small mountain to climb. There is no hiding the 80-hp deficit in the ZL1 and despite the Shelby's hoggish handling, I initially thought its power advantage was too great. The Camaro is further hobbled by a curb weight of 4120 pounds compared to the relatively svelte Shelby at 3850 pounds. The differences were clear on the track. At the end of the back straight, the ZL1 was down more than 6 mph to the brutish GT500.
It looked like the chubbier ZL1 was fighting a losing battle, but as I entered the first few turns, I noticed something significant. I felt like I was driving a sports car. The steering was sharp and responsive and the car reacted instantaneously to my actions. The body roll is a fraction of the GT500's, which is simply titanic. I began smiling. The ZL1 was magnificent to drive and already I was blown away. The car rotates effortlessly mid-corner and power down is predictable and with poise. It oozed with confidence, daring me to push even harder. Chevrolet's Performance Traction Management has five distinct settings and frankly it's overkill. I switched it off entirely.
The Camaro's secret weapon is the Magnetic Ride Control that comes standard on the ZL1. This clever system varies damper firmness to match road and driving conditions. It has three settings: tour, sport, and track, the latter of which can only be selected when Performance Traction Managment is set to its highest mode. Within each setting, the magnetorheological dampers allow for a greater range of control than conventional dampers, leading to a tailor-made ride for every eventuality, including our Gingerman Raceway.
This battle was shaping up to be closer than expected. Could the ZL1 undermine the GT500's monstrous power by beating it through the corners?
There was one more weakness working against the Chevy. While the shifter's throws are shorter and sharper in the ZL1, the gate is clumsy and difficult to engage from second to third gear. At least once a lap I miss a shift, flailing to get the car into third. I found myself cursing at its inability to shift smoothly -- a nasty trait that could cost the ZL1 victory. More frustrating is the fact that both cars use essentially the same six-speed manual transmission, albeit with different ratios.
I pulled into the pit, unable to pull off a lap of seamless shifts. My gut told me that without the ZL1's annoying shifting issues I would have been close to overcoming the mighty Shelby. With the botched shifts, I likely fell short.
I wanted the ZL1 to win, because from an on-track handling perspective the car is simply leagues ahead of the clumsy GT500. Going into this, I never expected the difference to be so dramatic and yet I had no problem picking a favorite having driven both. I could barely stand still, hopping from leg to leg like a man in desperate need of relieving himself, waiting to receive the results.
The time was in: 1:44.53. A significant seven-tenths of a second faster than the GT500. And I estimate the missed shifts cost upwards of half a second per lap. With an 80-hp deficit, the underdog came through by a monumental amount. That's a staggering achievement against a car that, by all measures, is fantastic in its own right. What Chevy has done is combine a fully-fledged sports car into a muscle car's body. Although I wish the shifter was smoother, the Camaro ZL1 is a fantastic piece of engineering.
From an on-track perspective there is no contest. For this year, at least, the victory well and truly belongs to the ZL1. Its handling capabilities far exceed the straight-line advantage owned by the Shelby. But remember, this victory may only be short-lived. After all, we are less than two years away from the birth of the redesigned Mustang, which will likely ditch the ancient live rear axle in favor of the superior independent rear suspension. And this could mean we rewrite the rulebook yet again. Then again, as we found out today, the rulebook doesn't mean much anyway.
Alex Lloyd is a race car driver hailing from Manchester, England. He moved to America in 2006, winning the Indy Lights championship the following year. Alex has raced in two Daytona 24-hour races, earning a best finish of fifth overall, and has competed in four Indianapolis 500s. In 2010, he placed fourth in that race and won the IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Championship. Follow him on Twitter @Alex_Lloyd.