2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 vs. 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 - On Road

A. J. Mueller

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 GT500

We'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.

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justin bouche
 well to summarize, the ZL1 is the handling focused "modern" age muscle car. while the GT500 is old school straight line muscle car. 
the GT500 lacks
brakes, sophisticated suspension, proper dampening, refinement, and daily drivability. 
the Zl1 lacks
visibility (you have to be a confident driver), straight line performance (compared to its competitors), and weight (its hella heavy).
randy pobst did manage over 1 second lap time faster with the GT500 while chris harris managed a 2 second faster time with the Zl1 over a GT500. 
so the GT500 can be faster (for one lap) in the hands of a professional driver. but to 99% of us (and chris harris) the Zl1 will be faster (by a lot).
so it comes down to better handling or better straight line.
and honestly you can have much more fun throwing a car into a corner on your favorite back roads, scenic drive, or highway "dodging". then trying to use 662 HP in straight line. the sad part is that you can approach the limits of handling on public roads of the  GT500... which is scary in a very bad way. 

M3hunter
The biggest disadvantage in the GT500 it's his rear axle suspension, it urgently needs an IRS (probably on next model.) And why FORD installed a heavy clutch like the one's on a Commercial Truck, that you will hate it on a stop and go traffic. I agree that the Camaro ZL1 is the best day to day Muscle car with a great handling that will put a smile on your face. Probably the only place that you will enjoy the GT500 will be on the 1/4 mile track.
chrisjdw
shaker281, the LS-9 and LS-A are the same engine block but the LS-9 has the bigger blower, different intercooler, different cam and is fortified for the extra power. If the LS-A fits under the Camaro hood I'm guessing that the LS-9 would probably fit. I'm guessing Chevy would have to do some tinkering to make it fit and maybe some strengthening to the drivetrain but I'm thinking they could do it. It still wouldn't have the same power to weight as the GT500 but it would be pretty close.Either way, both the GT500 and ZL1 are incredible bargains for the performance. It comes down to preference. As I said in another comment, I'm not sure which I'd get if I was putting down the money. In the twisties the ZL1 would be more fun, in town the GT500 would be more fun.
EMMDEE
Another thing to remember is the engineering that goes on behind the scenes. The Camaro is pieced together from a Holden V8. Cadillac CTS-V suspension and brakes, Corvette engines and the interior of a Chevy Uplander. This allows it to be cheap as the development costs are reduced, they are using mass produced parts. That also means they are limited to what is in their parts bin. What Ford has done is BUILT a muscle car, new engine, brakes, tweaking an old suspension to the point it can keep up with an IRS system, albeit with bit more elbow grease. All this without taking a dime of our bailout money. And not only keeping it in line with the pricing of the GM product but bettering it in true day to day performance. Oh yes..and 20% better fuel economy. Both are good cars, but when it comes to my money. Ford has my vote for the previously posted and above reasons.
shaker281
Anyone who thinks the LS-9 and LS-A are "the same basic engine" must think Peewee Herman and The Rock are the same basic guy, after all they share 99% of the same DNA. If the 1969 COPO Camaro was the king of all competition due to it's massive power advantage, what does that say about the 2013 GT500? And to Rocky, SYNC had some software glitches when they introduced MYTOUCH, that has since been resolved. It is still light years ahead of GM's current system. The Camaro's MRC helps it stay a tick ahead of the GT500 on a short one lap road course. But, muscle cars are about raw power and the Ford is still King Of The Road in this category. Anyone who ever drove muscle cars in the sixties and seventies knows that their raw edgieness is part of their appeal!
EMMDEE
I even read the car and driver article, they call the ZL1 a sports car. This is where I think these people have it incredibly wrong. The GT500 is not a sports car. The Camaro was not a sports car. These are supposed to be muscle cars. If I wanted to spend $55K on a sports car, I would buy a 2010 Nissan GTR and blow both of these cars out of the water. On the track, in almost every category the GTR would own these cars. This is where I differ to you this mag and C&D. I bought a muscle car in the GT500. The Camaro, if its categorized as a "sports car" should be pitched against the M3, RS5, C63, GTR..etc... Then we would see a true comparison. But as Muscle cars, traffic light performance (so to speak), ferocious power, loud, in-your-face presence is what a muscle car is. The GT500 rules. The words quiet on the highway, soft over bumps, automatic...do not belong in the category.
EMMDEE
Rocky1974: It has Ipod connectivity reminiscent of what BMW used in 2008, the Sync system is by far the most advanced North American ICE system available. Navigation must be something very recent as my friend purchased the SS 6 months ago and it wasn't even on the options list.2005 Mustang had the MYCOLOUR ambient lighting system. Even the seats in the SS are the same as the ZL1. The SS seats are at best rental car quality, whereas the Recaros or even the base french stitched leather have better support and prescence than the Camaro. GM's interiors have always been a very weak point in their cars. The Camaro is no different.
Rocky1974
EMMDEE-You are the one that didn't do your research. The audio system in the Camaro is perfectly capable of selecting songs from an I-POD. I don't have any experience with Ford's SYNC/MY-FORD-TOUCH systems, but I know that they have been so troublesome that they've knocked Ford to near the bottom in quality rankings for two years in a row. No need for a TOM-TOM in the Camaro. Navigation is available now. And I believe that the Camaro was the one that introduced ambient lighting to this segment
Rocky1974
redbloodedxy-More slanted writing from non-professionals. If you don't like this one, you're going to hate the Edmonds comparison test. These guys were relatively nice to the GT500 compared to those guys at Edmonds. Anybody that buys either one of these cars is not worried about gas milage. That cartoonish styling you're talking about is exactly the reason the Camaro has been kicking the Mustang's butt in sales for the last threes years. You obviously didn't read the article anyway, because you ragged on the Camaro for being an automatic. It was a stick. In the first installment, the fact that they kept missing third gear, in the Camaro, was the only thing that kept the GT500 close. If had of been an automatic, it would have embarrassed the GT500 even worse.
chrisjdw
I just love how when a car loses a competition it's a big conspiracy, at least to the people that like that car... Yes every magazine has let every single competition be decided by bribes. O ya, except when you like the results...We've also never been to the moon, the CIA killed JFK and aliens are walking among us right now. My neighbor's one of them!Also none of the professional drives used by these magazines can drive worth crap. Everyone on the forums can out drive them... SVTTIM is going to take the GT500 and beat an Indy driver in a ZL1 even though the Indy drive was 3/4 second a lap quicker in the ZL1. Sure he's a pro drive but SVTTIM will show him!Styling is subject, some say the Camaro is cartoonish, some say the GT500 is. Difference of opinion. This article actually said the ergonomics (peddles to steering wheel) were better in the ZLI. They must be wrong..And I also prefer manuals, but real race cars use actually use automatics. Indy, F1, Le Mans, Rally Cars, etc...
redbloodedxy
More slanted writing from professionals! Automobile: How much is Gov't. Motors paying you? The article never mentions the Camaro's horrible gas mileage, cartoonish styling, bad ergonomics, or that cheesy plastic piece of crap covering the motor in Freudian fashion. Instead, you guys write about the Mustang's brute force off the line as if it were some kind of problem. Really ?? The GT500 is a marvel of engineering at a bargain price -- a terrific package! Real race cars have manual transmissions! Anybody can drive the girl-a-matic Camaro and look good -- big deal.
chrisjdw
I'd love to mash these cars into one perfect car... I prefer the Camaro's exterior but the Mustangs interior. I've always thought Mustangs sound better from factory than Camaros.The Mustang walks away from the Camaro on a straight but loses in the corners.. If you could match their strengths into one car you'd have an amazing machine!One simple fix for the Camaro is Chevy just needs to swap the LSA with the LS-9 and they'd be a lot closer on the straight! Considering they're the same basic engine that shouldn't be to hard!
EMMDEE
Oh yes...I would like to add, that noise. A muscle car is about the noise. The ZL1's exhaust is good but the Mustang is Legendary!The ZL1 sounds more european, where they are excellent but no sense of drama. A muscle car is all about drama and making your knees weak.The GT500 delivers that in spades.
EMMDEE
I must say that the technical and mechanical review of these vehicles are excellent. However, I have just bought a GT500 and the reason I didn't go with the ZL1, is primarily, the ZL1's interior really is dank, dark and bland. I thougth I was sitting in an AZTEK for a bit. The GT500 interior feels rich, exciting and more comfortable, especially with the Recaro seats. Plus, I don't need to carry around a TOMTOM or have issues selecting songs from my IPOD. The SYNC system is fantastic. Finally, the little touches, such as the ambient lights and the door mirror reflectors, make it a very special experience. Therefore this test is not as well rounded as I would have hoped for. Going around a race track once a year and possibly being challenged or being the king at the lights are one thing, but when you have a car that is great inside and out for a somewhat reasonable price. You have got something special. Sorry Automobile magazine, you have not done such an all encompassing job as you may think.
redvette77
Credit to Chevrolet and their magnetic ride suspension. Others who have compared the two have agreed that it drives much better. Looks are objective, and I feel that the ZL1 looks far more aggressive than the sad-looking GT500. But, to each their own. Ford has done a fantastic job with the new GT500 as well. Both are amazing cars and we should be thankful that these types of cars can still be built.

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