It's a bold man who wades into the impassioned war between Camaro and Mustang fans, but I'm feeling brave enough to take a stand. The 2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 convertible is much more fun than the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 convertible I drove two weeks earlier. The difference is clear: the drop-top GT500 feels wild and untamed, whereas the ZL1 is a complete and well-sorted package.
The difference is immediate as soon as you turn the Camaro's key. The big V-8 and supercharger take a few seconds to crank, but as soon as the engine has settled into a loping idle and you're ready to drive, the ZL1 proves more tractable and user-friendly than the over-engineered Shelby GT500. The ZL1 clutch and transmission are as easy to finesse than those in any other Camaro, and the ride is relatively gentle unless you put the adaptive dampers in Sport mode. The biggest difference comes with regard to structural rigidity: while the stiffly sprung Ford's body flops and wanders over broken roads, the ZL1 convertible barely shakes any more than a coupe.
When you do have the opportunity to open the taps and hear the supercharger whine, the Camaro feels much more exhilarating than the Mustang. There's a huge surge of torque, a furious bellow from the exhaust, and acceleration that pins you in your seat. The Shelby GT500 is just as quick, of course, but it feels so wild and unruly that you're terrified of being flung into the nearest solid object. The Camaro ZL1 convertible, by contrast, is surprisingly composed when you drive quickly.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
Few cars are as awesomely burly as the Camaro ZL1, but I'm having a hard time falling in love with it. I felt more or less the same way about the raucous Shelby GT500. I'd just as soon enjoy the normal aspiration, lighter weight, and (slightly) slower speeds of something like the Mustang Boss 302 or, as my colleagues have reported, the Camaro SS with the 1LE package.
Like the standard Camaro, the ZL1 convertible just feels too big and heavy from behind the wheel to really give one the impression that it's a sports car. Not that it's supposed to be a sports car per se, but even a 580-hp track-focused muscle car should feel more nimble on public roads.
Looking at the 305-section-width rear tires, one might imagine that wheelspin would be impossible. Quite the contrary, this monster loves to spin the back tires, even going into third gear, and the speedometer lunges toward triple digits like few cars' can. Unfortunately, much of that time you possibly saved by driving like Dario Franchitti is lost while you wait for the slow-moving convertible top to complete its cycle. It takes about twenty seconds, but it seems like a lot longer.
The ZL1's "no-lift shift" function is pretty awesome, as flat-footed shifts yield some crazy supercharger shrieks and huge leaps in vehicle speed. If you're loafing around, there's surprising pep available if you floor it in sixth gear at 55 mph, which is less than 2000 rpm.
Two final notes: I love the Alcantara steering wheel and shift lever. I hate how it's so easy to hit "seek" if you reach for the volume knob instead of using the steering-wheel thumb control.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Personally, I'm of the belief that performance cars should have a rigid metal roof -- the better to keep your head on your shoulders when you're driving like you don't have a head on your shoulders. Apparently Chevrolet agrees, because the ZL1 coupe's racy Performance Traction Management system is nowhere to be found in the droptop. In place of PTM's five settings (plus full on and full off stability control modes), the convertible makes do with full on, traction control off, competitive driving mode, and full off. Chevrolet is correct when it assumes that ZL1 convertible owners aren't likely to bomb around the track with reckless abandon and hence have limited need for the looser safety net of PTM. But Performance Traction Management is one of the cooler features on the ZL1 and something that sets it apart from its Blue Oval-badged rival.
I'm being petty, though. Whether the roof is made of steel or polyester doesn't change the fact that the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is a fabulous sports car that delivers both big performance and big fun. If you simply think of the ZL1 as a Mustang competitor, you're missing the point. This particular Camaro is as entertaining as a Porsche 911 and a BMW M3. The Chevrolet isn't quite as balanced or refined as those luxury cars, but it's a bit like trading Monday Night Football for a WWE bout. Either one is a good time.
The ZL1 adds some sweet hardware to the Camaro baseline: a 580-hp, supercharged V-8, magnetic dampers, and 12-inch-wide rear tires. But I'm also a big fan of the new hardware that graces all 2013 Camaros. The frameless rearview mirror with beveled glass and touch-sensitive OnStar controls is easily the sexiest rearview mirror I've ever glanced into. I wish the hard buttons on either side of the radio head unit were actual buttons rather than touch-sensitive labels, but it's still a more functional and more attractive solution than the old radio. With both across-the-line updates and special models like the ZL1 and 1LE, Camaro engineers have issued a convincing mea culpa for the disappointing car that launched in 2010. If they can maintain their momentum and spread significant improvements to the lower trims, the Camaro could soon surpass the Mustang as my favorite muscle car.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor