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2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 vs 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 - At The Strip

A.J. MuellerphotographerChris Nelsonwriter

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part comparison test between the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. Yesterday, the Camaro upset the GT500 around Gingerman Raceway. Tomorrow, we will explore on-road behavior and render our final verdict.

Ford and Chevy have always strained to outdo each other when it comes to developing pony cars, and their devoted enthusiasts have long built up that tension by trying to settle which car company is king at the drag strip. This mix of dedication and animosity led Ford to birth a 662-hp Shelby GT500 and prompted Chevy to resurrect the ZL1 moniker for their most powerful production Camaro ever, and we spent a day at Milan Dragway in Michigan running them against each other. And, yes, one was quicker than the other.

Before revealing which car went the length in less time, let's set three things straight. One, drag racing isn't all about quarter-mile times. It's as much about car control as it is your time slip. Going faster isn't worth much if a car can't do it safely. Two, "your results may vary," due to track conditions or temperature, or your driving skill that enhances or dulls them. Three, manufacturer loyalties be damned: you're looking at a five-figure, 200-mph Mustang and its Mega Camaro nemesis. Love only one if you must, but respect them both. With that said, let's see what these cars can do once they're staged, starting with the Camaro.

The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 coupe

The original 1969 Camaro ZL1 would run low-13s on stock rubber when other pony cars of the same generation wouldn't get close to that even on a pair of slicks. More than four decades later, the new ZL1 has a lot to live up to. The fact that this is the most potent production Camaro ever, powered by a 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 with 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque, is a good start, but you need more than grunt to move a car down the strip. Not relying solely on displacement, Chevy enhanced its Camaro with go-fast electronics including a launch control system.

Chevy created five modes that enhance launch control, the highest mode tuned specifically for the VHT-prepped surfaces at the strip. Hit the ZL1's stability control button twice and toggle through the gauge cluster menu to traction management "mode five," which shuts off stability control, and sets traction control to "race," and the magnetorheological dampers to "track." Then all you have to do is stage, put the clutch and accelerator pedals to the floor, and slot the gear lever into first. The system modulates launch rpm to maximize available traction. When the green light comes on, lift your left foot and the ZL1 goes from predicting perfect launch rpm to managing how much assistance is needed to stop the rear 305-section tires from smoking and start moving the Camaro out of the hole. Launch control isn't available on cars equipped with the automatic transmission, but that's OK because we think the manual is a must in any ZL1.

The six-speed Tremec TR6060 feels meaty and well built, and there's never a moment's doubt that the trans can handle engine output. For the ZL1, Chevy designed the shifter in-house, and it feels just as good on the strip as the available Hurst short-throw unit in the SS does, but much more fluid in street driving. The best feature of this gearbox, however, is no-lift shift, which means you can keep the accelerator pinned down while changing ratios. The key to perfecting the no-lift shift, according to Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser, is short-shifting. Not way before redline but just enough that the 1.9-liter supercharger has time to produce boost between gears.

Taking the ZL1 the length isn't very dramatic. The exhaust isn't earsplitting, and the front tires stay true and straight. The car's head-up display is unneeded, because there's plenty of time to glance down at the standard tachometer between shifts. The car is extremely predictable, easy to control, and it doesn't try to put you into the outside wall every time you lift off the throttle. It's not a frightening experience at all, which isn't what you'd expect from something packing 580 hp. We loved hot-lapping the Chevy. After each pass, we'd roll the windows down and crank the air conditioning, forcing the car's electric fan to come on, helping lower temperatures in both the engine and the supercharger's intercooler. Then we would drive through the staging lanes, back to the tree, roll up the windows, and turn off the air conditioning, ready for another run. The car never hiccupped or showed any signs of fatigue, which made us do even more consecutive passes. We weren't once let down by the ZL1's performance.

The car is both a lion and a pussycat. It's extremely powerful and very satisfying to drive in a straight line. That said there's not a lot of theater in doing so. There are no heroic saves or mid-strip slides. For that stunning spectacle, we turn to the car we ran against the Chevy.

The 2013 Ford Shelby GT5000

Sorry, Ford, but your precious 200 mph boast couldn't matter less when the GT500 has only 1320 feet to make a statement. Which is not to say that it can't.

The scene begins in the water box. Turn off stability and traction control, and roll the car over recently hosed-down pavement until the rear tires are sitting in a shallow puddle of water. Right foot revving the engine, left foot comes off the clutch and touches the brakes. The rear tires break loose, spin and smoke, but the GT500 sits still, like a dragster with a front-brake line lock. There's only billowing white smoke and a perfectly poised, immobile car.

The scene continues, rear tires roasted, when the car creeps forward so quietly you'd think you were driving a hybrid. Pre-staged, it's time to enable the Shelby's launch control system, which is extremely simple. Turn stability and traction control back on, then press the little button to the left of the steering wheel marked "LC", and presto. Then just choose launch rpm and crawl forward to stage. Both feet are flat to the floor until you're ready to take off.

Up to this point, the GT500 has been as easy and as uneventful to drive as its tame competitor. The mise en scene is quite similar, but something feels much different. The green light pops on, the GT500 has a sudden mood change and is no longer as sane as it first seemed, and the scene completely morphs.

The 662-hp, 5.8-liter V-8 with a 2.3-liter supercharger on top screams and whines like a demonic toddler having a meltdown. The rear end starts to kick out, quelled by slight steering adjustments to keep the car's nose pointed dead ahead. The needle on the tach climbs as the car claws against the strip and begins its charge towards the finish line. And just when you've stopped worrying about getting the 3852-lb behemoth under control, you start worrying about shifting to second.

Unlike the ZL1, the GT500 can be had only with a six-speed manual transmission. It's a Tremec TR6060 as well, but the transmission in the Ford couldn't feel more different from the Chevy's. Shift action is shorter and tighter, and the gates are so close they feel like they're sitting on top of each other. Then there are the gear ratios. You can run an all-out quarter-mile in the GT500 using only three gears, but it takes four in the ZL1. The less shifting you have to do in the Ford, the better. The clutch pedal is very heavy, has a lot of travel, and is difficult to push all the way to the firewall. And if you tried the ZL1's "no-lift shift" technique in the Ford, you'd rip the body-mounted linkage right out of the transmission tunnel.

Quickly and successfully choose second gear with an old-fashioned yank, though, and the GT500 rewards you with terrifying straight-line speed. It's so fast that you start thinking the six-piston front brake calipers won't slow the car enough for it to exit the strip. Then comes third gear, which feels like it's in the same position as first, and you stay in it for the rest of the run. You cross the finish line -- in less time than it takes to tie your shoes -- and immediately get on the brakes. If you're brave, you can look down at the speedometer to see the needle start its descent from well over 100 mph.

The car slows down in plenty of time to avoid powersliding through the strip's exit, and it's a calm drive back to the staging lanes. And all the way back, you can't help but wonder how a driving experience so visceral and entertaining could come from this car, now as poised and sane as it was before the run. The scene ends. The Shelby has made its statement.

Hoods up, back in the pits

The ZL1 did its best pass in 12.38 seconds at 114.5 mph, while the GT500 turned the quarter-mile in 11.78 seconds at 125 mph. So there you have it, Ford beats Chevy. But like we said, drag racing is about more than time slips.

Chevrolet made a modern-in-every-way pony car, and Ford built something with the character of an old-school muscle car, overlaid with track-focused technology. The two have very distinct, individual ways of making it down the strip, but the common thread between the two is gratification. Every single pass in the GT500 and ZL1 was a ball, and was so involving that we couldn't care less about our time slips. Sure, we were happy to be turning times less than a second off those that require a full roll cage, but we cared more about soaking up every second we could with these two.

Everyone at Milan Dragway felt the attraction as well. Ford guys loved the look of the ZL1, the GT500's sub-12 second runs blew Chevy guys away, and everyone agreed that both cars are sensational. And since both cars have a base price of $54,995, there was much debate over which car was more of a steal. What surprised us was the ease with which Chevy and Ford guys admitted that. Warring factions of people finally fessing up to the fact that the other side can do something right -- that's pretty cool.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 coupe

MSRP (with destination): $54,995

6.2-liter OHV supercharged V-8
Horsepower: 580 @ 6100 rpm
Torque: 556 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm

6-speed manual


20-inch aluminum wheels
285/35YR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 front tires
305/35YR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 rear tires

FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway/combined):
14/19/16 mpg

4120 lb

Doors/Passengers: 2/4
Cargo: 11.3 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 42.4/29.9 in
Headroom (front/rear): 37.4/35.3 in
Towing: N/A

Victory Red/Black

HID headlights
Aluminum hood w/painted carbon-fiber hood insert
Magnetic ride control
Limited-slip differential
Dual-mode performance exhaust
Brembo disc brakes
Stability and traction control
OnStar w/six-month trial subscription
Rear parking assist
Rearview camera w/rearview mirror monitor
6-way power adjustable front seats
Heated front passenger seats
Folding rear seats w/pass-through
Auxiliary gauges w/boost read-out
Tilt-and-telescopic steering column
Head-up display
USB port
SiriusXM satellite radio w/one-year subscription
Rear spoiler
Fog lights

Suede microfiber package- $500
Exposed carbon-fiber weave hood insert- $600
Solid dark gray stripe- $470
20-inch bright aluminum wheels- $470
GGT- $1300

6-speed automatic transmission- $1185
Power sunroof- $900
Audio system subwoofer- $1065

MSRP (with destination): $54,995

5.8-liter DOHC supercharged V-8
Horsepower: 662 @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 631 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm

6-speed manual


19-inch aluminum front wheels
20-inch aluminum rear wheels
265/40YR-19 Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 front tires
285/35YR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar G:2 rear tires

FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway/combined):
15/24/18 mpg

3852 lb

Doors/Passengers: 2/4
Cargo: 13.4 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 42.4/29.8 in
Headroom (front/rear): 38.5/34.7 in
Towing: N/A

Grabber Blue/Black

3.31:1 final drive ratio
Aluminum hood w/air extractor
Automatic HID projector headlights
Quad rear-exit exhaust system
Shaker audio system
Sport bucket seats
Air conditioning
SiriusXM satellite radio w/trial subscription
Electrically assisted steering
Capless fuel filler
Brembo disc brakes
Carbon-fiber driveshaft
Stability and traction control
Launch control system
Manual four-way driver's seat

Performance package- $3495
Torsen differential
Painted forged-aluminum wheels
Bilstein adjustable dampers
Unique rear springs, instrument cluster, and shift knob
SVT Track package- $2995
Engine oil cooler
Differential and transmission coolers w/pumps
Leather Recaro seats- $1595

Glass roof- $1995
Electronics package- $2340
Heated front seats- $295