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500 Miles in the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible and Coupe

Road tripping to the Daytona 500 in the 650-hp pony car

CONCORD, North Carolina - Contrived? Maybe just a little. But Chevrolet's idea to give us a 2017 Camaro ZL1 to drive to Daytona Beach, Florida, made sense once the company added up the numbers: 650 for 500 to the 500.

As in 650 horsepower from the supercharged LT4 6.2-liter V-8. As in 500 miles from Concord, which is just north of Charlotte, to Daytona Beach. And 500 again, as in the Daytona 500, where two Chevrolets would start on the front row, both from Hendrick Motorsports - more about that in a moment - which would follow the Camaro ZL1 pace car to the green flag, driven by the semi-retired Jeff Gordon, who won four NASCAR championships for Hendrick and Chevrolet. Tidy!

It would be nice for Chevrolet if we could report the brand won the Daytona 500, but of course it didn't. Polesitter Chase Elliott ran out of gas, allowing Stewart-Haas driver Kurt Busch to get past for his first win in the first race after the four-car Stewart-Haas team switched from Chevrolet to Ford.

Unfortunately for Ford, though, as nice as the 526-horsepower 2017 Mustang Shelby GT350 is, Chevrolet's ZL1 has the clear, latest advantage in the 50-year Pony Car wars. Yes, Dodge has the delightful 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat, but the chassis and aerodynamics are a few years behind the hottest Camaro and Mustang.

The main appeal of this trip - aside from the obvious driving-a-hotrod-to-a-NASCAR-race - was to see how well the ZL1 handled a 500-mile drive in a day. Which brings us back to the first stop last Wednesday night: Hendrick Motorsports, home of current NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Elliott, and seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Not surprisingly, Hendrick Motorsports was a ghost town, with most of the key players in Daytona. A handful of employees in the shop that houses the cars for Johnson and Earnhardt banged on bodies and measured shells with templates, likely working on cars for soon-to-come races in Atlanta and Las Vegas.

But that didn't matter, as we came to see the massive Hendrick Heritage Center, which is not open to the public, no pictures allowed - though if you buy a car from the Heritage Center, you get a tour. Vehicles available for purchase range from a 1990 Chevrolet Suburban ($39,990) to Gordon's 2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a four-time Martinsville NASCAR winner, for $400,000.

The Heritage Center - and this is not to be confused with Hendrick's 15,000-square-foot museum, which is open to the public-is absolutely packed with an eclectic collection of stuff that either has a personal meaning to Rick Hendrick, or that he just likes. There's a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am "Smokey and the Bandit" car that Mrs. Hendrick bought for Rick, which has just double-digit miles, and there's a beautiful 1961 Corvette, Hendrick's first of a multitude of Corvettes. Of just more than 200 vehicles here, half are Corvettes. And the most amazing part of the Heritage Center collection is the number of specific Corvettes which are Hendrick's favorite: 1967, 427-powered Stingrays. Thirty-seven of them. And every vehicle in the collection is ready to run at the turn of a key.

If you have ever driven a Corvette powered by a 427-cubic-inch engine - and we're talking any 427, not just the holy-grail LS7, 435-horsepower Tri-Power version - you know the car was a rocket on the highway but ponderous around town, threatening to overheat or foul a plug or par-boil its two occupants in warm weather. It shook, it rattled, it roared, and it often took little more than a Sunday drive to cause the Corvette-loving husband to trade in his big-block prize on something more docile, or face divorce. Apologies if this sounds sexist, but men who expected a hundred-pound wife to embrace a four-speed, 427 Corvette as her daily driver better have married Shirley Muldowney.

Which brings us to the 650-horsepower Camaro ZL1: It's a car that, if you have two very short friends that can fit on the package shelf that passes for a rear seat, is absolutely delighted to carpool around Manhattan. Especially with the new 10-speed automatic transmission, which, we'll go ahead and tell you now, is the single most impressive feature of the 2017 ZL1. It replaces the eight-speed automatic we had in the 640-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V a few weeks ago, the only feature we came back complaining about after a 700-mile weekend in the Caddy. It tended to shudder slightly as it hit eighth gear, and the engine dropped back to four cylinders to save gas. No such problem in the ZL1, but not much in the way of gas savings, either: Our mileage ran pretty close to the grim EPA ratings of 12 mpg city, 20 highway for the automatic, and 14 city and 20 highway for the six-speed manual.

Buy the automatic, and you'll pay $1,595 more than the manual, and $2,100 in the federal "gas guzzler" tax ($1,300 for the six-speed). This brought the sticker of our loaded ZL1 convertible with the automatic to $72,325. The six-speed coupe we drove, which had a base price of $62,135, was about $5,000 more than that out the door.

And speaking of out the door, we were Thursday morning, after a briefing on the car. AUTOMOBILE magazine has already given you the details in a couple of stories; this time our job was to tell you how it all worked on an actual trip.

The first half of the 500 miles, we spent in the aforementioned six-speed coupe, which was optioned heavily, including the $495 MyLink audio system with navigation, and an 8-inch touchscreen. It's nice to see the prices of nav systems dropping in view of the fact that we all have smartphones, or lacking that, a perfectly satisfactory $89 TomTom from Walmart.

The six-speed manual is well-matched to the engine's prodigious power. The shifter itself is stiff, but the car was brand-new, and after a few thousand miles it'll be fine. Clutch action is firm but doesn't require a lot of pressure, though take-up is a little abrupt.

Especially, as I learned, if you don't know how to drive a manual, as my car-mate did not, or at least hadn't driven one in years. Clutch take-up is really abrupt then, until you get the hang of modulation. Or don't. Either way, we made it to the checkpoint unscathed, where we swapped the coupe for a convertible, also gray, as the Ferrari red and yellow models tend to be Highway Patrol magnets.

The convertible top drops and raises quickly, and works at speeds up to 30 mph. Wind buffeting is present but tolerable even at 80 mph and beyond. Inside, the Recaro seats, standard, are superb - thin and light as you would expect in a performance car "looking after" its weight (4,148 pounds with the automatic in convertible form, 200 pounds lighter than its predecessor), but comfortable and supportive even after a long day in the cockpit. Instruments and controls are reasonably intuitive, but having just come out of a 2017 Lexus GS F, they seemed more complex than necessary.

Coupe or convertible, outward visibility remains an issue with the Camaro, though admittedly lowering the top adds to your sightline. The new Camaro is better-looking than the previous version, especially the wide-bodied model used here to squeeze the massive, very capable Goodyear F1 Supercar tires under their respective fenders, but it's still quite high-waisted. Even at a height of six feet, resting my arm in the open window is less comfortable than I wish it was, because given the ZL1's exhaust note, I'd drive it with windows down a lot.

As mentioned, as we cruised down Interstate 95 past the Florida state line toward Daytona Beach, that 10-speed automatic, which we feared would be annoyingly busy, was anything but. It is a transparent transmission, seemingly in the right gear no matter the circumstance. It's a winner.

And so is the magnetic-ride suspension, which continues to prove its worth in most every application: stiff when you want it to be, and pretty compliant when you don't, it's a genuinely all-purpose system that, matched to the big Brembo brakes, works equally well on the track and on the street. Even in the stiffest setting, the ride was tolerable on the Interstate. Nicely done.

So we made it to Daytona Beach in the Camaro ZL1, if not quite to Daytona International Speedway, where - since the Daytona 500 is a restrictor-plate race - we would have arrived with more horsepower than any car NASCAR had at the track this weekend, and for that matter, at least as much horsepower as any entry in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports-car endurance race a few weeks ago. It's a right of passage for any high-horse street car to drive through the long turn-one tunnel under the track and, um, demonstrate what the car sounds like under heavy acceleration. Didn't get that chance. Maybe next time.

And speaking of next time: Saturday afternoon, Chevrolet surprised all of us on the trip when it unveiled the 2018 Camaro ZL1 with the 1LE package. In short, if you just ordered a 2017 ZL1, you have already been trumped.

The 1LE is street-legal, with air conditioning and all that, but it's an absolutely dedicated track rat with a suspension developed by Multimatic (the company that builds the new Ford GT), and many of the mounting points on the ZL1 that are cushioned by a nice rubber bushing are virtually metal-to-metal on the ZL1 1LE. This means supreme stiffness on the track (good!) and supreme stiffness on your daily drive (maybe not so good! See reference to 427 Corvette above).

The engine still has 650 horsepower, but extra speed is found with other devices: The suspension, front and rear, is adjustable. There's a huge, but non-adjustable carbon-fiber wing out back that makes about 300 pounds of downforce, double the ZL1's smaller spoiler. The nose is redesigned for aero and cooling. The ZL1 1LE is about 60 pounds lighter due to an even less-accommodating rear seat and thinner rear glass, plus the wheels are lighter, as is the suspension. The six-speed manual is the only transmission offered. This car will not impact the new Camaro GT4 race car, just introduced for competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Pirelli World Challenge-that car was developed with this 1LE in mind.

Chevy wouldn't say how quick the ZL1 1LE is, but allowed that it is three seconds quicker around the GM test track at the Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan. It seems likely that with the extra downforce it won't be able to match the current ZL1's 200 mph top speed, but it will get around a closed course quicker.

Former NASCAR champion Gordon, who drove the ZL1 pace car for the Daytona 500, was present at the ZL1 1LE's unveiling, and revealed that he "loves it," and plans to buy one, likely from Jeff Gordon Chevrolet, Wilmington, North Carolina, hours 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

So the Daytona 500 ended with a Ford in front, followed by a Ford, and a Chevrolet (A.J. Allmendinger, of all people), another Ford, and a Chevrolet in fifth (Paul Menard), rounding out a top-five that, if you bet those five drivers in that order in Las Vegas, you made a lot of money.

Even so, Chevrolet made a lot of noise in Daytona. And would have made more had they allowed us to hang onto a Camaro ZL1 for the whole race weekend.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible Specifications

PRICE $70,235/$72,325 (base/as tested) (includes gas-guzzler tax)
ENGINE 6.2L supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8/650 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 650 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 12/20 (city/hwy) (automatic)
L x W x H 188.3 x 74.7 x 52.4 in
WHEELBASE 110.7 in
WEIGHT 4,118 lb (automatic)
0-60 MPH 3.5 sec (automatic)
TOP SPEED 198 mph (automatic)