Driving the Camaro ZL1 - Faster Pussycat
We cruise around then beat on the new ZL1 at the dragstrip
From the September, 2012 issue of Camaro Performers
By Steven Rupp
Photography by General Motors
This is what we were given...
This is what we were given the keys to, and it’s just they way we would order one: Inferno Orange, manual trans, and the only options being the suede steering wheel and carbon-fiber hood insert. The only bummer was that we couldn’t keep it.
Working for a car rag has its perks, and one of them is getting to drive the “latest and greatest” out of the Motor City. This time it was a call from the gearheads at GM Powertrain and an invite to pilot the new Camaro ZL1. We tried to wheel one around the epic piece of asphalt known as Virginia International Raceway (VIR), but that was a bust due to torrential rain. All the trip did was whet (literally) our appetite to get some actual ZL1 seat time.
Back in March, when our track day was rained out, the ZL1 wasn’t even signed off for sales, which meant we couldn’t drive it on the streets, so this chance to experience the car in a real-world environment wasn’t about to get passed up. As a big tasty bonus, the guys at GM booked us some track time at Lucas Oil Raceway (home of the NHRA U.S. Nationals), for some quality 1,320 time. Now, given the handling prowess of the ZL1, some may not consider it a drag car, but the guys at GM went out of their way to make sure the new super Camaro is up to whatever sort of performance driving the owner may get a hankering for. According to Monte Doran of GM Communications, “The ZL1 team had both drag racers and road racers on the development team and they all fought to make the car good at their respective sports. As a result, it’s good at both, and equally adept at a track like Lucas Oil Raceway and Virginia International Raceway. To make sure the ZL1 was drag capable, they subjected the car to 1,000 ‘Woodward tests’, which is a hard launch, and full acceleration up to 100 mph. We did this 1,000 times and never had an issue with the rearend.” The official quarter-mile time from GM is 12.0, but we’ve heard they’ve clicked off a few high 11s, and some aftermarket tuners have taken them into the low 11-second range with a tune and some sticky tires. Not too shabby for a ride developed to rule a much more curvaceous type of course.
The only drama with driving...
The only drama with driving the ZL1 around town was making sure that people trying to get a better look didn’t bump into us. The trip was mellow and comfortable, except when we wanted to induce a little more fun by throttling through a corner. Even then, the computer kept things under control. The HUD is a very nice addition and had several modes with this one being our favorite for cruising around town. For track work, there’s a mode with a G-meter and even shift lights.
For the drive, GM had the challenge of giving us the right sort of road in order for us to really appreciate the ZL1. Not an easy task in Indiana. What we got was a nice mix of city; highway; and narrow, twisty road driving. I was tossed the keys to an Inferno Orange M6 ZL1 and given a pre-planned route map. The only admonishment was that I had to pay my own tickets. Fair enough. What I found was that the ZL1 is pretty civilized for a blown, 580hp car designed to hang with exotic fare around world-class road courses. In fact, the term that I kept hearing bantered about was how the ZL1 was such a “pussycat” on the highway. Well, at least until the throttle was mashed. The adaptive mufflers gave just the right amount of engine growl at just the right moment and had zero drone when cruising down the highway. The epic understeer we had experienced with our stock ’10 SS seemed to be only a frustrating memory, as the ZL1 felt very balanced and far more neutral. The newfound agility, along with the extra power from the LSA engine, helped make the ZL1 seem much lighter than a 4,000-pound car should be expected to feel. As Al Oppenheiser, Camaro Chief Engineer, told us, “We set out to make the Camaro ZL1 a performance car that is great at everything, including road racing, drag racing, and daily commuting. I cannot think of many cars that are capable of running 11-second quarter-mile runs, can set a seven-minute lap at the Nurburgring, and still be comfortable enough to drive to work every day.”
On the dragstrip, we were presented with a mix of manual- and automatic-equipped cars. Now, launching a manual-equipped car can be a bit of a challenge, but thanks to the Launch Control, it was a snap. The only Launch Control for the automatic was the gray matter between our ears, but once launched, the shifts were quick, firm, and well-timed. Of course, with 30 guys sharing only four ZL1s, the big problem was hot-lap induced heat soak. This was made even worse by the 94-degree temps and high humidity. Still, it was a great way to get a feel for how the ZL1 performed. Besides, complaining about the weather when given the chance to beat on a $55,000 car would be like bitching about a slightly overcooked steak on your dinner date with Kate Upton.
OK, let’s just put it out...
OK, let’s just put it out there. At nearly 4,000 pounds the ZL1 is a fat pig. But the combination of more power from the blown LS engine and input from the Performance Traction Management (PTM) system, which controls everything from the electric power steering to the magnetic shocks, helped the Camaro feel much more nimble and smaller than what we’ve experienced driving an SS.
In regards to styling, the...
In regards to styling, the ZL1 simply fires on all eight cylinders. The stance, the wheels, and the aero package all gel to give the ZL1 more attitude than the SS could ever hope to have. Unlike many competitors’ offerings, the vents, splitters, and ducts on the ZL1, are actually functional and not just stuck on so the driver can pretend he’s piloting a track-ready ride.
To give us some pointers and...
To give us some pointers and show us how much we really suck at drag racing when compared to the pros, GM invited legendary driver, and two-time world champion, Frank Hawley to the party. Frank also has a drag racing school where some of the top names in drag racing have learned a thing or two. In the morning before it got too hot, Frank took one of the automatic-equipped ZL1s and knocked down a solid 12.1 at 116 mph run.
The manual and automatic ZL1s...
The manual and automatic ZL1s are completely different animals. The manual cars get Launch Control (LC). In this mode the clutch is fully depressed, and with the trans in First gear, the gas pedal is put to the carpet. The driver simply has to step off the clutch and hold on. Your brain screams that this is bad idea, but fear not, the computer won’t let the engine scatter. LC works in two ways: first, it predicts the right rpm for the situation (based on things like ambient temp and whether you’re in a “street” or “track” setting in the PTM). It then adjusts the amount of torque to get the car moving with the right amount of slip. As Monte Doran (GM Communications) told us, “they actually found the best times were accomplished with less slip, while on the street they want a little more slip from the tires.” Traction Control works in modes 1-4, but mode 5 is tuned for launching on a VHT-prepped track.
We asked the guys at GM if...
We asked the guys at GM if running slicks would screw up the launch control settings. According to Monte, “Slicks won’t affect the wheel-slip management, but they could make the launch rpm too aggressive for the available traction. To be clear, we don’t think serious drag racers are going to use launch control. Launch control is for someone who just got the car and is going for their first drag passes or wants to be consistent every run. Once you get to know the car and the track, a good driver can beat launch control.”
It’s amazing how fast the...
It’s amazing how fast the current crop of factory cars are these days. Recently, the GM engineers clocked off an official 11.93-second at 116-mph run in a bone-stock automatic ZL1. So, with some drag radials, or slicks, drivers might find themselves going too quick for most NHRA-sanctioned tracks where a rollbar is required for cars going 11.49 or quicker. I’m hoping for a factory rollbar option someday.
In the manual-trans car, we...
In the manual-trans car, we staged up and engaged the traction control, which took some getting used to. Let’s just say the word “awesome” comes to mind when describing the system, and using it made flipping the ZL1 off the line a breeze. We also noticed that the 60-foot times were very consistent between the runs. Of course, we still had to row the gears down the track, and that was made a bit more complicated since we had to go to Fourth gear right before the traps or the fuel cut-off rpm would be hit. We’re thinking that bumping up that threshold just a touch would have let us stay in Third through the lights. The trans was much easier to shift compared to our stock SS and the shift-light equipped HUD made grabbin’ the gears a bit easier. Our best time was 12.976 at 109.97 on a 2.177 60-foot.
Launching the automatic ZL1...
Launching the automatic ZL1 is done the old-fashioned way: through throttle manipulation. As Monte relayed, “The PTM mode doesn’t matter because it doesn’t have launch control. But, the trans should be in ‘M,’ which engages the Sport Shift pattern, including First-gear starts (with traction control turned all the way off). If you just leave it in ‘D’, the drive mode includes a Second-gear start for fuel economy. Good for the road, bad for e.t.’s.” Even though the trans is in “M,” the car will automatically shift its way down the quarter-mile unless you accidentally hit one of the flappy paddles on the steering wheel (bad idea).
Even with VHT, it was pretty...
Even with VHT, it was pretty easy to over throttle on launch with the automatic and blow the tires into wafting clouds of smoke. But, after some practice, gently rolling into the throttle we got the hang of it, sort of. With a best 60-foot of 2.322 seconds we managed a 13.082 at 112.66 mph. Blame the heat, the back-to-back-to-back runs, or an overzealous right foot. Personally, we can't wait to head back to the track on a nice cool day and once again try out the baddest Camaro ever fielded by the General.