Driving the Chevy Camaro ZL1 quickly on a narrow road is like working with a circus bear in tight quarters. No matter how well-trained, it’s still a wild animal that could bite your head off at any moment.
The modern Camaro is a blunt beast, not much given to nuance or tidy manners, so the top-of-the-food-chain ZL1 should be all fangs and claws.
It has 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque coming out of the supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 engine, and will barrel past 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds. All that growl in a car which starts at only $54,095.
That power is foremost in my mind as I turn into a fast sweeping corner with a telephone pole standing at its apex. If I give it too much throttle and the back end slides out, it will be a certain and terrible bulls-eye.
But, no, the sports coupe arrows past, turning crisply. The ZL1 handles so much better than the $33,180, 400-hp, Camaro SS, that they don’t even seem like the same car. There’s savagery in those 580 horses to be sure, but not unless you ask for it.
The ZL1 exists in pure muscle-car territory. It’s the kind of boy’s toy that Americans both idolize and specialize in. Ford (F:US) has retorted with the release of the Mustang Shelby GT500 with 650 hp and a claimed top speed of 200 mph. ($55,000.)
Such cars are usually all about straight-line speed, gunning from stoplight to stoplight. Who needs superior handling when you could make all that tire-squealing, cackle-inducing noise?
Yet as anyone who has stepped foot in a Mazda Miata or BMW could tell you, corners are fun. So when the GM engineers set out to create the ultimate, racetrack-ready Camaro, they knew they had to get the numb beast to actually turn.
(The ZL1 name comes from a special-edition model of the Camaro that was first released in 1969 with an especially potent motor.)
Except for the large intake on the hood to help suck in air for the Eaton supercharger, the exterior of the new ZL1 is mostly the same, including the low roof and tiny windows out of which you can barely see.
The paint job on my $57,590 test car is so bright that it could blister bark off of trees. A friend calls it idiot yellow.
Fire up the engine and the noise is positively seismic -- the kind of sound from the earth just before it begins to spew lava.
What you can’t see are the underpinnings that separate the ZL1 from its mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging brethren. Like new Cadillacs and special Corvettes, the ZL1 gets magnetic ride control, a special suspension which firms or slackens as it senses road conditions -- allowing more give on bumps, less on curves.
The reworked suspension delivers the nuance and road feel the other Camaro models lack, significantly raising the handling bar.
Still, all that power can easily overcome traction on the rear wheels (a plus when you want to show off and do stupid burnouts), so the ZL1 provides four settings on its stability and traction controls.
These include a conservative setting for driving in the rain. Unfortunately, the control of these functions is foolishly difficult to change due to a non-intuitive interface.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard and an automatic available. The stick is easy to use, engaging the clutch surprisingly effortless.
The interior is nice. Not European nice, but nice for an American muscle car, with the glove box and various bits coated in Alcantara soft-touch fabric. The feel of the steering wheel is just right, and that’s mostly what I want to touch anyhow.
Most owners will find themselves on narrow roads like the one I tested on. However, the ZL1 was expressly designed to handle a race track too. Several months ago, I first got a chance to test the Camaro at Virginia International Raceway, a particularly tricky road course.
Unfortunately two factors worked against me: Rain and other auto journalists. The track was slick, so we were asked to put the cars into the highest traction mode.
After three very slow reconnaissance laps, two journalists skidded off, incurring damage in each instance. We were pulled from the cars, our day over.
I didn’t blame the car, which handled very well.
My narrow and winding public road wasn’t going to allow me to test the limits of the ZL1. Nonetheless, extremely wide Goodyear Eagle F1 tires gave superior grip and the Camaro angled cleanly down the road.
The Camaro ZL1 is good. Perhaps even too good. I’m not sure most Camaro buyers are even interested in this level of handling performance.
Those few who do will find that Chevy has given us the perfect tools to tame the savage beast.
The 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at a Glance
Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 with 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque. Transmission: Six-speed manual and six-speed automatic. Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds (with automatic). Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city, 19 highway. Price as tested: $57,590. Best features: Handling and power. Worst feature: Poor outward visibility. Target buyer: The driver who wants his muscle car to actually turn well.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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