When I turned the key in the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Godzilla cleared his throat. Or maybe it was Mount Vesuvius erupting. Possibly the Blue Angels were doing a flyover, and just hitting supersonic. After that bit of drama, I could hear the bass burble of the Camaro ZL1's LSA engine, a perfect example of muscle car music. This sound is uniquely American, not replicated by the Germans or the Japanese in their most powerful cars.
This engine is the centerpiece of the Camaro ZL1, and part of the game of one-upsmanship currently being played between Ford and Chevrolet. And by the numbers, Chevrolet is losing. Where Chevy's LSA engine churns out 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque, the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500 is boasting 662 horsepower and 631 pound-feet of torque.
Not that I ever felt the Camaro ZL1 was underpowered. On my first outing I kicked down the gas pedal on a convenient straightaway, and the car torqued right. A little later I noticed the traction control was off, an essential piece of electronic gear for keeping all that power reigned in under normal driving conditions.
The eight cylinders displace 6.2 liters in the LSA engine. Just imagine three 2-liter soda bottles, and a little extra, all charged with explosive power. On top of that is a 1.9-liter supercharger forcing air into the cylinders. In CNET's car, this powerful engine sat under a vented carbon fiber hood insert, an optional and functional piece for the Camaro ZL1.
Beyond extras like that hood insert and the ZL1 badges, the exterior differed little from lesser Camaro models. The car features the same low greenhouse and two-door coupe design that made the Camaro an instant hit when Chevy released the newest model in 2009. As is typical for a special trim like this, the ZL1 gets its own wheels, and these are wrapped in Goodyear F1s, wide tires that are as close to slicks as you can get for general road use.
Tame in the city
When faced with a juggernaut like the Camaro ZL1, I am always a little hesitant, as these cars can be hell to drive through a dense urban jungle with traffic lights (which always seem to be red) at every block. But from my first cruise I found the car perfectly happy to be driven at low speeds, and it was easy to modulate acceleration when the lights turned green.
Okay, part of that driving ease came from the fact this Camaro ZL1 was equipped with the optional six-speed automatic. Before you sports car purists scoff, let me say that there exist some very capable automatics out there, and this is one of them. In manual mode, the paddle shifters on the steering wheel enact gear changes with satisfying swiftness. Tap for a downshift and I was instantly hurled forward as the lower gear bit in against the mammoth engine's torque.
The standard automatic drive mode is slow to downshift, and the Sport mode is not worth a damn, but the manual mode delivered the kind of response I wanted when pounding the car down a twisty road. GM also uses this transmission in its Cadillac CTS-V, and I had no complaints about it in that application. In fact, Chevrolet says the automatic transmission delivers a faster zero-to-60 mph acceleration time than the standard six-speed manual.
Another technology borrowed from the CTS-V was the Magnetic Ride Control suspension, which dynamically changes the stiffness of the dampers. Buttons in front of the shifter let me choose between Touring and Sport modes, and these made a notable difference in the ride. The suspension was always on the stiff side, but Touring mode added some sponginess. It felt like the car had Slinkys holding the wheels on.
Even with the suspension in Sport, I never found the ride harsh. Adding to the Camaro ZL1's comfort level were well-padded sport seats. These power-adjustable seats were covered in a grippy fabric and had bolsters that kept me in place, but were not so prominent as to invade my personal space every time I got in or out of the car. The cabin contained some nice fabric trim, but most surfaces were covered in hard plastics, and the back seats were not suitable for people. Despite the ZL1 trim, this car is still a Camaro.
Navigation not optional
And like the other Camaro models in the 2012 line, the ZL1 has no onboard navigation option. Chevrolet's familiar aqua electroluminescent radio display sits in the center of the dashboard, underlined by a row of buttons and bookended by traditional tuning and volume dials. However, Chevrolet does a surprisingly good job with this display, making it serve for all stereo and Bluetooth phone functions.
With three lines on the display, I found it easy to select albums from a connected iPod or to look up names from my paired phone's contact list. The car comes with voice command, but its functions are limited. I could not say the name of a contact on my phone and have it dial out, although the car has its own voice-tagged phone book I could have manually programmed. Nor could I ask it to do anything with the stereo. Contrast that with the much more capable Ford Sync system in the Shelby GT500.
Here's a tip: wait for the 2013 Camaro ZL1, as it will come with Chevrolet's MyLink system, offering more complete voice command along with app integration.