Good afternoon, Camaro Comrades, Firebird Friends, and Corvette Cousins!
I want to share with you some writings about the new Camaro ZL1 — the author is a person that some of you know and may have met……
Joe Bella – (aka “Dragoneye” on some websites and a Moderator on Camaro5 ) and Chris Frezza (co-founder of CamaroZ28.com) were among a select few recently invited to V.I.R. to spend some time behind the wheel of the mighty ZL1. While there, they were able to meet with Al Oppenheiser, Tony Roma, Aaron Link, Tom Peters, Russ Clark, Cheryl Pilcher, and John Fitzpatrick to gain more insight about what’s under the skin of the ZL1. I think you’ll get a better appreciation for the dedication and passion that Al and his incredibly talented team of Engineers demonstrate each day – every day – 365 days a year.
Frankly, I think Joe picked the wrong profession — he should be in Journalism! Joe makes you feel as if you’re right there with him — his command of words is exceptional. Further, he’s demonstrated time and time again that he’s a trusted Friend to all of us in the Camaro/Firebird Community.
I hope his thoughts and musings will give you some additional insight to the most powerful Camaro ever – and the team that brings it to you.
Joe – thanks for a superb write-up!
It’s a GREAT TIME to be a Camaro Enthusiast!
(Psssssst : Joe – are you interested in “Ghost Writing” a book?? )
Manager Specialty Vehicles / Special Events
“…Rev to the environmentally-customized limiter – drop the clutch – but don’t let it go too hard, because a cool but purposeful engagement lets the Launch Control system do its best work…” This is what I was told by Tony Roma, Performance Variant Manager for the Camaro. Sure enough…in a small puff of tire-smoke, the Inferno Orange ZL1 tore away from the starting line with a roar that echoed through the hills and valleys of the raceway.
Chevrolet invited some media types to come out to Virginia International Raceway this weekend to experience the ZL1 for what it truly is – because it’s the only real way to understand how good this car is. Of course I accepted the invitation, thrilled to have the opportunity to do something like this! Not to mention the fact that I have one on order without so much as sitting in one before…
The weekend started with a series of pleasant surprises. On the plane, as the pilot banked over Detroit, I got a perfect early-morning view of the Renaissance Center: home of General Motors. What a sight! Then, at the gate for my connection flight I met Chris Frezza, one of the founders of CamaroZ28.com, and the CZ28.com podcast series (I highly suggest you check one of these podcasts out, by the way). He was on his way to the very same Drive I was! Shortly after, I looked up to see Al Oppenhieser, Tony Roma, & Tom Peters all milling around close by. They recognized us and came over to say hello; as it turns out, we all ended up on the same flight out to Raleigh Durham Airport!!
I have to stop and say here: these guys are as down-to-earth as it gets. They’re all very cool people and they share the very same enthusiasm for the Camaro that you and I do. It is such a privilege to know them and be able to talk Camaro with the guys who are responsible for it in the first place.
But onwards…After we landed, we were greeted by a gentleman with a big ZL1 picture on his iPad (Do you think it was for us?). He had us shuttled over to a hotel for a quick lunch and then out to a parking lot full of Camaro SS, Malibu Eco, and Sonic turbos. Does it surprise you to learn Chris and I picked the Carbon Flash Metallic 45th anniversary edition SS Camaro?
I’ll shorten this section up to a series of wrong turns, stalls, and “scenic routes” courtesy of yours truly for the first half of the 60mi trip to VIR. Mr. Frezza is an incredibly patient man…
Arriving at Virginia International Raceway
As we rolled onto the final main road before pulling into VIR, we’re greeted with the sight of a beautiful Victory Red ZL1 driving opposite us. We’re heeeerrrree!! We pulled up to the on-site hotel (wonderful accommodations, by the way – kudos to VIR), and about three ZL1s parked around the front lot. We had arrived early, and were chomping at the bit to get a few pictures of the car while they were alone. But I was surprised when we were casually offered the keys to an Inferno Orange ZL1 manual, optioned with the interior suede package – and all they told us was “Try and have it back within an hour, be safe and have fun!”. Really?!?
And so this became my very first impression of the ZL1: What. A. Car. You’re greeted with a very angry, yet excited bark of the exhaust when you turn the key…and the dual-mode system tempers that into a idle growl that’ll give you goose-bumps. You can FEEL it as much as you can hear the low burble of the LSA. This is largely thanks to two things: the valves in the mufflers are open at idle, and the exhaust is completely devoid of any resonators. As Tom Peters joked – you could drop a marble in the back end and it’ll roll all the way to the engine…well, except for the cats.
I shifted to first, and slowly let of the clutch…I’m not sure what I was expecting from this twin-disk unit – but being noticeable and significantly easier to engage than the SS was not it. I was impressed. The twin-disk clutch helps to wind it up faster, and the awesome torque of the engine means there’s much less drama for first-timers not used to the engagement point.
Shifting is a breeze, too. The new short-throw is absolutely wonderful to use. Mr. Roma explained that the ZL1 engineers removed a layer of isolation from the shifter, making the linkage feel extremely precise and “connected” to the car. It’s a light year of an improvement over the standard shifter in the SS we drove up there…which I thought was pretty good itself! As we rolled away – with a flick of the wrist, I was into second…it was silky smooth.
We didn’t find an open area of pavement…and we didn’t drive in circles to get an idea of grip…and we weren’t astounded that the car exceeded 1.0g and simply wouldn’t let go of the pavement (ZL1-specific HUD readout is really cool, by the way)…we’d have no idea that there was more grip left if Stabilitrac wasn’t keeping us in the tight circle that we weren’t driving……..
We did, however, play with the exhaust, snap some pictures, and impress some locals that heard us playing around with words like “Five Hundred and Eighty”, and “Supercharger”. After a healthy dose of LSA symphony No. 8, they left with perma-grins all their own.
Dinner with Chevy
The dinner bell rang (not really, but you’d think there would be one in this very woodsy-looking area), and Chevy invited us to “the Gallery”….which is actually a Barn in the center of the circuit. They had four ZL1 in there (five if you count the black one parked…sideways), along with a couple dozen h couches and stools placed in front of a screen they used to present some impressive data points to us. At this point, it’s nothing new – the ZL1 lapped the grand course at VIR in a blistering 2:52.4 – a full 6 seconds faster than the quickest recorded time for a GT500 SVT. Together with the Corvette, these two cars help Chevy claim that one in three sports cars sold in the United States are Chevrolets. How awesome is that?! At the end of the presentation…Al told us, with what I thought was a gleam in his eye: “And we’re not done.” I’m looking forward to that…whatever “that” is!
After dinner we had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the ZL1 engineers…Aaron Link graciously took me through the basics of tire-tread design: these aren’t your off-the-shelf Eagle F1s…they are tailored specifically to the ZL1. And he briefly explained the ins and outs of the MR system. Note to users: Performance Traction Management is aware that the car was designed with Eagle F1:G2 supercar tires. These means it expects a certain patch, deformation under load, and traction values (among other things) to be present when it adjusts power delivery and MR stiffness. Replacing these tires with a different brand won’t hurt anything, and may increase available traction for skilled drivers with the nannies off – but PTM won’t work as effectively as it does with the Goodyears.
Tom Peters gave us an overview of the ZL1’s aesthetics; highlighting the aggressive, menacing appearance of the front end and how the splitter was similar in height to the Corvette Z cars. He explained that the ZL1 was originally conceived with the highly recognizable Bumblebee hood scoop: it was to be functional, too! It was decided, however, that the engine did not benefit enough from this enhanced induction method – so the idea was scrapped in favor of the extractors you see today. They claim to have touched every part of this car during ZL1 development…if the change/replacement didn’t help further the goal of building the ultimate Camaro – it wasn’t put on the car. The only possible exception to this rule could be the suede on the dashboard. Tom also made sure to mention that the stance and width of the wheels, as they extend ever so slightly out from under the fender flares is a “designers dream”. Not only does a wide tire serve a functional purpose – but it looks awesome!!
The convertible he was using as a demo was equipped with the exposed carbon fiber hood, and let me tell you – it is GORGEOUS. It shifts hue in the light…reminding me of snakeskin, below the same UV-blocking clear coat as the Corvette ZR1 uses. I was also shown the level of perfection they’re looking for in these inserts…On this particular car, there is a single strand of carbon fibers that came loose from the fabric. It appears as a crack in the composite, until you touch it and realize it’s below the surface – structurally, there is no effect. But a single thread like this will be rejected for use – and the pieces are notoriously hard to make as it is.
Tony Roma walked me through the undercarriage of the black ZL1 I thought it’d be fun to tease you guys with…From front to back, everything you can see has some ZL1-specific intent. The front splitter feeds to the belly pans that seal off the engine compartment – normally manufacturers shy away from this, they prefer to at least put an air dam down there to release some drag. But Camaro engineers thought differently, and they wanted complete control of airflow under the car. By sealing off the engine bay, they eliminated most of the front-end lift that occurs when air exits below the engine. Further use of brake cooling and NACA ducting all help direct airflow to where it needs to be, rather than where it wants to go.
You can clearly see how the exhaust is straight-through, enhancing that thunderous exhaust note, and the bright too-thick-to-be-brake lines that travel down the center of the underbody are the differential cooling lines. These use the transmission pumps to feed fluid from a heat-exchanger in the bottom of the differential to the radiators up front.
In order to achieve the superior levels of control that they have with the ZL1, that meant restricting movement as much as they could from the rear sub frame and linkages. They’ve replaced the cradle bushings with solid rubber pieces, what Tony referred to as “hockey pucks”. These trade off a little noise/vibration/harshness for control of the rear wheels as you go over bumps. They’ve also revised the stabilizer bars to keep the car impressively flat and swapped relatively compliant bushings out for ball joints on the toe links. What this all adds up to is a very stable Independent Rear suspension assembly that they then applied Magnetic Ride Control to achieve the ultimate in control and active handling.
Fun fact: The rear half-shafts of the ZL1 has more torque capacity (yet are lighter and smaller) than the front half-shafts of a GM 3500 HD truck!!
Besides being very well-fed and having a chronic case of perma-grin, I walked away from this presentation/dinner with two very distinct impressions:
1) The Camaro team is VERY proud of their creation; every single one of them oozed confidence with regards to the car’s capabilities in general and versus the competition. They have built the ZL1 with a comprehensive strategy to produce something that is track-capable from the factory, where every part is fully integrated and works seamlessly together. This is in contrast to building a “base car” where options and parts need to be added later – the ability for everything to work optimally in this manner is greatly reduced. Camaro team made no compromises over performance with the ZL1.
2) They know what they’ve built – and they’re serious about backing that up. They WILL honor the warranty of ZL1s that have been to the track and back – as long as it’s been unmodified. The honest opinion is that the car’s foundations are so strong; it’s unlikely anything will break in OEM form. There is a common-sense caveat: don’t go ‘round a turn and downshift into first at 65mph…if you spin a bearing or throw a rod: This is not a defect in workmanship or materials – it is abuse. Obviously, they know this car very well…so I would (personally) not advise anyone to try to slip something by…there are few ZL1s produced next to other Camaros…a claim on a robust part will be a bright red flag at the team’s warranty meetings…
Tearing Around the Track
It was hard to sleep, knowing that today would see us doing laps around the 4.5 mile Grand Course at VIR and real-world driving time. By the time we were shuttled to the starting line, and breakfast – the team had already modified the track with some cones to slow us down in dangerous areas of the course. VIR has been referred to as the closest thing to the Nurburgring with its healthy dose of elevation changes, blind corners, hairpins, and balance of turns and straights. With that said, the Nurburgring has claimed many lives, and is referred to as “Green Hell”…….so this gives those of you who’ve never been to VIR some idea of what we’re in for.
Comforted that they’ve taken time and thought for our safety in this manner, we stood waiting by about five idling ZL1s, like moths to a flame…it just sounds so good. I seriously think I could burn an entire tank of gas and more just listening to one idle. One of the people who were moving cars around asked one of the engineers if they needed to do anything special to the cars before lining them up for us in pit row. He replied “No, just start the engines and let them warm up”. I was floored – but it really is a testament to how seriously track-capable these things are, right off the showroom floor.
We donned our head-socks and helmets, and piled in. Aaron Link, the MR engineer who also lapped both record times at the Nurburgring and VIR in the ZL1 lead the first group, and Tony Roma led the second pack for warm up laps and “follow the leader” parade to learn the track before we were let loose. I need to mention that I’ve never driven on any road course anywhere before this…and that the last time I drove a 500+ horsepower car, I ended up turning into oncoming traffic, peeling out on a section of grass, and almost hitting IVAN the IVER test mule at Camaro5 Fest One…so…bear that in mind. I’m not an idiot…but I am a rookie by all definitions of the word.
It was just under 40° outside, which meant there was concern for the tires – they NEEDED to be warmed up before we could go all out. Yet, I was astonished…I guess I was expecting the car to drive like it was on ice given the warnings and cautions we’ve received regarding these tires…but they really weren’t bad at all. We even carried a decent level of speed through the corners on that very first lap. Of course, taking the correct path in the turns helped – and Aaron definitely knows this track well.
I was riding shotgun with another journalist, and I noticed he was fumbling a bit with the automatic. It surprised him that the car wouldn’t shift by itself in manual mode. It held the gear, and even bounced off of redline before I mention he needed to shift with the + paddle. After a while he got the hang of it, but finally decided to revert to letting the car shift for him.
There’s only so much you can feel about the car in the passenger seat…but I was paying real close attention to VIR. The Grand Course is intimidating…it never seems to end, and each turn feels harder and more dangerous than the last; a baby Nurburgring, indeed. Aaron led us through without much drama, and we made two more laps of the course to ensure the tires had enough heat in them.
As we returned to pit row – I noticed we were down a car…it appeared as though one of the other journalists there spun out on a tight turn for whatever reason (multiple 360s, so I heard)…there was no damage to the car, but I’m sure it made for an interesting first lap!
This ought to be fun…I think I have the hang of it…I chose a red/black manual for my first few laps. I was very excited to see how this car would feel, now that I’m driving. By using launch control as Tony had explained, the car jolted forward like a hungry panther and before I knew it, I was in third approaching the first turn. As I travel ‘round the right-hand bend, and later into the high speed esses…I’m astounded at how the car can jump a curb like spider-man, and then re-attach itself to the ground like nothing had happened. All the while, it’s maintaining that same silky-smoothness that I noticed in our brief ride the day before.
Power delivery is smart – not “exciting”. When racing – depending on the mode the car is in – the engineers have remapped the throttle response to allow a driver to modulate throttle (and subsequently power) much more precisely. This is in comparison, I was told, to the way most other car companies map their performance car throttles to provide an instant jolt of power so the driver “feels” he or she is going fast…but in reality, it’s very difficult to accelerate around a bend, because the throttle is so touchy. ZL1 lets the driver use a much larger amount of pedal travel to adjust the same amount of throttle…Chevy’s approach allows the driver a much larger degree of control when powering around a corner. It does work very well, and is a welcome character trait in my eyes!
As I came up to the dreaded Oak tree, I made a mistake. Going into the turn I downshifted too quickly, and didn’t heel-toe correctly, so the LSA yanked the 305s out from under me and started to slide the back end out. Instantly PTM intervened and cut power…The best way I can describe what happened next is as though the hand of God Himself came down and tapped the back end of the car where it needed to be; because as soon as the car righted itself (which only took a fraction of a second), I was accelerating out of the corner and down the straight. There was no drama, no feeling as though I’d lost control. It’s supportive, not intrusive – as if the ZL1 said “Ohh, good try! Let me help you out, here. You’ll do better next time!” I am a complete believer in the abilities of Performance Traction Management. It is completely jaw-dropping what the system can do.
Note: PTM is not really divine intervention. As evidenced by a certain “accident” the day of this experience…you still need to have your wits about you as you drive it. Don’t expect it to compensate for serious driver errors: It’s there to help to amplify a driver’s skill level.
As I accelerated up the straight, I decided to give no-lift shift a try – available in any PTM mode. I powered through first, and as the tach needle exceeded 5500 rpms, I kept my foot on the gas, and as fast I could, depressed the clutch and pulled the suede-covered shifter into second. The engine maintained rpm but didn’t hit the rev limiter, and it held the supercharger’s bypass valve closed, which over-boosted the engine for just a moment providing 100+% available power the second the clutch reengaged! It’s very easy to use – just be in a PTM mode. Impressive!!!
The rest of my laps were uneventful, but telling. This car REALLY can drive a road course as well as it drives to the grocery store. It is so light on its feet that it feels as though you’re driving something between a base model Corvette and a Grand Sport. Turn in is predictable…and if you don’t think you’re going to make a turn? Just turn more, the grip is there! Transitions from left to right or vise-versa are incredibly well controlled – the car is always planted firm, responsive, and ready for the next direction. The seats could use a bit more bolstering, but the suede does wonders to keep you seated.
Note: If you’re thinking about tracking this car and you’re 5’11’ or taller…seriously consider avoiding the sunroof option. A helmet has trouble clearing the roof and forces you either to recline or sit awkwardly at an angle…in neither case can you safely use the car to its full potential.
The automatic was impressive, as well. The staged up shifts are a welcome improvement…you still need to anticipate the shift, but it’s a lot more like a manual now – where you don’t need to plan 500 rpms ahead of time. You click the new paddles, wait about a half second, and it shifts with only the slightest of jolts. Downshifting is great, too! The engine seems to rev up just a bit as the transmission downshifts before a corner. If you’re IN a corner, it might upset the vehicle – but the unsettling isn’t bad, and PTM is always there to help out.
While embarrassing – I’ll share something that might help illustrate just how brilliantly the ZL1 can chew up a road course; even one as challenging as VIR, driven by a novice such as me: It is so agile and responsive in the corners, and the power is so ferocious…It only took about 5 laps of the track, going as fast as I dared, to upset my stomach a little. I was cleared for another go, but I had to sit down and recompose myself instead.
At Home on Country Roads
It was at this point that the one of the dedicated street-drive cars came back…and conveniently it was a gorgeous silver & black car…just like the one I ordered. The lines of the car were so crisp, and the contrast with the other black parts worked so well. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – it looked so good, I knew I made the right choice!
Chris Frezza and I piled into the car, and followed Chevy’s directions for a 45 minute loop of the streets around the track. You could tell they picked the route very carefully in order to showcase the car’s mild manners. On one stretch of road, the bumps and imperfections were constant for about five miles. The ZL1 soaked them up beautifully – you could feel the bumps, but they weren’t irritating as they would be in a normal car. It almost felt as though the car put a pillow between us and the road. The steering was light & easy, and the turning circle was thankfully the same radius as other Camaros. This was Tour mode.
On this same road, I pressed the Sport button in front of the shifter. It was shocking what happened next…the suspension stiffened: it felt stiffer and more sensitive to imperfections than an SS. The steering wheel tightened up, and became noticeably harder to turn. Not only that, but the wheel returned to center as though it were spring loaded! With the push of a button, you can change the entire character of the ZL1. In tour mode, it’s more comfortable and easy to drive than the Malibu Eco we drove back to the airport in; and then sport mode makes it feel…well…sporty! In either mode, though, steering response is immediate and sharp like the car is riding on rails.
The automatic shines on the road just as brightly as the rest of the car does, too! It’s smooth and smart – always seeming to pick the right gear…and it’s equipped with a new feature called Performance Algorithm Lift Foot. This is an odd name for a handy ability: Say you’re cruising behind an 18-wheeler, and you’d like to pass but there’s traffic in the way. In anticipation of the traffic, you can punch the pedal and let off quickly – this will trigger programming within the transmission to downshift into a gear with near peak torque. It will hold this gear, waiting for you to gas it again and pass the truck after traffic lets up.
Suddenly I noticed the exhaust system proves it has a purpose on the street, too. Speedo said we were traveling about 45mph on a very smooth road. I was in fifth gear, and I had one of those moments where you realize you’re hearing…nothing. Nothing except tire noise that is. The valves were closed and I had to check for a moment that the engine was still running, because it was eerily silent. It’s not always like this, we happened to be in that “sweet spot” of resonance, I think – and if you want to ensure this never happens to you – we were told that they intentionally put the Dual-Mode Exhaust control on its own dedicated circuit…the valves default to OPEN, so if you pull the fuse you’ll have a 2.5” straight-through exhaust.
As we were finishing our journey, I found myself fiddling with the DIC menus…and came across a new, third menu: Performance. Curious, I hit select, and I was offered two functions: A Lap timer, and performance gauges. The former is a full-blown lap timer, with start/stop/lap selections that counts right there on the DIC! The second function displays the coolant temperature in degrees and if I remember right, oil pressure below that. This is a pretty neat addition, if you ask me!
There was just one more thing that the car surprised me with while we were out on our drive. This car had just over 600 miles on the clock…and we all know how GM engines don’t seem to “wake up” until 1000-1500 or so miles. I mention this only because it increased the shock-factor when I checked the average fuel economy that I set just before we left VIR – and it read 19.8 mpg!! 19.8, out of a new engine on a route full of hills and stops. I believe my Cobalt would have returned about 26 mpg on this same route by comparison. I can’t say I drove the ZL1 like a granny, either. I imagine if I had tried…I could have gotten near 21 mpg…and on a highway, I have to believe the car is good for 23-24 using cruise control on level roads. Impressive for a nearly 600hp car riding on sticky 305mm Goodyears!
Farewell, Until We Meet Again
After we came back we were treated to a good lunch, and a little bit of fun from the engineers…one donned his helmet, and with a grin dropped into a red ZL1 and rolled onto the track…He proceeded to do a series of three burnouts that had all of us glued to the windows of the lunch room overlooking the pits where all the smoke was coming from. By the time I got down there he tried to do another, but the tires barely spun twice before coming to a stop…he got out and inspected them…telling us they felt “gooey!” It turns out that the three previous exhibitions heated the tires up so much; even 580hp in first gear couldn’t keep them spinning on a damp track. You’d think our fun was over…but instead they just got another car to do a few more!!
It was a fitting end to a wonderful couple of days. I truly do feel blessed to be able to have been part of this. The Chevy people were just great fun to hang out with…the cars were fantastic…and the location couldn’t have been better.
I said it earlier, but it’s worth saying again: The engineers that were present truly have a mastery of every part of this car: it’s in their blood. And they are full of confidence in the masterpiece they’ve put together in the ZL1. They wanted us to have fun at VIR (and we did!), but they also wanted us to understand that this car isn’t just about the power or the suspension alone…it’s the sum of its parts that is the most important: The ZL1 is the total package. It’s so well engineered that it becomes an extension of yourself on the track or the road – I compare it to the Iron Man suit on wheels. If you have ordered one – you will be blown away without a doubt. Ultra Grin, as the Fbodfather puts it, I don’t think really expresses what you feel as the driver/owner of one of these. It’s much, much, more!