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Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and Chevrolet Corvette ZR1: The consonant that changes everything

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In a world where political correctness reigns supreme, where safety trumps fun and where the price of gas is skyrocketing, the battle of escalating horsepower is back on in full swing, like in the muscle car era of the 1960s and 70s.

Back then as now, Chevrolet offered extremely powerful versions of its already powerful Camaro and Corvette. For example, the 1970-71 and 1972 Corvette came in a ZR1 trim, which was revived in 1990 and 1995. Most recently, since 2008, the ZR1 is the most powerful Corvette ever produced. In 1969, the Corvette ZL1 had a 427-cubic inch aluminum engine that developed 430 horsepower, although there are rumours that this car was actually a 485-horsepower. The ZL1 is back, but this time it returns as the most powerful version of the 2012 Camaro.

ZR1 and ZL1 are two popular designations with a long history at Chevrolet. And during the unveiling of the recent Camaro ZL1, the bowtie brand’s engineers were quick to make comparisons with ZR1.

Of course, these two beasts aren’t aimed at the same demographic. One is a two-seater, the other has four seats. The ZL1, a modern-day muscle car, is an absolute brute, while the ZR1 is a battle-tested sports car that goes toe-to-toe with the Porsche Turbo S, Ferrari 458 Italia and others of their ilk, at a fraction of the price.

The ZR1 and ZL1 share several technical components (engine, transmission, magnetic suspension and, of course, the team of engineers) but they are quite different in other ways.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Back to 1969!
As a response to the fabulous 550-horsepower 2012 Shelby GT500, Chevrolet has just unveiled the 580-horsepower Camaro ZL1. For 2013, the GT500 will produce 650 horses, and I’d be willing to bet that Chevrolet is already looking at how to boost the current ZL1.

But before increasing the power of the ZL1, why not enjoy the current version? This new Camaro is all about the engine. And not just any engine, either! It’s a slightly less powerful version of the Corvette engine: a 6.2-litre push rod equipped with a supercharger that may not have the sophistication of a Porsche 911 engine, but it does have power. And since we’re talking about 580 horses and 556 foot-pounds of torque, respect is a given. General Motors has not yet revealed its fuel consumption figures, but the 15.1 L/100 km that we obtained while Sunday driving on back roads are enough to make you take out a second mortgage to pay for a few laps at high speed. Speaking of high speed, the ZL1’s maximum speed is 296 km/hr.

Between the engine and the rear wheels, there’s a wonderful six-speed Tremec manual transmission. If you like power, you won’t be disappointed to learn that the ZL1 can also be equipped with an automatic transmission. You heard that right: an automatic in a performance car. And, as has become the norm, like it or not, the fastest lap times were recorded with this gearbox.

Launched on the Virginia International Raceway’s highly technical track, this new Camaro proved that it is as brutish as an old-school muscle car, yet as civil as a modern vehicle. The chassis is very, very solid. The Brembo brakes (the same used for the Cadillac CTS-V) are ridiculously powerful (fortunately, because at 1,850 kilos, this car is anything but light). And the steering ratio was made even tighter than it is in the SS. The Magnetic Ride 3.0 magnetic suspension, like in the Corvette ZR1, is a new generation and features its fastest reaction time ever. The ZL1 offers surprisingly good balance and attacks curves with confidence. By playing with the accelerator, a good driver can make the tail end pivot coming out of a corner. However, in extreme braking situations, the tail end becomes a little “lighter.”

Thank you, PTM
Where the Camaro scores points compared to the Shelby is with the PTM (Performance Traction Management). This traction and lateral stability control system has five modes. Level 1 is suitable for the road while all of the driving aids keep an eye on things. At the other end of the spectrum, Level 5 is reserved for experienced drivers who are capable of controlling the vehicle’s phenomenal power and torque. Novice drivers beware: test the limits of one level before moving on to the next.

As sporty as it may be, the ZL1 is still a Camaro – which means that overall visibility is poor at best, the back seats are unpleasant and the trunk is as tormented as an artist with a broken heart. The good news, however, is that the steering wheel isn’t the same as the one in the other versions. And, strangely, the ZL1 is more comfortable than an SS, thanks to the magnetic suspension.

Retailing for a bargain price of $58,000, the ZL1’s price isn’t really its problem. At the time that I was writing these lines (end of March 2012), production of the ZL1 was stopped due to a problem that GM is refusing to disclose. So, it’s a safe bet that the 2012 models will be few and far between since the production of the 2013s will begin soon. Furthermore, the ZL1 cabriolet will be unveiled as a 2013.

Corvette ZR1
Olympic sprinter
For fans of 1960’s American sports cars, the Corvette ZR1 bears a legendary option code and name, even though there’s nothing retro about this vehicle. On the contrary, the team that developed it used only the most modern techniques and components. They created a Corvette able to compete with the greatest sport and exotic cars for a price of $100,000 (US).

The ZR1 was launched as a 2009 model. It is propelled by a 638-horsepower compressed V8 that can go from 0-60 mph (0-96.5 km/hr) in 3.4 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 330 km/hr (or 205 mph). Enough to thrash the Lexus LFA at a quarter of the price!

Better still, this Corvette features impressive handling and rare civility for a big-time sports car, thanks to American-made magnetically controlled dampers, which are like those in the Audi R8 and Ferrari 458. The ZR1 is also equipped with Brembo carbon ceramic brakes that reduce the non-suspended weight by 5 kg for each wheel. Plus, they don’t squeak, are flawlessly resistant and never sully the large alloy wheels with black dust.

Sure thing
At its launch as a 2009 model, the new ZR1 was sold for $103,900 in the US and $125,000 in Canada. More than anything, it was a critical success, since Chrevrolet’s sales ambitions were not outrageous to begin with. However, with more than a century of experience under its belt, this brand does the job and the ZR1’s reputation is such that the 2009 models have retained about 85% of their value according to Kelley Blue Book, the American resale value specialist.

The queen of Corvettes was excellent from the start, especially in terms of mechanics, performance and handling. Otherwise, little has changed since. For its second birthday in 2010, it got a gizmo called Performance Traction Management (PTM), which comes with a launch control mode also featured in the new Camaro ZL1.

Essentially, it’s software that simultaneously controls the traction control, anti-skid, the aforementioned magnetically controlled dampers and electric power steering. In addition to adjusting the engine torque a thousand times per seconds to maximize actuation in longitudinal acceleration, the PTM helps you come out of turns on a circuit without giving yourself a heart attack, even with the pedal to the metal.

A racehorse on the track
Speaking of the track, the Corvette ZR1 is fascinating, exciting and sometimes a bit terrifying to drive on a track. That’s what I discovered during the launch on a diabolical asphalt course called the Lutzring, named in honour of GM’s former head of development, Robert Anthony “Bob” Lutz.

My initial outings had already given me a taste of the spellbinding music and ferocious performances of the ZR1’s 6.2-litre supercharged engine. The sound is sharper than with the 7-litre naturally-aspirated brute (the legendary 427-cubic inch engine) that roars under the hood of the Z06.  The ZR1’s V8 LS9 is less rough, but it’ll still slam you back into your chair in flat-out acceleration. On the road, it’s a big purring tomcat that only awakens when the needle passes the 3,000 rpm mark and the last two tips of the quadruple exhaust open, immediately doubling the exhaust output.

My two laps with engineer Tony Rifici helped me discover the ZR1’s potential. Back behind the wheel, I put all the weight onto the front tires going into a corner and the ZR1 turned gently, meaning that all I had to do was give it some gas as the car drifted. I even progressively deactivated the electronic without breaking into a cold sweat. On the road, we left these systems on.

World class
New for 2012, the Corvette team is offering the PDE option (which is like an evolved version of the PTM system) and smooth Michelin Pilot Sport Cup Zero Pressure tires mounted on even lighter rims. These additions helped shave half a dozen seconds off the ZR1’s previous time on the Nürburgring’s famous northern loop (Nordschleife), completing it in 7:19.63 minutes. By way of comparison, the Camaro ZL1 registered 7:41.27 minutes.

ZR1 buyers can also enjoy new, more sculpted seats that should correct this great sports car’s worst fault: lack of lateral support. The ZR1 was also criticized for the disappointing look of its passenger compartment, although its creators used very highly rated specialists to design it. Despite the touch-ups, improvements to the interior won’t come until the Corvette’s seventh generation.

In any case, the ZR1 is an exceptional sports car, boasting extraordinary performances, sharp handling, a fabulous engine and surprising refinement. And that’s more than enough to capture our hearts.

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