If you were shopping for a warp-speed Camaro three years ago, you had two solid but very different choices. You could buy the ZL1, which weighed well over two tons but had a 580-horsepower supercharged LSA V8 with which to file a preliminary injunction against the laws of physics. Or you could choose the Z/28, which cut weight, added trick spool-valve shocks, and relied on the legendary 427-cubic-inch LS7 small-block for 505 naturally-aspirated ponies. Most people arrived at the Chevrolet showroom knowing very well which of the two cars they wanted, because the ZL1 had the raw power of a sledgehammer and the Z/28 had the responsiveness of an SK micro-ratchet wrench.
Three years later, some of those customers are likely trading in or returning their leases to the dealership, and they’re in luck, because both ZL1 and Z/28 drivers will find the Camaro of their dreams waiting for them right there on the floor between the Silverado CCSB (crew cab short bed) and the Malibu LLAMA (looks like a miniature A7). With the ZL1 1LE, Chevrolet has finally put the peanut butter in the chocolate—or is it the chocolate in the peanut butter?
The bowtie brand has been a regular participant in the previous four editions of our Performance Car Of the Year testing. It won the opener with the Corvette Z51, thrilled us with the Z/28 for 2015, divided our opinions sharply in 2016 with the Corvette Z06, and made it to the podium last year with the astoundingly competent Corvette Grand Sport. All this is to say the ZL1 1LE arrived in Kentucky for PCOTY 2018 starting at a very high bar.
Which it clears easily. The ZL1 1LE combines the freight-train power of the old ZL1 with the track-focused running gear of the Z/28. The 300-pound-lighter Alpha platform displays its racetrack pedigree unashamedly whether it’s underpinning a rental-rat V6 Camaro or an F-117-folded-sheetmetal ATS-V. Add in the gloss-black wings-and-splitter aero package that made our white test example look like an anime Stormtrooper, and the result is a car that attacks NCM Motorsports Park with enough ferocious ability to make you think that the “C” in “NCM” stands for “Camaro,” not “Corvette”.
Truth is, the 650-horsepower, 6.2-liter pushrod V8 finds a much happier home here than it does in the Corvette Z06. The Camaro may have to cut a much larger hole in the wind, even with the so-called “flowtie” hollow Chevy emblem in the gaping grille, but the same bluff front that costs the ZL1 several MPH down the main straight of our test track also makes cooling the engine a much simpler matter.
Our two days at NCM featured some remarkably high temperatures for September, but the supercharged 1LE didn't exhibit any of the heat issues for which the Z06 has become a bit notorious. It didn’t even appear to suffer much supercharger heat soak.
The rest of the car, too, was remarkably immune to heat. The massive Goodyear Supercar 3R tires (305/30R-19 in front and 325/30R-19 in back) held up to repeated lapping sessions without much feathering or unusual wear, and the brake pedal stayed hard despite having to haul the Camaro down from 125- about once every 45 seconds.
On the racetrack, the benefits of the aero package are obvious. This is a car that uses its very wide front tires to the maximum possible advantage, steering in with the slop-free confidence we remember from the Z/28. Credit a lack of rubber in the subframes and strut mounts, and credit the aero for making fast corners remarkably drama-free. When the ZL1 slides, it gives you plenty of warning before giving up grip first in the nose, then the tail, in a smooth, progressive manner.
No supercharged ponycar has even been this trouble-free on corner exit. Set the driving mode to “Race” and enjoy smooth, consistent traction-controlled power the instant you roll on the throttle at midcorner. Yes, you can overpower the system and make it hoon around, but that would be stupid and this is not a car for stupid people. This is a precision tool for drivers with the experience to handle substantial amounts of power and grip wisely.
Through NCM’s famous “Deception” turn-and-curb combination, the Camaro simply swallows the entry curb, letting the chassis four-wheel drift out to catch the exit chiclets at precisely the right point. It’s a tangible lesson in the advantages provided by high-quality suspension, and it differentiates the ZL1 1LE from less serious track cars such as, oh, I don’t know, pretty much all the current BMW M-things out there.
Driving this big-hearted Chevy reminds me of my best days behind the wheel of race-prepped ponycars like the ones that run in NASA’s American Iron series. Like this ZL1, those cars use sophisticated brake and damping upgrades to turn sleepy street Camaros into track-focused terrors. Also like the ZL1, there’s still plenty of evidence left that they started out as mass-market two-door sedans with severe cost and materials compromises.
That’s why you’ll find some pretty cheap trip and materials inside this $70,000 car. And it’s why all of the annoyances of airport-rental Camaros, from the miniature windows to the weird reverse-angle infotainment screen to the Miata-grade trunk space, are still present and accounted for. If it bothers you, feel free to spend your 70 grand on a Porsche or a Bimmer or an Audi. Just don’t expect to ever come close to the ZL1 around a racetrack—and don’t expect to experience the kind of childlike joy you’d get from stirring the stout gearbox and booting the 650-horse V8 down NCM’s back straight. This is a Camaro to earn the respect of the most snobbish Euro-centric track rat. Was it good enough to beat out a McLaren, a Lamborghini, and seven other brilliant automobiles for the PCOTY crown? Stay tuned to find out.