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2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 First Drive

The fastest Camaro ever built screams ‘God Bless America’ at 650 horsepower

Supercharged power gives the sixth-generation Camaro supercar capability.

With a 650 horsepower supercharged V8 under the hood and three pedals on the floor, we pointed the nose of the fastest factory-produced Camaro in model’s fifty year history due south for a 500-mile shakedown. Heading from Charlotte, NC to Daytona Beach, FL, we settled in for a high speed jaunt of epic proportions, taking the long way whenever possible and seeking any winding back roads that might be able to get this coupe to break a sweat.

The 2017 Camaro ZL1 is very much a legitimate sports car, for better and for worse.

While the badge may recall images of special order 1960s drag racing machines, and the reputation that the Camaro has cultivated over the decades might indicate otherwise, this is not a muscle car. No, the 2017 Camaro ZL1 is very much a legitimate sports car, for better and for worse. 

Sure, it’ll go in a straight line like a proper street machine — the sprint to 60 mph from rest happens in just 3.5 seconds when a ZL1 coupe is equipped with the new optional 10-speed automatic gearbox, and it’ll dispatch the quarter mile in a hair-raising 11.4 seconds. 

But that’s only part of the equation, and it’s one that includes a skidpad rating of 1.02g and a Nurburgring lap time of 7:29.60, which puts it among the likes of Ferrari 458 Italia and Porsche Carrera GT. That’s some serious company when you consider the fact that car that did the deed likely weighed in excess of two tons when loaded up with safety equipment (the standard Camaro ZL1 coupe, equipped with the automatic, tips the scales at 3,944 pounds).

But performance statistics are only part of the equation when we’re talking about vehicles that are designed to potentially be driven as daily commuters and fun cruisers as well. So in the name of science, we dropped the hammer and proceeded to put roughly 630 miles on the odometer during the 500-mile road trip to find out just what this supercharged machine is made of.  

The new ZL1

Originally a moniker applied to a special order, the no frills version of the 1969 Camaro specified a big-block 427 V8 to be installed in the engine bay (a practice otherwise prohibited by GM at the time). Interested parties will no doubt recall when Chevrolet revived the ZL1 badge for the fifth generation Camaro when the carmaker shoehorned the supercharged LSA V8 from the Cadillac CTS-V into Chevy’s four seater performance coupe to great effect.

In contrast to the original, the 2012 Camaro ZL1 came loaded to the gills with content, and in that regard the recipe is much the same here.

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The 2017 model sees the ZL1 treatment applied to the smaller, lighter, and more advanced chassis that underpins the sixth generation Camaro. The star of the show here is undoubtedly the 6.2-liter supercharged mill situated between the front fenders, the very same 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque V8 brute found in the latest Corvette Z06 — a power plant which gets enhanced cooling capability in both the Camaro and the Corvette for 2017.

That power is routed to the rear wheels by your choice of a six-speed manual gearbox with active rev matching or an all-new 10-speed automatic gearbox, a product of a joint engineering venture between GM and Ford that’s already seen use in the latest F-150 Raptor.

Grand touring faults aside, the Camaro ZL1 is an absolute monster of a performance machine.

The ZL1’s standard FE4 suspension package includes GM’s latest magnetic ride damping technology, an adaptive system that continues to keep the company’s performance cars at the forefront of handling technology, a system we’ve sampled previously in the SS 1LE at the Spring Mountain road course and fell in love with.

Braking hardware is some equally impressive stuff, consisting of six-piston Brembo calipers up front and four-piston units in the rear, while Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar tires (designed specifically for the Camaro and measuring 285/30ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear) maintain contact with the pavement.

Yet despite all the go-fast goodies, the ZL1 isn’t stripped of content like some of its performance-focused competitors (or the fifth-generation Camaro Z28 before it). It boasts Recaro sport seats, a suede covered steering wheel and shift knob, and the Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system with an 8-inch-diagonal color touchscreen, which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto all fitted as standard. 

Behind the wheel

Those closely following the horsepower arms race that’s been ramping up as of late may consider the Camaro ZL1 as an answer to the 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, but these cars are the products of two fundamentally different ideologies.

Where the Hellcat is brash and rowdy, the ZL1 is relatively understated and composed. Where the Hellcat prioritizes the celebration of brute force while supplementing it with a brake and suspension package that allows folks to have some entertainment on a road course, the ZL1 is a balanced and honed performance package. And where the Hellcat is perhaps above all a big, high speed missile of a grand touring machine, the ZL1 is a sports car that also happens to have 650 horsepower underfoot.

Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Reminders of that last bit came up regularly during our time with the car, starting with the folks from Chevrolet offering to haul our luggage to the destination separately rather than having us take it along for the ride in the Camaro. A large factor in the new Camaro ZL1’s impressive performance is the significantly reduced size of the sixth generation Camaro itself versus its predecessor, and nowhere is this made more obvious than when looking to stow large objects in the trunk.

There’s just not a lot of it, and those hoping to throw more than a few pieces of carry-on sized suitcases in the cargo hold may find themselves making use of the rear seats as additional storage, as we did. Truth be told, that’s likely their most useful role, as there’s simply not legroom for any normal sized adult human being back there. These have never been hallmark attributes of the Camaro in the past, but the latest model’s reduced footprint does put some additional emphasis here.

The ZL1 is a sports car that also happens to have 650 horsepower underfoot.

The same can be said for its aptitude as a long distance grand tourer, though it’s unavoidable to critique a car in this context when eating up more than 600 miles on a largely arrow-straight highway route. Here the well-bolstered Recaro sport seats — the same buckets we enjoyed on the road course in the SS 1LE — reveal some of their drawbacks, such as their lack of lumbar adjustability. It’s a minor quibble during a 45-minute stroll around town, but extended drives like ours made us long for a design better suited to lengthy stints behind the wheel.

Grand touring faults aside though, the Camaro ZL1 is an absolute monster of a performance machine. Straight-line pull is simply relentless, and the beefy Brembo stoppers provide more than enough confidence, so that you’ll be able to bring the car back down from speed in a hurry when needed. And while the route from Charlotte to Daytona doesn’t provide an overabundance of challenging tarmac for the magnetic ride suspension, the interesting roads we did discover could only hint at the threshold of ZL1’s handling capability.

In similar fashion to the SS, the Tremec six-speed gearbox’s clutch is nicely weighed without feeling cumbersome in traffic, and GM’s active rev-matching feature is a revelation for those who don’t (or prefer not to) heel-toe downshift either on the street or at the race track.

Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

But the new 10-speed automatic makes a truly convincing case for itself as well, and is undoubtedly the route to quicker lap times. GM has previously touted this new gearbox as offering shifts “faster than a dual-clutch,” a lofty claim that we needed to experience for ourselves.

More: Mercedes-AMG’s E43 sedan turns every grocery run into a time trial

If there’s any transmission which can effectively make the case that the often-clunky DCT transmissions are becoming obsolete in road cars, it’s this one. Gear changes happen with a Porsche PDK-like seamlessness, and when left to its own devices, the automatic can cycle through the numerous cogs on hand quickly and with minimal confusion. 

The paddles may still lack the sense of mechanical connection to the car that a manual gearbox can provide, but there’s no question that this 10-speed is up to the job of delivering supercar-like performance in the Camaro ZL1. That said, an even more hardcore performance package is on the way for the ZL1 next year in the form of the ZL1 1LE a package that Chevrolet has already stated will be (like the V6 and SS versions of the 1LE), a manual-only affair.

Triple Threat

Chevrolet touts the Camaro ZL1 as a model that “excels everywhere,” with the key tenets being the street, the drag strip, and the road course. While there’s an argument to be made concessions had to be made to one of those in order to bolster the other two, at $63,435 (including destination fee and a $1,300 gas guzzler tax), there’s no question that the Camaro ZL1 is one hell of a performance bargain.

It’s nigh impossible to be all things to all customers, and the ZL1 is faced with the difficult task of finding a balance between the fundamentals required of a road-going high performance vehicle. On the whole Chevrolet has been wildly successful, as the ZL1 comprehensively elevates the Camaro out of the muscle car ranks into the realm of world-class sports cars. However, that accession fundamentally requires some concessions of its own in order to get there. Provided one understands all that comes with that, the ZL1 absolutely delivers as a well-rounded performance machine.

Highs

  • Supercar-like acceleration
  • Impressive handling and braking
  • A compelling performance bargain

Lows

  • Seats are less than ideal for lengthy drives
  • Navigation system’s quirks take some getting used to