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.

2017 chevrolet camaro zl1 first drive camero firstdrive 000144
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

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.

2017 chevrolet camaro zl1 first drive camero firstdrive 000138 1
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.

2017 chevrolet camaro zl1 first drive camero firstdrive 000142
Miles Branman/Digital Trends
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.

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
Cars

Nikola previews $80K NZT off-road EV speedster with 590 horsepower

Nikola Motor is taking reservations for the NZT, a high-performance, all-electric off-highway vehicle (OHV). The $80,000 NZT has 590 horsepower, 775 foot-pounds of torque, and reaches 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds.
Cars

Bored with stock? The best tuner cars are begging to be modified

Modification has been around almost as long as the automobile itself. Here are 25 of the best tuner cars you can find, ranging from American muscle standouts to Japanese drift cars.
Cars

2019 Audi TT RS gets subtle cosmetic surgery ahead of its trip to the Big Apple

The 2019 Audi TT RS gets a minor face-lift, but it keeps its signature turbocharged inline-five engine. The updated TT RS makes its United States debut at the 2019 New York Auto Show.
Cars

Karma Automotive unveils two head-turning concept cars, quicker 2020 Revero GT

Karma Automotive brought three new cars to the 2019 Shanghai Auto Show, including a long overdue redesigned version of its Revero plug-in hybrid, an all-electric concept car, and a concept coupe designed in concert with legendary Italian…
Cars

More tech and more space make the Mercedes-Benz GLS the S-Class of the SUV world

Mercedes-Benz introduced the second-generation GLS at the 2019 New York Auto Show. The company's biggest and most luxurious SUV gains more tech features in its quest to become the S-Class of the SUV world.
Cars

Would you buy the Tarok compact pickup truck? Volkswagen wants to know

The Volkswagen Tarok pickup truck concept will make its United States debut at the 2019 New York Auto Show. The truck first appeared at the 2018 Sao Paulo Auto Show, and VW wants to see what U.S. buyers think of it.
Cars

Sick of civilization? Volkswagen’s Atlas Basecamp concept lets you get away

Volkswagen revealed the Atlas Basecamp concept ahead of its debut at the 2019 New York Auto Show. Built for overlanding, this family-hauler was upgraded jointly by Volkswagen and aftermarket manufacturers.
Cars

The 2020 Nissan GT-R Nismo sheds weight, uses racing tricks to stay sharp

The 2020 Nissan GT-R Nismo isn't dramatically different from the 2019 model, but Nissan made changes where it counts. The updated GT-R Nismo is lighter and offers better aerodynamic performance, according to Nissan.
Cars

21 charged in Chicago carsharing heist; 100+ cars stolen, many still missing

More than 100 Mercedes-Benz vehicles belonging to carsharing service Car2Go were stolen in Chicago. Police are still working to recover all of the cars, which are equipped with GPS, and 21 people have been charged.
Cars

The VR goggles you wear to shoot alien ships is helping Magna design car parts

Canadian automotive supplier Magna has started using virtual reality in its research and development department. The technology helps engineers get a better view of what they're working on, whether it's an interior part or a powertrain.
Cars

From rugged wagons to hot sports cars, the 2019 NY Auto Show brought it all

From city cars to supercars, anything goes at the New York Auto Show. Automakers from all over the globe traveled to the 2019 show to unveil their newest concept cars and production models.
Cars

Toyota leads $1 billion investment in Uber’s self-driving tech division

In a move that has been a long time coming, Uber filed its S-1 documents, which sets the stage for the company to finally go public with an initial public offering. The company could be valued at more than $100 billion.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Samsung Galaxy Fold woes, zombie pigs, and more

Today's topics: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Facebook A.I. voice assistants, YouTube comes to Fire TV, facial recognition on airline flights, the SpaceX DART program, Yale's zombie pigs, and much more!
Cars

Electric car buying guide: What you need to know before you buy

EVs are better than they've ever been, but buying your first battery-powered car can be an intimidating experience. Digital Trends has compiled a comprehensive guide that walks you through the process of buying an EV.