Payne: Mad Max, your Z28 is here

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

If Mad Max drove a Camaro Z28, he would dominate Fury Road.

With its massive front cowcatcher – er, splitter — it would punt bad guys from its path like a 19th century locomotive scything through a herd of steer. Its jackhammer-like, 427-cube pistons would crack the earth. Its narrow, windows would deflect explosives. Charlize Theron and her fetching crew would be home free.

When Chevy introduced its new, sixth-generation, 2016 Camaro at Belle Isle last weekend, Camaro faithful from around the country came to witness it. But they also lined up to experience hot laps in the already legendary Z28.

Harking back to the original, 1967 Z28 that homologated Camaro for SCCA racing, the 2015 is a purpose-built track weapon. It really has no peer. Though its 580-horsepower, supercharged 6.2-liter ZL1 stablemate is more powerful, it can't stay with Z in the zig-zags. So too Mustang's muscular Boss 302 Laguna Seca. The Z28 has its sights set on other prey.

"We actually want to be in conversations with the 911 GT3 Porsche and Nissan GT-R," says Chief Engineer Al Oppenheimer. Mission accomplished. In Car & Driver's legendary Lightning Lap competition around Virginia International Raceway, the Z28 is – wait for it — five seconds faster than the Porsche and just a second shy of the GT-R.

This 505-horsepower monster goes. Like. Stink. Zero-60 in 4.4 seconds. G-loads of 1.06. It is the fastest thing Chevy makes outside of the 650-horse Corvette Z06, but it's meaner than its gentleman cousin.

Like the death machines that roam Mad Max's movie landscape, the $72,705 Z28 is a Frankenstein hybrid. Beautiful black trim package, but no trunk lining. Blue-tooth phone connectivity, but manual seats. Alacantra and leather-stitched thrones, but no air conditioning. A heater it has – though with its slick, track-ready Pirelli P-Zero tires (more on these gumballs later), the grizzly hibernates in winter. Its part bin includes the elegant, rimless, rear-view mirror found in 'Vettes and Caddies. Not that it's any use. I needed a spotter to back up.

I drove Chevy's weaponized Camaro for a week. It's like living with a pet tiger. You learn to respect it because it could kill you. Its raw power must be learned. I fed it raw meat for breakfast.

The beast under the hood is so ravenous, Chevy even carves out the middle of the grille-mounted, bowtie logo to give it more air. Or maybe I was supposed to feed it small rodents through there. I don't know.

I do know it's hungry. Driving hard around Metro Detroit I got 14 mpg. It has a 19-gallon fuel tank, and requires 10 quarts of oil for its dry-sump engine.

It struggles outside its natural track habitat. Turn the key and it wakes up like a tiger from a bad dream. The earth shakes. Trees bend. Neighborhood car alarms go off. Loping around town, I had to remember to keep the big front splitter away from curbs.

But given a little room the Z28 handles like a big cat in tall grass.

Through aggressive light-weighting, Oppenheimer's team has reduced the Z28's weight 300 pounds from the 4,100-pound ZL1. Diving into a 90-degrees right-hander (my computer bag flying around the unlined trunk like a sneakers in a clothes dryer), I felt the old Zeta chassis flex beneath me. But Chevy has screwed it down with stiff springs and Formula One-inspired, valved shocks.

Banging down through the gears, the clutch is too sensitive. But the Alcantara-wrapped shifter is a delight with its positive, short throws. The real stars here are the massive brakes and tires.

The drilled, 15.5-inch front/15 rear carbon ceramic rotors are the size of manhole covers. Paired with Brembo calipers they stop the hurtling beast like a brick wall. With the 427 boat anchor up front, the Camaro's bias is to understeer, so Chevy equipped it with 12-inch front P-Zeros – the widest front production tires in existence.

The gummies briefly protest, then bite. G-loads are massive, yet passengers have nothing to hold onto in the spartan interior. No "oh, crap!" handles like a "Vette. During Belle Isle hot laps - OH, CRAAAAAP! - Chief Driving Instructor Rick Malone had to warn passengers against grabbing the passenger-side-located emergency brake for stability.

Exit the corner and it's all engine. Armed with titanium connecting rods and intake valves, the liquid-fuel rocket revs freely to 7000 RPM. Houston, we have liftoff.

Now imagine the next generation Z28 on the Gen 6 Alpha platform. Stiffer. Another 200 pounds lighter. Holy Mother of Pearl. Alas, the 427 V-8 will likely not survive. But it'll make the '15 Z28 a collector's item.

So get one now. Before Mad Max buys up the whole fleet.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Chevy Camaro Z28

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger two-door sedan/coupe

Price: $72,750

Power plant: 7.0-liter V-8

Power: 505 horsepower, 480 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds; 172 mph top speed (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,8200 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Athletic looks; Neck-snapping handling

Lows: No AC; The visibility of a tank

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★