Payne: Camaro ZL1, the four-seat ’Vette

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

You’ve saved your pennies and now it’s time to buy yourself a Christmas present.

In particular, that track-eating Corvette Z06 you’ve eyed ever since it stomped the Porsche 911 GT3 (and everything else) at Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap competition around Virginia International Raceway. The one with 650 horsepower, magnetic shocks, T-Rex growl. The works.

But life is complicated. You’ve got a family, kids; a two-seat sports car seems so ... selfish. Rear seats would be nice to ferry family — especially if you can find a sports coupe with similar, trackable dynamics.


Well, Merry Christmas. Chevy’s elves have a nice, red toy just for you.

With the same supercharged V-8 monster under the hood, magnetic dampers and Jurassic bellow, the 2017 Chevy Camaro ZL1 is a ’Vette with four seats.

Roaring down California’s Willow Springs front straightaway at 150 mph (is that sonic boom from the Camaro or Edwards Air Force base nearby?), I’m reminded of my first test of the Z06 last year at Spring Mountain Raceway in Nevada.

Like the ’Vette, the ’Maro’s lo-o-o-o-ong front hood seems to arrive at Turn One 10 seconds before I do. Enormous 15.35-inch front Brembo brakes (six-pot front, four rear like Z06) stop the 3,944-pound missile like a brick wall. Huge 11-inch front rubber claws the pavement. The car rotates effortlessly into the 90-degree left-hander, throttle flat across the apex, emerging with pavement to spare as I launch to Turn 2.

Like the Stingray, the ZL1 has more to give.

Josef Newgarden, one of “The Captain” Penske’s Indycar star drivers, finds more. Back in the pits, I join him, jumping in the passenger seat. He explores the ragged edge in Turn One, dancing the car from turn to turn. He obliterates my 1.33 second lap with his 1.28.5 — just seconds off the Z06 track best of 1.25. And it’s the first time either of us has been in the car.

The Camaro still has more.

To achieve this mind-melting performance, the ’Maro has more than any ZL1 before it.

Begin with the Alpha platform, the same bones that gird the sensational Cadillac ATS-V. As awesome as the new Mustang GT350R is on the track and as intimidating as the Dodge Hellcat is in a straight line, this Camaro is in its own league. This is a pony car with thoroughbred DNA.

Peer under the skin and the ZL1 gets the same bat-wing under-body brace and suspension bits as the ATS-V. Lighter than its predecessor by 237 pounds, the ZL1 weighs just 80 pounds more than ATS-V, despite its bigger wheelbase and V-8 boat anchor up front that requires 11 heat exchangers to keep cool. Alpha’s inherent goodness shines through as the ZL1 handles like a much smaller car.

GM’s 1st 10-speed gearbox

The Camaro even gets more than big brother Z06.

In a sign of just how serious the General is about making Camaro a premier sports coupe, the ZL1 is GM’s first application of the much-anticipated, lightning-quick 10-speed gearbox co-developed with Ford for rear-drive vehicles.

I imagine Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser and Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter in a friendly arm wrestle to claim the rights to use the 10-speed. Oppenheiser, who has the torso of a grizzly bear, wins.

The 10-speed is a revelation, a single-clutch automatic that rivals — nay, surpasses — the sophisticated, more expensive, dual-clutch Porsche PDK transmission that GM used as a baseline. Nail the big V-8 out of a corner and shifts snap off in almost imperceptible, 300-milliseconds shots — quicker, GM, claims than a Porsche’s 500 milliseconds.

“I thought I was driving a PDK,” says Randy Pobst, Sports Car Club of America champ and a Motor Trend hot shoe who has driven everything from Porsches to McLarens around Willow.

Drew Cattell, a Camaro track jockey and ride and handling engineer for Chevy, says the 10-speed’s quickness gives it a slight advantage over the ZL1’s also available 6-speed manual (itself superior to the Corvette’s confusing, three-gate, 7-speed box). That efficiency helped propel ZL1 to a stunning, 7.26 lap across Nurburgring’s 14-mile course this year — that’s quicker than the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

Ready to perform

Want more? Cattell says the ZL1 should lap Willow in the 1.26-1.27 second range.

But the 10-speed’s benefits don’t have to be tracked to be realized. Chevy’s elves have been busy. This is a modern, computer-controlled box that sprinkles magic dust over the old automatic formula.

The transmission’s range of ratios allows the box to concentrate on gears 3-to-7 while on track (Cattell caught 8th gear at 180 mph on the ’Ring’s back straight), then rely on overdrive gears 8-10 on road to save fuel. Seized by the need for speed on a twisty road? Toggle to SPORT mode, hold the left paddle-shifter for one-Mississippi and the tranny will instantly downshift to the appropriate gear — no cycling required — for maximum torque. Cruising along in 10th gear when a Hellcat challenges you into a Hell, Michigan, corner? Hold. Bang! You’re in third gear, revs at 5 grand. Let’s play.

These electronic “Easter eggs” are found in PDKs as well and open a whole world of performance possibilities.

Speaking of Mustangs, the ZL1 adds a ’Stang-like, line-lock burnout feature to impress the crowds at Dream Cruise stoplights. It’s also in keeping with the ZL1’s history as the Camaro family’s dragster. The beast snaps off impressive 11.4- second quarter mile times with an easy-to-use launch control system.

But the supercharged ’Maro is wa-a-a-ay beyond its 1969 drag-racing origins when ZL1 was code for a secret batch of Camaro available to Pomona quarter-milers. Chevy correctly calls this car a triple threat: On dragstrip, on road, and on track.

Even before Camaro rolls out its track-king Z28, the athletic, 650-horse ZL1 joins the Mustang GT350 (still my pick for most fearsome fascia) as athletes that transcend their muscle roots and take on more exotic animals like the BMW M4 and Caddy ATS-V. With its thunderous V-8 and rock-hard abs, it’s a genuine competitor to these $70K cyborgs. But for 10-grand less.

That’s $30K south of a Z06, but admittedly a lot of coin. So, Camaro takes another page from ’Vette. Like the cheaper “Z06 Jr.” Grand Sport, the ZL1’s athleticism can be had in the 1LE package (sans 200 horsepower and 10-speed) for $49K. Still with a V-8. Still with room in back for the kiddies.

Merry Christmas.

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


2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1


Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports coupe

Power plant

6.2-liter, supercharged V-8


10-speed automatic or 6-speed manual


3,887 pounds, manual (3,944 automatic as tested)


$63,435 ($65,030 as tested)


650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet torque


Zero-60: 3.5 seconds (automatic), 3.7 seconds (manual) manufacturer); top speed: NA

Fuel economy

EPA 14 city/20 highway/16 combined (manual); automatic, NA

report card


Corvette Z06 performance with four seats; quick, 10-speed box


Awkward interior storage; rear seats for wee folks


Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★