500for500

As the sun dawned over the Embassy Suites in Charolette, N.C.—just a stone’s throw from Rick Hendrick Motorsports—it shimmered off the flanks of 12 brand new 2017 Camaro ZL1s, each burbling away in the parking lot below a tower of jet-lagged journalists. The cars arrived at the hotel almost directly off the assembly line, in order to whisk us away to watch the 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Bleary eyed, we all wandered from our hotel rooms down to the complementary breakfast to fuel up for the 500 mile trip that awaited us. Slowly, but surely, after a heavy dose of caffeine, we made our way out of the hotel lobby and into the refreshing 50-degree air, still sticky with humidity but less so than the upcoming high 70-degree day would entail. Before us was a flock of brightly colored ZL1s, and we were told by Chevy brass to select one for the first leg of the trip.

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ZL1s of every configuration were on hand and at our beck and call. As we all circled the parking lot looking for our favorite combo, attempting to beat other journalists to the punch, we were informed that we would need to pair up as each of us would take turns driving the car on different legs of the journey. I was paired with Travis Langness, an editor for Edmund magazine, due to our mutual lack of a partner; though this arrangement suited us just fine.

While the ZL1 looks great topless, I was hoping for a coupe to start out the day—manual or auto, it didn’t matter to me since we would be swapping cars at lunch to what ever configuration we hadn’t driven on the first leg. Much to my chagrin, however, I was placed in a Garnet Red (which is a premium option color) convertible to kick off the day. While I prefer the coupe, how could I complain? I was in Charlotte, on my way to the Daytona 500 in a 650 horsepower Camaro on Chevrolet’s dime—#firstworldproblems. The old adage of beggars can’t be choosers applied to no one more fully than myself in that moment. As a consolation, I got to drive first and it was a 6-speed manual–and hey, convertibles can be pretty fun.

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The first leg of our drive would take us 125 miles to a small ice cream shop in North Carolina that was far enough off the beaten path to let us stretch the ZL1’s legs a bit and get a real feel for the car’s capabilities. We would then trade drivers and head to our second meeting spot: a restaurant just off the Atlantic in South Carolina. With our directions in the navigation system, we hit the road.

Suspended

While this is the first time I’ve ever driven the sixth-gen Camaro ZL1, it isn’t my first rodeo with the sixth incarnation of GM’s pony car. In the past, I’ve been very impressed with improvements Chevrolet made from the fifth- to sixth-gen. The substantial loss of weight is always what struck me first about other V8-powered sixth-gens and this was no different. The switch from the Zeta chassis architecture that underpinned the fifth-gen Camaro to the Alpha chassis that the new Camaro resides on was a giant leap forward in terms of weight and rigidity.

Naturally, the first order of business was to shuffle through the many different driving modes that the ZL1 offers as we rolled out of the parking lot. Each mode includes different features and also affects the suspension and steering settings as well. Since all ZL1’s are equipped with the FE4 Magnetic Ride Control suspension, switching modes was instantly detectible in how the car behaved. Shifting from Touring to Sport to Track made a noticeable differences in how planted the car felt and how quickly it responded to input from the controls.

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However, the car felt poised in every setting. The magnetorheological suspension does an amazing job of keeping the car level while detecting any movement that should still be damped. For most of our drive, we left the car in either Sport or Track because it was that good. Plus, being a performance enthusiast like I am, it just felt right on the car.

The different suspension settings also bring with them a correlating steering effort and exhaust note setting. However, if you want to mix and match the settings—for example if you want Touring steering with Sport suspension setting—they are easily accessible through the center display’s menus. Again, I left the settings alone as I wanted them to correlate with the suspension setting, but we did mess with them to see how they would feel.

In every setting the steering was sharp and well-weighted. The Track steering setting is definitely heavy, but laser sharp. The feedback through the wheel was phenomenal and you would almost never guess that it is electronically assisted. Turn in, as on most sixth-gens, is fantastic as well. The difference between how the car enters a corner compared to the fifth-gen is a night and day difference. The car changes direction at the flick of the wrist and can change lanes almost telepathically–though you’ll want to be careful with that as the car can be somewhat hard to see out of, though the blind spot detection really helped out.

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The car felt so serene and planted, we found ourselves easily exceeding 80 mph without even noticing it. While this also has something to do with both the aerodynamics and drivetrain of the car, the intrinsic stability of the ZL1 does not communicate how fast you are going—which we loved but might get you in trouble if your using it as a daily cruiser.

Drivetrain

It’s well known the ZL1 is powered by the 650 horsepower 650 lb-ft of torque LT4, but what you might not know is the supercharger lid has actually been redesigned in order to avoid the heat soak problems of yesteryear. According to Camaro head honcho Al Oppenheiser–who we had at our disposal for the whole event–the redesign makes the TVS R1740 supercharger practically immune to heat soak.

The stats on the ZL1, according to Chevrolet, are 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds and a quarter mile time of 11.4 seconds at 127 mph, though that’s for the auto-equipped coupe. While we never timed the car, I can personally vouch that this car will easily double its speed at the drop of a hat, no matter how fast you are already going—trust us, we checked.

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The 6-speed car we drove on our first leg was fantastic. The TR6060 provides positive engagement and easy to find gears. The stock shifter feels solid and easily allowed us to change gears at what we’ll call a brisk pace (*cough no lift shifts *cough). All 6-speed models are also equipped with the rev match feature that makes you sound like you’re a veteran road racer every time you shift down a cog. One thing we will miss though is the hand brake. All sixth-gens have an electronic parking brake–which hampers hooning—but 650 horsepower probably makes that almost a moot point.

At lunch, we switched over to a Nightfall Gray Metallic 10-speed automatic and we were blown away. This transmission is hands down one of the best gear boxes I’ve ever had the pleasure of letting complete my shifts for me. Before driving the car, I assumed that the new 10R90 tranmission might search for gears a bit or lag when you kick the car in the throttle pedal, but none of these was ever a problem.

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As a test, I slowed the car to 50 mph and stabbed the throttle on the freeway to see how quickly it would find a gear. The transmission instantly found the right gear and pulled like a freight train, making the shifts between gears faster than a PDK dual-clutch transmission.

A friend of mine asked me after the test whether I would buy the ZL1 with the 6-speed or the 10-speed and was shocked when I said that I would take the latter—it’s just that good. Not to mention the 10-speed equipped car is substantially faster in a straight line and just as good in the bends. All of these reasons make it an easy choice, especially when you consider the transmission is only a $1,595 option–well worth every cent. While I love to row my own gears, the 10-speed automatic is a home run for GM. 

Its Whats on the Inside That Counts

The interior of the ZL1, and most sixth-gen Camaros in general, is a fantastic place to be for any length of time. The ZL1 comes with heated and cooled, 6-way adjustable Recaro seats standard with suede inserts that were surprisingly comfortable for 500 miles—especially when you consider how bolstered they are. Oppenheiser told us that the reason they were specifically designed to be supportive since he has a bad back and wouldn’t let them leave the factory without allowing him to drive the car without hurting.

The steering wheel and shifter are also wrapped in suede and almost every interior panel has been wrapped in soft touch materials. Gone are the throw back gauges on the center console from the fifth-gen (thank goodness). In their place is a comprehensive and configurable digital display. Parameters such as boost pressure, oil temperature, and g-forces can all be added.

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A heads up display, however, makes looking down at the gauges relatively unnecessary. If the gauges weren’t so beautiful, you would have almost no reason to take your eyes off the road for any amount of time. The only problem we really found with the interior was the central display screen. It was hard to tell if it was angled or not but it seemed to just be at weird angle that was far from ergonomic. We were told that it was designed in an effort to decrease glare and allow the passenger to access the controls as well, but something about it just seemed out of place.

Another problem area we found was the sun visors on the convertible models. They only flip straight down, they aren’t adjustable like normal visors and this became a problem more than once. The mirrors on the backs of them also have no cover, so when ever they are down trying to block the sun, you are also staring at yourself the entire time—though it’s not bad to check yourself out in a ZL1.

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The HVAC controls are built into the air vents and are amazingly refined, reminding me of something that you would normally see in an Audi or Mercedes. All in all, the interiors of these Camaros are light-years ahead of what they used to be and are every bit as nice, if not nicer, than any manufacturer out there right now.

Bark and Bite

One of our favorite features of the ZL1 was the active exhaust. Every time we started a ZL1 up, it gave everyone within ear shot a huge grin. In Track mode, the exhaust is always open and sounds amazing. In Sport and Touring, the flap opens as you become more aggressive with your right foot. However, the car does come with a “stealth” mode as well that keeps the exhaust shut all the time. Oppenheiser tells us this is for those pesky neighbors that don’t want to awake to the exhaust note of the ZL1 barking to life—for the record, I would wake up to that sound happily every morning.

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If there is one mode that is worth adding to every setting, it’s the Track exhaust and I’m not completely sure why you would ever want to turn it off. I really thought I’d never say this, but I’m not sure if I would even but an aftermarket exhaust on the ZL1—it sounds that amazing.

Another awesome feature that our drag racing crowd will love is the addition of line lock. You simply cycle through one of the performance driving menus, select the line lock option, apply the brake firmly, let off, and then mash on the gas. The computer then holds the front brakes for 10 seconds, or until you press the cancel button on the steering wheel, allowing you to decimate the rear tire–or bring them up to temperature, which ever you prefer.

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Another aspect of the performance menus is the launch control system. This allows you to set the launch RPM and tire slippage that you prefer. We gave the system a test on a side street on our way to Daytona and it did much better than we did launching the car with out it and traction control.

Pricing for the coupe starts at $62,135 while the convertible tacks on another $6,000.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

After spending just over eight hours in the 2017 Camaro ZL1, I can irrefutably say that it is one of the best cars I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving—much less taking on a road trip. It shocks me that a 650 horsepower car, that is capable of 10 second quarter mile passes with a good set of drag radials, could be this easy to live with.

Just 10 years ago, a car this fast and powerful was a full on racecar that was unbearable to live with. Fast forward to 2017 and I feel as if we could have just kept right on driving all the way to Cuba—okay to the furthest point south in the U.S.

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As Travis and I rolled into Daytona beach, the sun was just setting over the Atlantic and the entire city was gearing up for the Daytona 500. And while I was still excited for the weekend, I couldn’t imagine a better day than the day I had just spent with the best Camaro the General has ever produced. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to post a picture of my experience to Instagram with the hashtag #takemeback.