Test Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Chevrolet has built the first bionic pony car. It is better, stronger, faster than before and, thankfully, doesn’t cost $6 million.

The 2012 Camaro ZL1 is packed full of more technology than the proverbial Apollo mission, and is nearly as potent, with a 580 hp 6.2 liter supercharged V8 with 556 lb-ft of torque under its bulging hood. That’s a very healthy 154 hp bump over what the the now relatively puny Camaro SS has to offer.

Helping put all that power down is Chevy’s Performance Traction Management (PTM) system, which was pioneered on the $100,000-plus Corvette ZR1 and has five settings suitable for tackling everything from drenched roads to freshly paved tracks baked by the sun.

Also providing an electronic assist is the third generation of General Motors’ Magnetic Ride Control active suspension, previous editions of which are found on the ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V. The latest version takes 1000 readings a second and can make adjustments just as quickly.

The ZL1’s body is festooned with outrageous, yet functional addenda including a deep black chin spoiler, matching rocker panels and a functional diffuser tucked under the rear bumper. A quartet of vents in the hood pull double duty cooling as well as evacuating air from the engine bay to improve downforce. The effect of all the aerodynamic tweaks is evident in a claimed top speed of 184 mph, which is slower than all of those horses should be capable of delivering if not for the intentional drag.

Since their introduction in 2010, Camaros of all stripes have been rightly castigated for their cut-rate interiors, and efforts have been made to improve the one in the ZL1 to make its $54,995 price tag more palpable. These include the addition of a suede insert on the dashboard and a replacement for the unloved -- though not by me -- deep-dish steering wheel that’s less special to look at, as it appears to be the same one found in the subcompact Chevy Sonic RS, but feels pretty good.

Sadly, all of the Camaro’s major ergonomic issues remain, notably the middling visibility and limited headroom, both highlighted when you strap on the helmet needed to put the ZL1 through its proper paces.

Ignite the engine and it settles into an epic burble that I could hear literally half a block away from the garage where I left it in midtown Manhattan, despite there being two idling tractor-trailers between me and the car.

Even without the soundtrack, the car will draw attention to itself, especially when painted Inferno Orange. Parked near Times Square, the ZL1 was a bigger attraction than The Naked Cowboy. When it comes to curb appeal, this piece of absurdity could give a chrome Lamborghini a run for its money.

Six-speed automatic and manual transmissions are available, the latter with no lift shift and a launch control function that has four settings; one calibrated specifically for the traction compound laid down in the staging area of your local drag strip, where the ZL1 has the ability to crack off 11-second quarter miles.

I’m not big a fan of the Camaro SS. It’s rocket quick in a straight line, but a clumsy brute when things get twisty. What a difference many thousand dollars worth of computer magic makes.

The suspension on the ZL1 is nothing short of remarkable. In stark contrast to the bone-jarring ride of an SS, when set to its softest Tour mode the ZL1 is a pleasure to cruise around in, but knock it up to Sport or Track and you will notice the difference.

Slam on the gas, and the ZL1 drills forward with barely a lift of its nose. Crank the wheel, and body roll is as close to negligible as one would expect from a 4120-pound car. Still, when you hit a sharp bump, there’s no harshness, just a heave-to as the magnetically-controlled dampers absorb the worst of the impact.

The steering is quick, and with a near perfect weight distribution, handling superb. You merely need to point the front tires where you want to go and work that massive torque through the rears to control the car through the curves.

If you’re not up for this task yourself, the ZL1 will be happy to oblige. The middle setting on the PTM engages an active handling mode that -- and I’m not exaggerating -- allows you to enter a turn, mat the throttle and simply steer as the computer modulates the power to get you through. It’s an astonishing feature that will actually slide the rear of the car out a few extra degrees if you haven’t been aggressive enough, and then settle in just when you think all hope is lost.

Learn to trust it the way that you trust your spouse will catch you when you fall backwards during couples counseling and you will be amazed and fall in love. It’s an effective tool for drivers interested in exploring the limits of the car without overstepping their own, but can be turned off for those who think they can do better.

After driving the ZL1 for a week on the road, and blowing through a tank of gas lapping the Monticello Motor Club, my only complaints are that the clutch pedal comes up so high that my knee taps the steering wheel and the gap between the gas and brake pedals is wide enough to eat a size 12 driving shoe, which makes smooth heel and toe downshifting more than a little challenging.

Also, that tank of gas doesn’t go very far on the street. The manual ZL1 has an EPA rating of 14 mpg city, 19 mpg highway and the automatic an even sadder 12 mpg city, 18 mpg highway, which ties it with the CTS-V for the dubious title of "least fuel efficient American car."

That said, as the needle approached "E" and I pulled into the pits long after I should have, I realized that the ZL1 hadn’t otherwise missed a beat all day. The engine didn’t overheat and the Brembo brakes never faded, even after many trips over 140 mph - at which speed it stuck to the road like it had a hole in the hood.

Purists will bemoan all of the science and gadgetry used to turn the Camaro into a world class sports car, but being atomic-powered didn’t make Steve Austin any less of a man.

It made him more of one.


2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Base Price: $54,995

Type: 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged V8

Power: 580 hp, 556 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 14 city, 19 hwy