You knew the ZL1 was coming.
You didn’t need the gift of Prophecy to predict that the 640 horsepower supercharged LT4 engine from the Z06 Corvette would find its way into the 6th gen Camaro. But knowing it was going to happen couldn’t adequately prepare you for the 2017 Camaro ZL1. Last week, along with other members of the media, we were sworn to secrecy, had our cell phone cameras taped over, then were shown the preproduction version of the new top Camaro. We nodded, took notes, and collectively patted ourselves on the back for correctly guessing ahead of time what the “secret” car would be.
Then the wall swung open to the sound of two dazzle-wrapped ZL1 engineering prototype cars firing up outside, and things got real.
With 60 more horsepower, 80 more pound-feet, and 200 fewer pounds than the 5th Gen ZL1, the 2017 is faster. A lot faster. One by one, they brought us out, got us crammed into a helmet and HANS device, and strapped us in to the right seats for a lap around Spring Mountain’s east loop, chauffeured by an all-star lineup of Camaro development engineers.
The new ZL1 has the right specs for ripping up a road course. In addition to the monster LT4 under the extractor-style hood, there’s an updated Magnetic Ride Suspension with multiple modes tailored specifically for this application. Brembo brakes with six-piston monoblock calipers gripping enormous 15.35-inch two piece rotors in front, and in back there are four-piston calipers with 14.37-inch rotors. ZL1-specific 20-inch forged aluminum wheels with 285/30ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires with a Camaro-specific rubber compound deliver grip to go with the power.
And of course, there’s a standard six speed manual gearbox featuring active rev matching, with a twist – instead of the typical double overdrive with the top two gears being numerically lower than 1:1, only 6th gear is an overdrive ratio, bringing the other five closer together for better track performance.
Here’s something we didn’t predict – an optional 10-speed paddle shifted automatic. Chevrolet made waves with the 8-speed introduced in the Corvette Stingray and available in the Z06, but now they’ve gone two better. In our ride with Camaro development engineer Bill Wise, by the luck of the draw we were in the prototype equipped with the 10-speed, and it was eye-opening. Though it’s a “conventional” torque converter style gearbox rather than a DSG-style manumatic, it shifts with incredible speed, and the 7.39:1 overall spread of gear ratios keeps the LT4 right in the middle of its broad powerband no matter where you’re at.
Frankly, with an engine as torquey and flexible as the LT4 you could put a Powerglide behind it and get away with it, but Wise ripping up and down through the gears while blasting around Spring Mountain was an experience unlike anything we’ve had before. GM says this transmission will be in eight different models by the end of 2018, so they’re definitely all-in with this new gearbox.
Chevrolet displayed great confidence in the durability of their prototypes, hot lapping the pair for more than an hour without a hitch and stopping only long enough to change passengers. As the sun set, the drivers pushed harder into the final short straight before braking at maximum effort, intentionally setting the front rotors of the Camaros aglow in the gathering dusk. In light of scattered reports of customer C7 Z06 cooling issues under heavy track use, we certainly got the feeling that Chevrolet was going even farther with the ZL1 to ensure it’s as bulletproof under fire as they can possibly make it.
With no large-displacement naturally aspirated LS7 counterpart yet seen in the Gen V engine lineup, is the ZL1 intended to be a dual-role car, replacing both the old model and the Z/28 in the Camaro family, like the C7 Z06 did for the ZR1? It certainly seems so, and Chevrolet has put in the work to make the 2017 ZL1 track-ready, with 100 hours of wind tunnel testing that led to a larger front splitter and greatly expanded grille opening complete with “Flowtie”, ZL1-specific rockers, wider front fenders, underbody aero shields, and a wing-style decklid spoiler. There are 11 separate heat exchangers, custom launch control, and an electronic limited slip differential as well.
It’s also going to be a very well-appointed Camaro, with all the technological features we’ve seen introduced with this generation on tap. Like the C7 Z06, the ZL1 will be outfitted for both track days and grand tourer duty.
Whatever comes next for the Camaro, the ZL1 is going to be hard to top. Just because you know it’s coming doesn’t mean you’re ready for it…