Test Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Back in 2010, I tested the Chevy Camaro SS and while I found the car entertaining to drive, it was more because of its honking V8 engine and cool retro looks than its handling prowess. In that review, I commented that the SS was “a point and shoot car that feels great going in a straight line, but is not the kind of car that you’re going to go out in search of twisty roads with or be anxious to take to a track day.” Over the last two years, Chevy engineers have consistently worked to improve the Camaro, and after spending a week driving the new top-of-the-line ZL1 model, I can tell you that it’s quite a different car than the SS model I drove two years ago, with the primary differences coming not so much from the big increase in power, but from the suspension tuning.

While the Camaro SS is plenty fast with its 6.2-liter V8 pumping out 426hp, Chevy bolted a supercharger onto the ZL1 motor, which ups the power considerably to 580hp. Torque is also increased substantially to a stump-pulling 556 lb-ft, up from 420 lb-ft in the SS. To handle the extra power and heat generated from the engine, the ZL1 also has a rear differential cooler and an integrated engine/transmission oil cooler. While it’s a bit of an American hot-rodding tradition to put bigger engines under the hood, Chevy covered all their bases with the ZL1, as they also gave the ZL1 the latest and greatest Magnetic Ride Control suspension, which uses valve-less damping and Magneto-Rheological fluid technology to constantly adjust the shocks based on road conditions and driving style. Bushings, mounts and tires have all been tuned to work with the adjustable shocks.

The standard Camaro has plenty of street presence, but the ZL1 I drove had some racy cosmetic changes that make it stand out on the road, including a very cool exposed carbon fiber hood vent insert and black ten-spoke 20” wheels. Inside, the ZL1 has lots of suede-look microfiber used, as it’s on the dash and seats, and our test car also had it on the steering wheel and gear lever (optional). I liked these touches for the interior, but all Camaro’s are not the best when it comes to ergonomics, as the gauges hidden under the ventilation controls are difficult to read, the door release handles are difficult to reach, and the narrow side and rear windows make it difficult to see out of.

On the road, the Camaro ZL1 feels a lot like the Cadillac CTS-V, which it basically shares its drivetrain and suspension with. This is a good thing, as the CTS-V is a very fast and well-balanced car. The Magneto-Rheological shocks do a great job of ironing out rough patches and making it feel like the suspension is always in control of everything and has the tires interacting perfectly with the road. In its “Tour” mode, the ZL1 delivers and well-damped ride on virtually any kind of road, but the “Sport” mode also does a nice job of keeping things compliant while firming up the suspension for improved handling response. The car also sounds fantastic, especially when you get hard on the throttle, thanks to a dual-mode exhaust that uses vacuum-actuated valves that stay closed on modest speeds but open up with a bellow when you get more aggressive with your right foot.

After driving the ZL1 around on our favorite roads for a few days, it was clear that it’s a much better handling car than the SS I drove two years ago. While that car didn’t feel very connected to the road anytime the road turned, the ZL1 always felt ready to take on the curves, even though it still feels large with its dimensions, weight and limited sight lines. I had a chance to take the ZL1 to a Sports Car Driving Association track day at Lime Rock Park (, and the ZL1 was especially impressive on the track. All the added torque from the supercharged motor made easy work of the track’s famous uphill turn, and the Magneto-Rheological shocks did a great job of coping with the undulations on the “no-name straight” and the compression when hitting the bottom of the downhill diving turn. The big Brembo brakes were stout and strong all day, it had pretty good steering feel for an electronic setup, and the shifter was precise and accurate. Very impressive.

The Camaro ZL1 may still be lacking in some areas (ergonomics and visibility come first to mind), but this is a truly impressive car and is a fantastic value for the money when it comes to performance. For just $54,350, you can own a car that has more power on tap than some ultra-expensive sports car from Europe, and is truly a car that you can drive every day and then take to the track for some fun without worrying about cooking the brakes or understeering off the track. As good as the ZL1 is, I kept thinking about how much better it would be if it could lose around 300-400 lbs. But hey, we can’t have everything. Overall, Chevy did a very nice job on this car.

More info:





6.2-liter supercharged V8


580 @ 6,000rpm


556 lb-ft @ 4,200rpm


6-speed manual (6-speed auto optional)


Brembo brakes with 6-piston calipers front, 4-piston calipers rear

Curb weight

4,120 lbs.

0-60mph (rolling start)

4.0 seconds

¼ mile (rolling start)

12.1 seconds at 119mph

Max lateral grip

1.0 g

Fuel economy (city/highway)

14mpg / 19mpg

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