2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE First Test Review


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A terrible thing happened back in December during our First Test of the then brand-new Camaro ZL1. Randy Pobst, our lap-record-setting machine/professional race car driver cohort, went out and ran a 1:26.16 lap in the manual version of the burly Camaro on the big track at Willow Springs International Raceway, aka Big Willow. Then he did 1:26.48 in the 10-speed automatic version. The problem was that the auto was supposed to be the quicker of the two. That slower time not only harshed my mellow but also blew the story. But as I’ve heard Randy say many times, that’s racing. With laps in the bag, our test team left, and while the rest of us were at lunch, a Camaro engineer who shall remain nameless convinced Randy to take another stab in the 650-horsepower 10-speed monster. The result was a 1:25.87 lap. Rather, the unofficial result was a 1:25.87 lap. We used the ZL1’s built-in Performance Data Recorder to grab that number, but alas, we had no GPS info to back up the claim. So it doesn’t count. Things happen.

I mention the above because Camaro bossman Al Oppenheiser shared an after-dinner story with us about his new Camaro ZL1 1LE, the laser-focused track-day special version of the brutal ZL1. A Camaro engineer who I’m gonna name (Bill Wise) knocked off a 7:16.03 lap of the legendary Nordschleife circuit at the Nürburgring. For some perspective, a Ferrari Enzo did a 7:25.21, a Ferrari 488 GTB did a 7:21.63, and a Porsche 911 GT2 RS did a 7:18.00. Bill was driving a Camaro. Crazy, no? Want to hear crazier? That 7:16.03 is quicker than any other General Motors (cough, Corvette, cough) product has gone around the ’Ring. His time is also more than 13 seconds quicker than what the standard ZL1 has done, 7:29.60. Al’s story, however, was one of tragedy. A little window of time had suddenly opened up one afternoon in Germany, and Bill jumped into the red ZL1 1LE and managed to run a lap in the 7:13 neighborhood. A Lexus LFA Nürburgring package ran a 7:14.64. But because everything happened so fast, Team Camaro didn’t document it. No GoPro, no one thought to hit record on the PDR, no onboard data capture equipment—nothing. These things happen, though mostly it seems to Camaros.

Meet the car that crushed it: the ZL1 1LE. This machine is the third member of the sixth-generation Camaro 1LE family, following the V-6 1LE and the V-8 powered SS 1LE. The 1LE moniker is Camaro shorthand for tracked-up versions that can stop and turn better, though there’s no increase in power. Under the black hood—a 1LE family trait—sits the same Camaro-specific LT4 as the “regular” ZL1, a 6.2-liter supercharged, heavily intercooled, non-dry-sumped V-8 that spits out 650 horsepower and sledgehammers home 650 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the ZL1, the 1LE version is only available with the Tremec MH3 six-speed manual transmission. No auto, sorry. Because the 10-speed tranny is supposed to be the quickest way around a racetrack, it’s curious that it’s not offered. My guess as to why is because of weight concerns. If there’s a problem with the ZL1, it’s lard. The 10-speed clocks in at 3,926 pounds—14 pounds heftier than the 3,912-pound manual. You might laugh about 14 pounds, but the ZL1 1LE was put on a diet, resulting in a 75-pound loss (to 3,837 pounds). Remember, every little bit counts on track, including the 7 pounds they saved when yanking out the daytime running lights. Besides, it’s more fun to shift yourself.

By removing those DRLs and redoing the grille, the Camaro team was able to increase the amount of airflow into several of the 11 radiators aboard the ZL1. More clean air is good not just for cooling things off but for aero, too. It’s easiest to look at a white ZL1 1LE to spot all the changes over the “base” car. Essentially, everything that’s black is new, including the mega front splitter and those insane canards/dive planes. The first thing you should know about the dive planes is that they can’t sell the ZL1 1LE in Europe because of pedestrian safety laws. I think that fact right there is reason enough to buy this car. When working in unison with the splitter and massive carbon-fiber wing that sits atop three uprights on the trunk, the dive planes—which are the widest part of the car—help produce 300 pounds of downforce at 155 miles per hour. You might be thinking, “When will you ever use that?” Well, if you watch the Nürburgring lap video, you’ll see that the ZL1 1LE goes over 155 mph four times (and over 165 mph thrice!), so there’s that. Also, the car is a 650-hp force of nature; 155 mph will happen. Even if you don’t care about downforce at driver’s-license-shredding speeds, you have to applaud the ZL1 1LE’s menacing Überholprestige, a German phrase that translates to, “I’d better let the beast in my rearview mirror pass!”

The single biggest difference between the garden variety ZL1 and the 1LE are the shocks. Like the fifth-generation Z/28, this car uses Multimatic DSSV dampers, better known as spool-valve shocks. Other cars that use Multimatic’s creation? Every current F1 car, the Aston Martin One-77, the Aston Martin Vulcan, and the new Ford GT. Shock-wise at least, the ZL1 1LE is in good company, no? The spool-valve advantage is that low-speed rebound and compression can be radically differentiated from high-speed attributes. To go back to the Nürburgring Nordschleife, some moments take place at 48 mph while others happen at 173 mph. To get optimum damping, traction, and steering under those wildly different conditions, Chevy feels the best solution is spool-valve dampers. The Camaro team then took things one step further toward full-blown race car: The dampers are hard-mounted to the body. That’s right—the tires incorporate the only rubber in the suspension. There are no rubber bushings!

Rule number one in business is to know thy customer. As such, the Camaro team knows that track rats love nothing more than being able to make adjustments to their toys. Whether said adjustability is wise or warranted is best left to internet forums (God help us). There are three variables you can tweak on the ZL1 1LE. The first is front-end ride height, which can be varied plus or minus 10 millimeters. Warning: Don’t drop the nose 10mm on the street, or you’ll be buying a new splitter. Out back, the anti-roll bar (or “stab bar,” as the Camaro team insists on calling it) can be put into one of three positions: neutral, more oversteer, or more understeer. Why would you want more understeer? It helps with high-speed stability. Plus, certain tracks induce more oversteer—or understeer—than others. The final piece of the adjustable puzzle is front-end camber. The trick shocks are topped off with groovy-looking blue-anodized camber plates. Jack the front up, remove three bolts, twist, and voilà, you have 3.7 degrees of tire-chewing negative camber. You know you love it. And hey, you might even need it.

Speaking of tires, the other big change to the ZL1 1LE are the Goodyears. The Eagle F1 SuperCar R3 tires are Goodyear’s first attempt at a DOT-approved R-compound tire. Rumor has it that several years back, Camaro approached Michelin for tires to slap on the sixth-gen car. Michelin turned their nose up and said, “Non.” Camaro was apparently too déclassé for the famed French tiremaker. This created an opportunity for Goodyear, one that it pounced on. I’ve loved the Eagle F1 SuperCar tires that come standard on both the SS 1LE and the ZL1 since I first experienced them last year. They’re as close to the segment-best Michelin Pilot Super Sports as I’ve tried. The target for the ZL1 1LE’s R3 is the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2, an R-compound tire that can be found on high-performance machines ranging from the Corvette Grand Sport to the Porsche 918 Spyder. Two dirty, poorly kept secrets about Sport Cup 2s: You get one “hero lap,” as Corvette engineer Jim Mero refers to it. After that first extra-special lap, performance falls off. Also, as Tobias Moers, the head of AMG, told me after gloating about the fact that he is slapping Corvette-spec Cup 2s (1416) on the new GT R, “One drop of rain, and you’re done.” As a result, Goodyear was tasked with developing a tire that won’t quit after one lap and that will get you home from the track should it rain. The ZL1 1LE rolls on massive 305/30ZR19 fronts and 325/30ZR19 rears.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. As a result of the decision to hard-mount the dampers to the car—and this is me being charitable—ride quality is not great. Being less kind—especially if you’re on ripped up, lumpy pavement—the ZL1 1LE’s ride flat-out sucks. It’s brutal, and over big bumps at speed, the rear end seems to run out of travel. That’s the trade-off for supercar handling everywhere else. Can you live with the car as a daily driver? Yes. Just avoid potholes like the plague. Continuing with the bad, some genius in Chevy marketing decided that placing an “X” sticker on the ends of the rear wing would let consumers know exactly how extreme the ZL1 1LE is. What, tribal tattoos were patented? The sticker is an insult to the team that built the car, as well as to the car itself. Thankfully, you can peel them off with a thumbnail. I checked. Should you—as you should—pound the snot out of the angriest Camaro on your favorite back road, you’ll see less than 10 miles per gallon. Perhaps much less. The new tires are so sticky you can’t do burnouts, which stinks because the normal ZL1 is the greatest burnout machine on planet Earth. Even better than a Hellcat. Lastly, I dislike the name. A lot. ZL1LE? ZL2? Apollyon? The Crippler? ZLucifer? Satan Pony X? That last one would at least excuse the stickers. But anyhow, those are all the bad things I could think of.

The good stuff is vast and varied. Thanks to the miracle of iPhone Notes and voice to text, here are my thoughts moments after I drove the car for the first time: “Analogue! Whatever else it might be, the ZL1 1LE is a good workout! That’s a driver’s car! When the aero and the tires shake hands, it’s a moment of revelation. You’re suddenly driving a hard-mounted race car. Unreal. So much power, so much control, so much stopping ability. Monster of a machine this Satan Pony. I found myself screaming ‘YEAH!!!’ out loud and clapping my hands on the straights. This thing is an uncaged race car.”

After several more days behind the microfiber-wrapped steering wheel, I stand by my initial impressions. Other cars might be as capable, but they lack the ZL1 1LE’s sense of reward when you get a corner or a string of corners right. As far as on track goes, the ZL1 1LE is both potent and forgiving. Thanks to the instant spool of the supercharger and the resulting deep sea of torque, I was reminded of a harder-hitting Dodge Viper ACR—though the Camaro’s extra 400 pounds of heft means it’s not as fleet as the Mopar superstar. That said, the gluey Goodyear 3Rs never quit. Neither did my smile.

On our test track, the ZL1 1LE hits 60 mph in 3.6 seconds. A regular-strength six-speed ZL1 takes 3.8 seconds, and the 10-speed auto gets it done in 3.5 seconds. The 1LE version runs the quarter mile in 11.7 seconds with a 123.0-mph trap speed. The manual ZL1 needs 11.8 seconds at 123.9 mph, whereas the automatic hits it in 11.5 seconds at 125.0 mph. The 1LE’s lower trap speed is likely due to the drag from the aero bits. The ZL1 1LE can pull a max g of 1.11 and run our figure-eight course in 23 seconds flat. For reference, anything above 1.1 g and a figure-eight time in the 22-second range should be considered elite. The six-speed ZL1 can pull 1.08 g and run the figure eight in 23.2 seconds; the 10-speed is good for 1.07 g and 23.1 seconds. Braking for the ZL1 1LE from 60 mph happens in an ultra-elite 91 feet. The regular manual car takes 97 feet, whereas the auto needs only 96 feet. Anything less than 100 feet is excellent. For a bit more contrast, the aforementioned 2018 Mercedes-AMG GT R weighs 3,680 pounds, hits 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, runs the quarter mile in 11.4 seconds at 127.6 mph, pulls 1.12 g on the skidpad, figure eights in 22.8 seconds, stops from 60 mph in 96 feet, and popped off a 7:10.92 lap of the Nordschleife. The beast from Grüne Hölle also costs more than twice as much as the Chevy.

Sadly, we haven’t been able to lap the ZL1 1LE at Big Willow. Meaning we don’t know by how much it will crush the standard steroidal Camaros. Conversely, we haven’t lapped either flavor of regular ZL1 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. However, Randy Pobst did lap the ZL1 1LE at MRLS, and the results are stunning. He managed a 1:34.30. For some context, the previous-gen Z/28 did a 1:37.82. The sixth-gen SS 1LE ran a 1:37.77. Last year’s Best Driver’s Car winner, the carbon-fiber-tubbed mid-engine McLaren 570S, posted a 1:34.58. The 2012 Corvette Z06 used to be the production-car record holder. It lapped Laguna in 1:34.43. Impressed yet? You should be. The ZL1 1LE is a serious machine intended for serious purposes. Honestly, the tire-smoking, donut-loving normal ZL1 is more fun to horse around with.

Allow me to leave you with one final story. Chevy launched the ZL1 1LE at a new racetrack in Osoyoos, British Columbia, called Area 27. The track is 3 miles long, has 16 corners, and is a refreshing mix of fast and challenging, with lots of tarmac between corners. The Area 27 lap record, which was set by a McLaren 675LT and a pro driver, is 2:10.40. After two days of practice, Bill Wise was able to record a 2:11.98 lap in a ZL1 1LE. After about half a day, Randy Pobst ran a 2:11.88, besting Bill—the guy who built the car—by one tenth of a second. Yes, of course, I’m telling you this to brag about my buddy Randy. However, it’s worth mentioning that Randy’s quickest time happened on the fourth lap of his evening stint. Meaning that Goodyear nailed those tires. As for the Camaro ZL1 1LE, Chevy smacked it out of the park.

2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 (1LE)
BASE PRICE $71,295
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 2-door coupe
ENGINE 6.2L/650-hp/650-lb-ft* supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,837 lb (55/45%)
WHEELBASE 110.7 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 188.3 x 74.7 x 52.0 in
0-60 MPH 3.6 sec
QUARTER MILE 11.7 sec @ 123.0 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 91 ft
MT FIGURE EIGHT 23.0 sec @ 0.93 g (avg)
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 241/169 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 1.20 lb/mile
*SAE Certified

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