The Chevy Camaro is a performance story in three parts: six-cylinder cars of surprising strength and good fuel economy are the opening act, while the breathtaking SS and 1LE V-8s propel the story at a blinding pace. Then, just when you think you've figured it all out, the ZL1 sends the whole thing off in a new, expensive, faintly exotic direction that might leave you wondering, what the hell just happened?
The standard LS and LT coupes and convertibles kick things off with a 323-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6. If you've blotted out a six-cylinder Camaro from your memory because of Berlinettas past, it's time to reconsider. This Camaro can rip off 0-60 mph times of about six seconds, whether you choose the meaty six-speed manual gearbox or the six-speed automatic. It's not the most mellifluous sound in the world--don't listen to the V-8s if you have any hope of escaping the showroom for under $30,000--but the V-6's acceleration is no longer a penalty.
Handling isn't either. The six-cylinder cars have electric power steering that's not too artificial in feel, and with 18-inch wheels standard on its control-arm and coil-over-shock independent rear suspension, the base Camaro with the available sport suspension package can feel almost nimble--as nimble as anything weighing in at about 3,800 pounds can feel. Convertibles some of that precise feel that's been dialed in, a function of body structure. Still, this base Camaro is light-years ahead of the highest-performance Camaros of just the last generation, so make sure your expectation buttons have been reset.
There's a psychographic gulf between those cars and the V-8 Camaros, and the Camaro SS provides all of the rumble any muscle-car driver could want--with significant handling differences, depending on the steering, suspension, and wheel-and-tire packages. The powertrain is V-8 and six-speed--a 426-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 on manual-transmission cars, and a 400-hp version of the same engine with six-speed automatic-equipped cars, a power loss that's attributed to its fuel delivery system. With either combination, 0-60 mph is only about 5.0 seconds away, accompanied by one of those irreplaceable musclecar roars that belongs in the Smithsonian's audio library. While the six-cylinder cars can get away with automatic transmissions, the SS' manual shifter's not only a collector prerequisite--it's a well ironed out piece with quick shifts and short motions. Plus, there's a dual-mode exhaust system that mutes the V-8 at low speeds and amps it up at full prod--and it's only available with the manual gearbox.
From there, the V-8 Camaro family spins off into a few branches. All versions have a similar suspension design, 20-inch wheels, and now, electric power steering, but tuning differences give the handling edge to this year's new 1LE edition. The wide stance and short wheelbase aren't helped by the basic SS coupe's staggered 245/275 tires and 52:48 weight distribution; they make the Camaro feel less tossable and induce more understeer than can seem possible in a car with this much power available at the rear wheels, though the SS and versions with a sport suspension setup have better ride control than expected, too.
For more track-ready, more neutral handling, the Camaro SS 1LE cures almost all. It's a lively twist that may as well be the stock SS suspension, from our experience on Michigan's Gingerman Raceway. The 1LE gets its own specification, with a closer-ratio manual transmission--no automatic's available--and identically sized 35-series tires front and back, along with monotube rear shocks, a bigger front anti-roll bar, a front strut brace, and some suspension mounts from the ZL1 for better stability. The package is fitted to the less plushly trimmed SS for some weight reduction, and it also gets a blacked-out hood and spoiler, along with transmission cooling. It's a revelation to drive a 1LE and expect tons of push: it doesn't. With stability control set to a sport mode that allows some yaw, the 1LE gently steps out into oversteer, corrected easily with remapped variable-ratio electric power steering that's another one of GM's well-tuned efforts. It's possible to option up an SS to near 1LE-spec--but the steering is one piece that's otherwise unavailable. We haven't driven one on public roads, but a 1LE in the right context--on a road course--acquits itself with disinctly un-muscle-car moves.
Above all other comers, the Camaro's final act is the most difficult one to reconcile. It's because it's more of a supercar than a Camaro, with a pricetag in the $60,000 range to match. The ZL1 supercharges the SS's 6.2-liter V-8 for a grand total of 580 horsepower, and adopts magnetic dampers and a host of aero body pieces (the hood has a carbon-fiber insert) to cope with the copious upgrade in power. Its 0-60 mph time is pegged at 3.9 seconds, and top speed hits 184 mph--and Chevy's lapped the Nurburgring in less than eight minutes in a coupe, all figures that suggest Corvette until the cover's pulled off the body.
That's part of the mind-twist the ZL1 represents. Is it still a Camaro if it only looks like one? With its unreal performance comes some expensive and single-use add-ons--a launch-control mode, a differential cooler, distinct links for the rear anti-roll bars, the dual-mode adjustable suspension--the ZL1's more a rolling experiment lab for what the Camaro can be when it cribs Corvette parts. It's also an instant collectible, whether a coupe or a convertible. And it's a prodigious consumer of rubber whether all its electronic traction aids are turned on or off--you'll just measure the loss of tread visibly with all of those helpers shut down, as you also watch the effects of supercar power lose the battle with physics, time and time again.