Payne: 650-hp ZL1 Camaro blows the roof off

Posted by hpayne on May 5, 2017

 

Ah, May at last. Oil temperatures are rising. Woodward Avenue is calling. Songbirds are calling.

We here at The Detroit News prefer a warble that sounds like King Kong gargling razor blades on Skull Island.

That would be the song of the Chevy Camaro ZL1 convertible, Motown’s latest, greatest droptop. The convertible is a sight for sore eyes and a roar for deafened ears. You probably felt it first, an earthquake that made your lights flicker when I stomped the throttle unleashing 640 pound-feet of torque on M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway just feet from hallowed Woodward ground.

After a long winter’s hibernation, the race track calls for the ZL1 like honey to a bear. It wasn’t always so. The ZL1 badge is the stuff of Camaro legend: rare “COPO” (Central Office Production Order) cars with huge, modified engines for drag racing. The ZL1 was Camaro’s quarter-miler, the Z28 its track star. But with Camaro’s marriage of Corvette’s 650-horsepower Z06 V-8 to GM’s Alpha chassis (shared by the apex-carving Cadillac ATS-V), the ZL1 coupe introduced last fall is an all-around athlete as comfortable in the twisties as it is in a straight line.

Call it a “Cormaro.” I shiver at the capabilities of the coming Z28.

But first, Camaro gives us the $69,135 ZL1 Convertible. How nice, you say. Another ragtop for Florida vacation rentals. But this is no rental-fleet floozy. It’s the coupe with a sun deck.

I first tested the hardtop at Willow Springs Raceway in December and it took to the big track like Kong to a banana grove. Put it on the small, 11/2-mile M1 and it’s like throwing Kong into a high school gymnasium. It can’t contain him.

Despite 12 inches of Goodyear F1 Supercar gummies on the rear, the ZL1 strains for traction when all horses are delivered through M1’s tight corners. I drift the beast across apexes on partial throttle, lest the 4,100-pound missile swap ends and start vectoring in the opposite direction. Even on M1’s curved front straight, I can’t bury the throttle (as I did in the AWD Audi R8 last year).

But M1’s Indy Lights-trained, Super Truck-racing, chief instructor Aaron Bambach is a wizard with the wheel. He takes the reins and drifts the beast at lurid angles.

“Very nice,” he observes after a string of laps. “Tight chassis and Goodyears really make this a nice track car.”

Um, Aaron, you know this is a convertible, right?

Like everything else about the sixth-generation Camaro, this one redefines the concept of muscle-car ragtop. Chevy leaves off the electronic, limited-slip differential (mechanical LSD is fine, thank you) and track timer (only crazy journalists will take it to the track, apparently). But still gets the coupe’s front splitter, magnetic shocks, rear airfoil, 11 heat exchangers — and the first application of GM’s Porsche-beating, 300-millisecond-shifting, manual-defying 10-speed automatic gearbox.

I’m a stick disciple, but the ZL1’s deca-tranny is a must-have.

Out of M1’s hairpin, I drop the hammer on the back straight and hang on. The 10-speed rips off shifts like rifle shots, while the quad-exhaust shatters windows in a 10-block radius. My jacket would have been torn off if M1 didn’t require that convertibles run with the top up. The end of the quarter-mile straight comes up in a heartbeat, the digital speedo clicking 125 mph before massive, 15.35-inch Brembos haul the ZL1 back to Earth.

“I could hear you all the way around the track,” says a pal back in the paddock. And in Ferndale, too, no doubt. The fun continues as we roll out of M1 and onto Woodward — going topless in 14 seconds up to 30 mph.

Stop at stoplight. Engage launch control: left foot floors brake, right foot floors throttle, tach steadies at 2,000 rpms. Release brake — and release the Kraken. Three-point-six seconds later we’re at 60 mph on our way to the moon.

Developed from the ground up to be convertible, the ZL1 soft top, like a Porsche Boxster, gives you aural thrills without chassis compromise. Gone is the cowl tremble of the fifth-generation Camaro convertibles. The Alpha chassis is a rock.

I cruised Woodward with the top down no matter what the temperature (hey, 48 degrees is a balmy Michigan April, no?) just to get the full audio experience. At low revs it’s a quiet cruiser. Put the throttle to the mat and it’s a glorious symphony. The rhythm of wind noise, the supercharger’s rising whine, the quad-pipe brass section — BRAAAAAPPPPP!

The soundtrack makes you forget the interior’s inconveniences.

Console storage is virtually non-existent and the door pockets are nearly in the child-sized backseat. The window ledges are so high that even your 6-foot-5 scribe’s elbow hangs awkwardly by his ear. And, unlike its cousin the Corvette, air vents are low in the console, so when I turn up the fan to keep the open cabin warm, most of the air gets blown on my knees.

But I rationalize the slights. Going topless eliminates the Camaro’s notorious visibility problem. And the rear seats are big enough to accommodate the neighborhood kids who pour from their homes for rides.

My friend Rick gave up his 2012 ZL1 for an Audi S4 a couple of years back. After a run in the Cormaro, he’s ready to go back. The convertible doesn’t come cheap at $7,000 more than the $62,135 coupe — and $8,500 north of a four-door ATS-V. But the Cadillac doesn’t come topless and the ZL1 will blow its doors off out of a stoplight.

“The new ZL1 is a different car than the fifth-gen,” Rick said after ripping off a couple launch-control starts from Woodward stoplights. It’s not the power — the old ZL1 had a healthy 580 horses — it’s the refinement (“the old car was loud all the time”) and the Alpha chassis (“noticeably firmer”). While the convertible is 200 pounds heavier than its coupe stablemate, that still makes it 37 pounds lighter than his old ZL1 coupe.

Rick is inclined to the sleek hardtop and its cheaper sticker. I’ll take the convertible for the audio experience.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Convertible

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, REAR-

WHEEL DRIVE, FOUR-PASSENGER, TWO-DOOR CONVERTIBLE

Powerplant 6.2-liter supercharged V-8
Transmission Six-speed manual; 10-speed automatic
Weight 4,100 pounds (est.)
Price $69,135 ($72,325

as tested)

Power 650 horsepower, 640 pound-feet torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 3.6-3.8 seconds

(Car and Driver est.)

Fuel economy TBD (EPA for coupe: 12 mpg city/20 highway/

15 combined)

Report card

HIGHS TOPLESS V-8 SYMPHONY;

FIRM CHASSIS DESPITE ROOF LOSS

Lows Micro interior-storage;

insane V-8 will wake up the neighbors

Overall:★★★★

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