What is it?
The most intimidating car I've ever driven.
Not for me as the driver, but for everyone else around it. I had pedestrians literally running off the road when I just backed out of my driveway. You can't really blame them, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 looks aggressive and sounds mean.
That's because this is the king of the Camaros; the fastest, most powerful of its kind. This is the Camaro designed for the racetrack, with more power, more brakes and more downforce to elevate it from a muscle car to a proper sports car.
It's now available in Australia thanks to Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), which imports and converts them from left-hand drive at its factory in Melbourne alongside the Camaro 2SS and Silverado 2500/3500 pick-ups.
Does it have any racing pedigree?
The ZL1 was literally born from motorsport. Chevrolet didn't set out to create a track-spec Camaro, the idea came from an enterprising dealer back in 1969 who realised he could use the company's special ordering system to have the brand's ZL1 aluminium Cam-Am racing engine installed into the road car.
It proved popular enough with drag racers that Chevrolet decided to keep the Camaro ZL1 as its hero model. These days it forms the basis for Chevrolet's NASCAR Cup Series entry, underlining its place at the top of the bow tie brand's performance pyramid alongside the Corvette.
What's under the bonnet?
The star attraction of the ZL1 has always been the engine. Like the first iteration of the car this latest generation is powered by an aluminium block V8, only this one is packing even more fire-power.
The MY19 ZL1 imported by HSV is powered by GM's latest LT4 6.2-litre supercharged V8. This is the engine that effectively replaced the awesome LS9 supercharged V8 that powered HSV's final Aussie-made model – the GTSR W1. That engine boasted a whopping 474kW of power and 815Nm of torque, enough to make it the most powerful Australian-made car ever. The new Camaro ZL1 tops that, with a claimed 480kW and 860Nm.
It feels every kilowatt of its claim, with so much power always at your right foot. Even in the mildest ‘Touring' setting of the drive mode settings the ZL1 can light up the rear tyres if you're too heavy footed. There's so much power it's hard to ever really use it, at least not on the road, the big V8 feels like it will just keep building speed when you keep the throttle down, never running out of puff.
And yet, for all that performance and with its supercharged whine and V8 growl that frightens pedestrians, it never feels intimidating for the driver. At least not if you give it the respect such a finely-honed machine like this deserves. Make no mistake, if you drive like a fool and the ZL1 will bite, but understand its performance and drive within your limits and it's a pleasure.
Unlike so many racetrack-ready high-performance cars that can feel so highly-strung that don't enjoy everyday commuting, the ZL1 is as well-behaved as family sedan when you just want to cruise along.
That's in no small part thanks to the excellent work done calibrating the 10-speed automatic transmission. While there's a six-speed manual available for the driving purists, the auto is hard to go past. Its wide spread of ratios allows for flexibility to make the best use of all that torque.
How does it handle?
As great as the engine is, Chevrolet didn't just bolt in a big motor and leave it at that. The ZL1 may have started life as a dragstrip special, but these days it's designed for all kinds of racetracks and has been tested and developed at Germany's Nurburgring circuit; the benchmark for all serious performance cars.
Chevrolet added Magnetic Ride Control suspension (dampers that can adjust stiffness at the press of button) as well as six-piston Brembo brakes and an electronic limited-slip differential to ensure the ZL1 had the handling to match the grunt. As a result, and despite the engine's occasionally overwhelming power, the ZL1 can still turn with precision, hangs on tightly in the bends and rides with composure when you treat it the right way.
On paper this looks like a blunt instrument, all muscle and no finesse, but the reality is very, very different. But there's still a lovable sense of rawness about it too, just waiting to break through if you drop your guard. Few modern sports cars offer that combination these days which makes the ZL1 even more appealing.
Where would you most like to drive it?
Anywhere. It may have been designed for racetrack use but it has appeal on the road too, largely thanks to the comfortable ride offered by the adaptive dampers. Of course, driving on a circuit or close road would be the most fun, because you could really cut loose and explore its limits… and maybe burn some rubber!
What's the interior like?
Obviously the first thing worth mentioning about the interior is the top job done by HSV in converting it to right-hand drive. HSV prefers the term ‘re-manufacturer' to conversion and it's understandable when you see the work that goes into getting them ready for Australian roads.
HSV has to build more than 350 parts for the process, which involves stripping the car almost down to the bare bodyshell, modifying several major components including the firewall and then putting it all back together. It not only looks like it comes direct from a Chevrolet factory but there were no noticeable squeaks or rattles in our test car, underlining the attention-to-detail the HSV team puts into each model.
Then there's the design and presentation of the Camaro itself, and it impresses without having an obvious ‘wow factor' to its appearance. It's a simple, purposeful cabin design – with a clean dashboard broken only by the infotainment touchscreen in the middle of the centre fascia.
The important details though, the seats and the steering wheel, are nicely done. The wheel is thick-rimmed and wrapped in Alcantara, while the seats are supportive and trimmed in leather and fabric.
Is it good value for money?
At $159,990 (plus on-road costs) this isn't a cheap car. That price puts it into the same league as the likes of the Audi RS5 Coupe, BMW M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe. That trio set the benchmark for luxury performance coupes and are all more refined in their on-road character and presentation, but the unique American charm of ZL1 and its supercharged V8 means it's just as appealing, but for different reasons.
Would I buy one?
In a heartbeat. I fell in love with the ZL1. Few cars I've driven lately have been as enticing as the Camaro ZL1. The combination of such a potent and aggressive engine with a finely-honed chassis and well built by HSV makes it one of the highlights of the year.
It may intimidate pedestrians, but it's a compelling car for the driver.
2019 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 price and specifications
|From $159,990 plus on-road costs
|6.2-litre supercharged V8 petrol
|Six-speed manual or 10-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
|Continental ContiSport, 285/30 front, 305/30 rears
|3.6 sec (claimed)