The top street-fighter 2015 Camaro ZL1 is outclassed by newer competitors, but it's still a fast, sexy, tremendously fun sports car.
The relaunch of the Chevrolet Camaro after it took a few years off in the early 2000s has been an unqualified success for GM and the Chevrolet brand. Not having a sports car to go up against the venerable Ford Mustang — after decades of duking it out for America's muscle car championship title — was a black eye that the Bow-Tie brand could ill afford. The reappearance of the Camaro in 2007 has led to it beating the Mustang in annual sales in recent years.
Now, with an all-new car on the way for 2016 (see the details), we take one last look at the top street-performance model: the ZL1 coupe. Yes, the Z/28 is more expensive and arguably a more performance-oriented machine, but it's meant to be a track monster. The ZL1, with its supercharged LSA engine, Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension and optional convertible version is meant to be the hottest Camaro most civilians can buy.
Nothing has changed between the 2014 and 2015 models (compare them here), but with the new Camaro just around the corner, I took a week with the current ZL1 to see if it's worth picking one up, or if you should wait for the next generation.
Exterior & Styling
You'd think the Camaro's shape would be getting a little tired by now, but it isn't. Despite wearing the same nearly decade-old clothes since the concept version was unveiled in 2006, the Camaro still looks impossibly butch, beefy and menacing.
It's undeniably chunky, yet somehow still sleek and racy, with its bulging, creased fenders hiding massive wheels and tires and — even when just sitting in a driveway — quite accurately conveying the power and speed of which the Camaro is capable.
The ZL1 model gets some special bits, like a carbon-fiber hood and special bumpers both front and rear, with unique lights and unique badging. But unless you're sharp and can spot that chrome ZL1 on the hood or the rump — or you can identify the car's fog lights from a long way away — there's little in the way of flashiness to broadcast to the world that this isn't just a standard Camaro SS with some aftermarket styling add-ons.
It's a bit less frenetic than the bestriped 2015 Mustang GT350, and about equally as subtle as the 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, which also gives little away visually versus lesser versions of the Dodge muscle car.
How It Drives
Under the Camaro ZL1's hood is a 6.2-liter, supercharged "LSA" V-8 that seems to have reached the end of its line. It's no longer available in any other GM car since its discontinuation in the Cadillac CTS-V. It's a massive beast of an engine, producing a whopping 580 horsepower and 556 pounds-feet of torque, with an exhaust note that will shake the trees and rattle the neighbors' windows. Yet for all that eyeball-flattening torque and power, when driven at calm speeds it responds with a perfectly approachable and docile demeanor.
This is a trait I'm finding common among Chevrolet's bargain supercars. The Corvette Z06 behaves exactly the same way: raucous and raging and ready to smash you like the fist of an angry god when you call upon it, or able to serenely take your mother-in-law to brunch without disturbing her hair.
My test car was equipped with an excellent six-speed manual transmission, which came with a clutch that was neither too light nor too heavy. In terms of which of the top muscle cars is fastest, much depends on the skill of the driver in getting all the available power to the ground. The Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat wins in the horsepower war, making 707 hp with its supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. The GT350 brings up the rear with "just" 526 hp on tap from its naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V-8.
The real secret to making the ZL1 eminently livable on a day-to-day basis is the car's standard Magnetic Ride Control suspension. Any performance car that GM puts this into is simply transformed. While the Camaro SS with the 1LE suspension package is an amazing-handling car, it's compromised a bit in ride quality. Not so with the ZL1, which handles broken pavement and changing road conditions with astonishing aplomb. I winced in preparation for driving over a particularly bad potholed stretch of road near my house, which had set my teeth rattling in just about every other car I've driven, but the ZL1 soaked it up with the skill of a Lexus.
This is a performance car that can feature super-low-profile tires and big wheels, yet not require you to sacrifice your kidneys or vertebrae as payment. The Camaro is heavy, however, and that mass can be disguised only so far when driving aggressively. The ZL1 is a great street fighter, and it feels balanced and comfortable, but for track duty I would still choose an SS 1LE over the ZL1 — or possibly I'd get the Z/28 model if I had money to burn.
Still, the ZL1 handles better than the seriously heavy Hellcat. Heavy as it is, the Chevy is still lighter than the truly porky Dodge by more than 320 pounds. The Shelby GT350 hasn't been road-tested yet, and its weight is not available, but even a loaded Mustang GT V-8 is 400 pounds lighter than a ZL1 coupe.
That extra weight hurts the ZL1 in the braking department. Despite being equipped with massive Brembo stoppers, a mushy and unresponsive pedal keeps the ZL1 from being driven too confidently. Big brakes overwhelmed by mass is also a problem with the Hellcat. The Shelby should be more of a performer in that regard, due again to its lesser weight.
Expect the next-generation Camaro to be more competitive in this area. Chevy has already announced the next version will be several hundred pounds lighter thanks to a switch to a new platform. It's the same one that underpins the Cadillac ATS and CTS.
Lighter weight will help fuel economy as well (not that anyone really worries about that in a ZL1). The ZL1 is EPA-rated 14/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined with the supercharged 6.2-liter engine and a manual transmission. My week with it returned just 13.6 mpg due to a lot of spirited city driving and not much on the highway. No numbers are yet available for the GT350, but the manual Challenger Hellcat is rated 13/21/16 mpg. That's a little better on the highway than the ZL1, but overall not much different. Premium fuel is recommended for all these cars.
The ZL1 has a few upgrades from your base Camaro, such as faux suede coverings for the dash and steering wheel. Much of the ZL1's interior, though, still reflects the foibles that have plagued this generation: The cheap-feeling door panels deflect when you push on them, and the auxiliary gauges are mounted so low in the center console they're useless. They're even blocked from the driver's view by the climate control knobs.
Headroom is tight. My head didn't just brush up against the moonroof, it actively rested against the ceiling. It makes for a permanently hunched-over driving position for anyone approaching 6 feet tall. This issue has largely been addressed with the 2016 model, which features seats that sit an inch lower between repositioned floor rails.
The ZL1's seats are reasonably comfortable, with optional Recaro seats (which I've sampled in a different ZL1) providing considerably better adjustment and support. Outward visibility is poor in just about every direction, but this is the price one pays for driving a car styled like a battle bunker. By comparison, both the new Mustang and Challenger have much more up-to-date cabins, with much nicer materials, better visibility and superior ergonomics.
The Challenger is particularly spacious. It's based on a much larger platform to begin with and has a usable backseat — as opposed to the children-only environment in back of the Camaro and Mustang. Chevy has addressed these interior shortcomings in a big way with the 2016 Camaro, but if you're set on a ZL1, you'll be stuck with the acceptable but flawed cockpit of the 2015 model.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The ZL1 comes loaded with all of Chevy's electronics, including the MyLink multimedia system. My test car threw in a navigation system for a reasonable $495. The biggest issue with the MyLink system remains its slow response time when listening to music streamed from a plugged-in smartphone. The capacitive touch-sensitive controls on either side of the touch-screen also frustrate.
The premium Boston Acoustics sound system is decent but not spectacular. Given the music the car produces from its glorious V-8 engine, though, you won't need to pump up the jam all that often. The multimedia systems available in the GT350 and the Challenger soundly beat the Camaro's electronics; both feature the latest and greatest systems that offer better response time, more functionality and even a modicum of customization.
The Dodge in particular also offers a lot of vehicle-monitoring functions, called Performance Pages, that give readouts on what the car is experiencing and producing. The Camaro's head-up display is also useful, projecting information out in front of the driver; it appears to hover over the hood. Unlike some automakers' displays, it's visible even through polarized sunglasses.
Cargo & Storage
There are plenty of cubbies throughout the Camaro's interior, but trunk space is disappointing. The opening under the trunk lid alone limits the size of suitcase you can stash in there to small to medium roll-aboard bags. The Camaro features only 11.3 cubic feet of trunk space. It's the smallest of the trio, bested by the GT350's 13.5 cubic feet and dwarfed by the Challenger's cavernous 16.2 cubic feet (accompanied by a huge trunk lid).
The Challenger's overall size advantage becomes more understandable when you keep in mind it's basically a short-wheelbase coupe version of the Dodge Charger sedan, hidden under a retro-styled skin.
Despite being a smallish two-door sports coupe, the Camaro scores well in crash tests. It earned a five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It has not been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. See crash-test results here.
The ZL1 features a standard backup camera but not much in the way of the latest and greatest safety electronics, such as blind spot warning, forward collision alert, automatic distance-keeping cruise control and so on. Many of these features are coming, but Camaro competitors already offer them for 2015. See all the Camaro's standard features here.
Value in Its Class
Given the Camaro ZL1's massive capabilities and unique styling, its sticker price is something of a value. The base V-6-powered Camaro LS starts at a bargain $24,700 (including destination fee) but stretches all the way up close to $75,000 for the Z/28 race-ready version. The ZL1 comes in less than that, starting at $56,500 for the coupe or $61,700 for the convertible. There aren't many options at this price, but my test car included a power moonroof, an exposed carbon fiber hood insert, the microfiber suede interior, a navigation system, and a cargo mat and net, all of which joined a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax to total $60,495. That's a decent price for a car that can do what the ZL1 does, but it has to be noted that you can get into a new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, which is a superior sports car, for several thousand dollars less. Build a Camaro your way here.
The traditional competitors are familiar suspects: the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 and the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. The GT350 won't begin to trickle onto the market until late 2015. Production will ramp up in earnest in 2016, but still in limited quantity, Ford says. It has received several upgrades over previous Mustang performance models, including an active magnetic suspension, a unique 5.2-liter engine and a host of technology meant for going fast. Official pricing had not been released as of publication, but leaked documents suggest the GT350 will start around $50,000.
The Challenger is also available in many high-performance flavors, with the SRT model featuring a naturally aspirated 6.4-liter V-8 and starting at $46,690. The one everyone talks about, though, is the supercharged Hellcat model, which checks in at $59,290. Compare all three here. Any of these cars provides an amazing amount of fun while sucking down an atrocious amount of fuel, but for buyers who want a unique and powerful sports car experience for a fraction of the cost of a European exotic, the value here is real.