What you think of the Chevrolet Camaro depends entirely on how old you were when you first saw one.
If you came of age in the late 1970s or 1980s, a Camaro is a rolling automotive mullet. But if you came of age in the 1960s, when the car debuted, the Camaro is something else entirely. It’s the Corvette’s kid brother, a fire-breathing four-wheeled delinquent ready for a street fight on Saturday night.
That’s the Camaro Chevrolet wants you to remember. So it should come as little surprise that the Camaro’s newest model with a legendary name: the ZL1.
Way back in the days when GM ruled the automotive world, the 1969 ZL1 was the most powerful Camaro you could buy.
The ZL1 was the brainchild of dealer Fred Gibb, who managed to persuade Chevrolet to assemble 1969 Camaros with Chevy’s mighty all-aluminum 427-cubic-inch V-8, rather than the 396 cubic-inch V-8 used in the SS and Z/28 models which were, until then, the top of the line. Rated conservatively at 425 horsepower, the bigger engine option alone cost $4,160, pushing the cost of a ZL1 to almost $7,000, or double the price of lesser Camaros. It’s no wonder only 69 were built.
Forty-three years later, what’s old is new.
The ZL1 returns for the 21st century as a coupe or convertible, equipped with a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that sees duty in the Corvette, not to mention the Cadillac CTS-V. Here, the engine is rated at 580 horsepower and 556 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than the Cadillac, but less than the Corvette. When matched with a six-speed transmission – manual or automatic – it’s good for a 0-60 mph run of four seconds, a quarter-mile dash of 11 seconds and a top speed of 184 mph.
Mullet-era Camaros never ran this fast – unless being hurled off a cliff.
Climb inside and twist the ignition key. No push button starters here; this is old-school stuff. Listen to this fire-breathing chunk of Detroit heavy metal (that is built in Canada) comes to life. It throbs and rumbles. The dual exhaust burbles with menace, tempting you to disturb the peace.
Put it in gear, step on the loud pedal and peel out. Go ahead, wake the neighbors.
These are the good old days. Hey, hon, fetch me my Loverboy cassette.
Yes, it’s fast. How fast? Forceful enough to press vital organs of your body rearward into your spine. Quick enough to whisk you back in time – or help you lose your license.
Sliding through corners is a real hoot. Just work the pedals. It’s great fun, something you can’t experience in a front-drive car. The car feels insanely demonic in turns, without the under-steer noticeable in other Camaro models. However, like some of you who remember the first ZL1, this car has put on a few pounds over the decades. You can feel it when pushing this car through its paces. Yet the weight of the test car, a convertible, did little to stop the body from flexing.
As you’d expect, the LT1 generates a fair bit of noise, not all of it from the throaty exhaust. This car’s low profile 20-inch tires produce impressive grip, not to mention noise. It goes with the territory. Just don’t expect to be able to hear the audio system, unless you’re stopped.
The LT1 also had a healthy appetite for fuel, but that’s part of this car’s sacrificial creed. The EPA rates it at 12 mpg city, 18 mph highway. The test car returned 17.9 mpg in mostly highway driving.
With so much speed at the beck and call of your right foot, it’s comforting to know that if you get in over your head, the performance disc brakes, made by Italian manufacturer Brembo, are more than up to the task of taming this car’s massive speed. If you need more help, anti-lock brakes, stability control, traction control, six airbags and a rear-vision camera are standard.
And the camera is a necessity for a very good reason: the Camaro’s glass area is minimal. Sitting in this car and looking through the windshield is similar to the view through a gun turret. And there’s little over-the-shoulder or rear visibility.
The seats have the strong side bolstering you’d expect of a performance car, yet prove extremely comfortable over long distances.
But that’s just the start of the unique trim in the LT1. There are metal-covered pedals and a $500 package that adds sueded microfiber to the steering wheel and instrument panel. Otherwise, interior ambience is similar to less-costly Camaros. This means more than a little hard plastic.
There’s a large high-definition touch screen for Chevrolet MyLink, the brand’s infotainment system that controls various phone, audio and other functions. It’s very intuitive to use, thanks to its design, which follows that of many smartphones and tablets. It’s among the best infotainment systems offered, and most folks will quickly figure it out.
The new ZL1 hits the reset button, erasing the memory of the pleasantly plump, overwrought Camaros and asking us to imagine this as the true second-generation Camaro, rather than the 1970 model.
It’s the car you wanted back then, but couldn’t afford. Yes, it still asks for some sacrifice at the altar of high performance, such as a meager back seat and trunk, not to mention its healthy appetite for fuel. No surprise there. But it boasts insane power, awe-inspiring handling, lots of convenience options and a boatload of safety equipment.
That said, you still may not be able to afford it.
The test car’s base price was $59,545. Various options and a $2,500 gas-guzzler tax brought the total to $65,800. That’s Corvette territory.
But you didn’t want a Corvette back then, did you?
Sometimes, nostalgia carries a heavy cost.