The Bugatti Veyron quite famously came complete with 10 heat exchangers. That 1,001-horsepower projection of Ferdinand Pich’s ego made so much heat it needed 10 intercoolers to keep it from boiling. The 650-horsepower 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 has 11. Insert Spinal Tap joke here.
Such is the extreme nature of the latest, probably greatest, and without question most powerful Camaro the Bow Tie brand has ever sold to the public. Unlike the obvious competition (Chevy’s looking at you, Hellcat), the ZL1 isn’t simply extreme for extreme’s sake. The Camaro team gave the sixth-generation Camaro all flavors of performance enhancers for a reason. Three of them, actually: Camaro boss Al Oppenheiser wanted the ZL1 to be the best ponycar on the drag strip, on a canyon road, and on the racetrack.
Chevy is marketing these three objectives in the parlance of our times as #ZL1triplethreat. That’s no small task. But luckily for Oppenheiser, he had the right platform, the right team of engineers, and the right parts bin to make an attempt at glory. For instance, even though horsepower is up by 70 ponies compared to the last-generation ZL1, weight is down by 169 pounds, driven in large part by the Alpha platform, which also underpins the Caddy ATS and CTS families. The front fenders on the ZL1 are flared compared to other Camaros in order to accommodate the 285-width Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3 tires, which are shared with the SS 1LE. On the 1LE, the front tires just stick out.
Of course, there’s also the matter of the miniature atomic device of an engine. It’s called the LT4, and its most familiar iteration is the 650-hp, 650 lb-ft dry-sump version found in the Corvette Z06. A slightly detuned 640-hp, 630 lb-ft wet-sump version sits under the hood of the Cadillac CTS-V. All three versions are 6.2-liter directed-injected V-8s with a top-mounted 1.7-liter intercooled supercharger.
Here’s the part Chevrolet doesn’t want me to say: In the Z06, the LT4 has cooling issues. The mighty Corvette’s heart heat soaks or overheats. Remember those 11 heat exchangers I was talking about? The Camaro ZL1 will not overheat. I tried, but even after six sets of rear tires in four days—not joking—the thunderous V-8 never so much as simmered. Two of those 11 heat exchangers are actually the intercoolers that straddle the supercharger. They are redesigned and repositioned for ZL1 duty. It’s also important to note that the ZL1 version of the LT4 makes exactly as much power and torque as the Z06. In generations past, the Corvette would have to (officially at least) make the most power. These days, Camaro is free to be as strong as can be.
Also of great interest on the ZL1 is the debut of GM’s 10-speed automatic transmission. Co-developed to a point with Ford, Chevy’s hopped up Camaro version gets unique gearing, valving, and control software. Gears one through six are very tightly spaced, seventh is direct, and eight through 10 are for highway cruising. Should you opt for the six-speed manual version of the ZL1, the feds are going to hit you with a $1,300 Gas Guzzler tax. The EPA jury is still out on the numbers for the auto, but there’s a chance that because of those three overdrive gears, 10-speed ZL1s might only get hit with a $1,000 tax, or nothing at all. Meaning that the 10-speed slushbox might just go from a $1,595 option to a $295 one. That said, I’m still betting on the $1,000 tax.
Randy strongly felt there were some tenths left in the automatic ZL1. He worked with a couple of engineers from Chevy and kept adjusting tire pressures and lapping. The result? An unofficial lap time of 1:25.87, recorded on the ZL1’s optional Performance Data Recorder (PDR). A McLaren 650S Spider—a mid-engine, 3,239-pound, 641-horsepower, carbon-fiber supercar—does a 1:25.88. Yes, you read that right. The quarter-million-dollar McLaren got beat by a Camaro. But because our test team didn’t run the numbers—meaning we don’t have a Vbox data file of the lap—we have to asterisk Randy’s lunchtime lap. It’s simply not official. These things happen. But here’s the thing: You’re not supposed to mention Chevy’s other sports car in the same breath as legit, flat-out elite supercars such as the Chevrolet flagship. But if the lap holds, the ZL1 has the eighth-best lap we’ve ever seen around Big Willow and is less than a second behind the best we’ve seen from big brother Z06 (1:25.00). What a world. More important, what a beast of a machine.