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Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Paul Eide June 2017

Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser is the perfect man for his job. Tall and powerfully built, he's the ultimate authority figure, and the type of man only a state like Michigan could produce. When he talks, you listen. And when describing who his Chevrolet design team had in mind when they built the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro XL 1LE, he didn't mince words.

"This car is not for the poser," said Oppenheiser. "We don't want the rich guy who wants everything, checks all the feature boxes, and then just drives it to circle around the block. This is a car made for the track enthusiast, the person who is going to take it to their local track on the weekend. But it's approachable to find the limit of the car without the driver scaring themselves. We were focused on making the car drivable for every customer. But it's for the track enthusiast. That's why there is no automatic -- that's not who it is geared for."

Ring of Truth

The Camaro ZL1 1LE ran faster than Corvettes and Ferraris at Germany's Nurburgring thanks to a lap time of 7:16:04 in the hands of Chevrolet test driver Bill Wise (click here for full video of his run). That time made it the 14th-fastest production car at the 12.9-mile-long circuit. Ferrari doesn't do official laps at the benchmark track, but a 488 GTB run by a German automotive publication did it in 7:21, while the last Corvette to visit, a 2012 ZR1, set a time of 7:19.63. The ZL1 1LE's time was 13.56 seconds ahead of the Camaro ZL1 with a 10-speed automatic that Chevrolet tested last year.

There's Something Different About You

So what's different from the 1LE? The ZL1 1LE isn't just a ZL1 with a couple of additional features simply meant to push another car onto the market.

"One of the keys is providing adjustments for customers based on the track they are driving or driving styles," said driver Wise, also a Camaro ride and handling development engineer. "The harder you push the Camaro ZL1 1LE, the more it rewards you on the track."

The power comes from a supercharged LT4 V8 with 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque and a MH3 Tremec 6-speed manual transmission featuring active rev matching. The overall ability for the driver to adjust the car based on how they want it to perform at whatever venue they're driving it makes it unlike any other car in its class. For example, the camber plate can be adjusted with a wrench. The rear stability bar has the potential for more adjustments. The cradle is solid-mounted and adds a stiffness increase that's beneficial to the car. Some of the street performance is compromised to get the track performance back.

The center of pressure is a big knob in the middle, and the rear axle has a lot more grip, so you can throw the car in with a lot more authority. The height of the car is set specifically to meet a certain optimal bandwidth. The splitter is large, and the dive planes are new. The cooling package has been redone (see more below), and the pedestrian impact protector adds more flow to the radiator. The car makes a ton of grip, you don't have to back out of the throttle when you spin, and the steering response is awesome.

"Solid mounting doesn't have the downside you'd expect," explained Wise. "Transient response ... we really upped the spring rates on this vehicle, and it is two times stiffer. That provides the transient response. We added a smaller rear bar than what's on the ZL1 to get the adjustability that we needed, the overall performance we needed. There is more low-speed content. I wouldn't call it jarring to regular drivers."

The Tires

Wrapped around the 1LE's 19-inch forged aluminum alloy wheels are Goodyear Eagle F1 SuperCar 3R Tires: 305/30ZR19 on the front and 325/30ZR19 on the rear. They're an inch wider than standard ZL1 wheels, but an inch smaller in diameter. Chevy had clear performance goals -- they'd created an "all-in" type of vehicle and wanted tires to match. Goodyear responded with the widest tires ever on a Camaro. The only connection point between any car and the road is the tires, and a ton of emphasis was placed on their development.

Goodyear and Chevy worked together for three years developing these tires. In that time, there were seven or eight tire submissions -- usually, there are three or four. The development turnaround was so fast that Camaro engineers had only two or three days to get feedback to Goodyear (there's generally a month), riding new builds every three months as fast as they could turn them out. The result features a racing-derived compound with an asymmetric tread design and aggressive pattern ribs. To ensure these tires were track-ready, they were field-tested at 11 different tracks, including Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio and the Nurburgring, rather than the standard practice of only testing at each of Goodyear's two North American development locations.

Go With the Flow

The 1LE is 27kg (60 lbs) lighter than the ZL1, and its completely redeveloped air intake cooling system takes full advantage. The front fascia on the 1LE was made to suck in as much air as possible, and every inch was designed with that in mind; even the classic Chevy bow tie logo is hollowed out and optimized for air intake. There are new front dive planes, new upper and lower grilles, and a larger front splitter to improve downforce. The 1LE has an aluminum hood with carbon-fiber inserts and satin black hood wrap, which directs air to a carbon-fiber rear wing with hollow stanchions.

Did someone say downforce? Engineers went through three dozen iterations of the rear wing. The final wing offers 80 percent more downforce than the ZL1 and creates 300 pounds of downforce at 150 miles per hour!

Suspension of Disbelief

The 1LE ZL1 comes with a set of 'Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve' (DSSV) dampers from Canadian firm Multimatic. Multimatic has a history of success on the track -- 25 of 60 entries in the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans were on DSSV dampers -- and has been adopted as factory equipment on the Aston Martin One-77, Mercedes AMG GT and Ford GT high-performance road cars.

The traditional, or standard, damper is a shim damper that relies on a stack of flexible disks to regulate oil flow. DSSV dampers replace these shims with a spring-loaded spool valve that controls the flow rate based on how much force is going through it. The flow of oil is pushed through precisely shaped ports to deliver the highest level of damper predictability, accuracy and repeatability in regulating oil flow, meaning damping curves that can be mathematically predicted. The result is better transient response and reduced performance variation over a wide frequency range.

The Right People, and Car, for the Job

My biggest takeaway from spending a couple days driving the new Camaro at the Area 27 Motorsports Park in Oliver, British Columbia with the team of engineers who built it is that Chevy compiled the perfect group of people to develop, design and engineer the car the car they wanted to make -- an updated version of an old-school classic made to kick ass at the track.

A car is the sum of its parts. Everyone I met from Chevrolet genuinely cared about the car they developed -- you could tell by the way they talked about it, their word choices and the looks in their eyes. And the team at Chevy really impressed me with their knowledge and passion. These are people who grew up loving, building and racing classic muscle cars and were the perfect group to task with creating a Camaro made for the explicit purpose of taking it to the track. And they've created an approachable, affordable model that's fun and consistent to drive.

 To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE: First Drive Review - Autotrader