Camaro goes nuclear: Chevrolet escalates the muscle car war

Camaro goes nuclear: Chevrolet escalates the muscle car war
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Camaro goes nuclear: Chevrolet escalates the muscle car war

We live in strange times. At one end of the automotive universe right now are pure electric cars rapidly approaching mainstream usability for anyone within a conventional gas tank’s distance of a latte. Development of autonomous cars is plainly visible. Pickup trucks outsell everything in America and yet, there’s still an appetite for 650 horsepower (485kW) track-day weapons. Chevy’s new Camaro ZL1 1LE goes back to the well-understood niche of—comparatively speaking in sales numbers—a tiny portion of thrill-seeking track junkies who want to arrive and drive at the nearest circuit. To counter Steely Dan’s debut album title, you can buy a thrill.

Rocketing around the new Area 27 race track in Kelowna, British Columbia (name hinting at the car number carried around by Jacques Villeneuve, 1997 Canadian F1 Driver’s Champion, who helped design the course, as well as his father Gilles), it took a bit of effort not to simply bust out laughing at the stupid level of grip, acceleration, and never-quit braking performance of the 1LE over the 3.0-mile (4.8-km) circuit.

Dampening expectations

Picking up where the merely normal 650hp ZL1 leaves off, the $69,995 1LE is shorn of some bits, but the special sauce is found in the chassis. Solid subframe mounts replace the normal rubber pieces to eliminate compliance. New aluminum strut housings are not only stiffer and lighter, they carry stiffer springs and use full-zoot Multimatic spool-valve dampers; the type found on such rarities as Ford’s new GT all the way to F1 and Indycars.

These masterful shocks have somewhat redefined the state of the art in damping. Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) units use precisely machined internals with holes drilled into the pistons themselves rather than more traditional shims or discs found inside, yet use normal damper fluid rather than special magnetorheological fluid. These dampers allow much more specific tuning and a wider range of capability than the best conventionally-designed shocks.

At the front, the 1LE even comes with an upper strut mount that easily rotates 180 degrees, netting an additional three degrees of negative camber for track use, plus a threaded strut body that gives ¾ of an inch of height adjustment. This allows not only changing ride height, but also the car’s pitch moment. The rear anti-roll bar is adjustable with three locating points to tweak overall handling balance.

Since a track-day car that goes like hell and doesn’t stop is a car that crashes, Chevy fits huge 15.4-inch (391mm) brake rotors in front with six-piston Brembo calipers that use every millimeter of space inside the 19-inch diameter wheel. Interestingly, the brake discs are steel. Carbon brakes did not offer any serious advantage during testing, cost far more to replace and were not as progressive to modulate at anything less than track temperatures, according to Chevy.

Clever new tires

Goodyear spent three years developing their new Supercar 3R tire for the 1LE and it also marks the company’s first super-sticky, street-legal competition tire in well over a generation. Goodyear engineers followed the Camaro engineering team to eleven racetracks around the world and actually began developing the tire with a racing compound akin to one they use in NASCAR. The final formulation is a blend of street and racing compounds and the tread design – if one can claim that this nearly-slick tire has a tread – started as a hand-grooving exercise. In the end, Goodyear went through seven iterations (three to four is normal) before getting the go-ahead for the 305/30R-19 fronts and 325/30R-19 rears. Goodyear claims these tires on the 1LE can generate 1.1 g of cornering force. However, I’ve met 1.1 g and this ain’t it. It’s more.

It’s a bizarre concept that we still haven’t gotten to the details of the 650-hp (485 kW), 6.2-liter V8 engine, so serious are the tweaks to the 1LE chassis. The supercharged LT4 engine is intoxicating with 650lb-ft (881 Nm) of torque, a raucous, yet refined tenor V8 bellow and a free nature up to its 6,500 rpm rev limiter. It unleashes stupendous power anywhere you choose. Corners can be taken in a gear higher than you’d expect would be optimal with no downside in pace and, in fact, a benefit on corner exit.

With this much power, though, cooling is at a massive premium. The 1LE features multiple air inlets and a total of 11 heat extractors. It will need all of those in very high-heat use, but our day at Area 27 was only 84°F (29°C) at the hottest. (It’s a lesson Chevy learned the hard way—the Corvette Z06, which uses the same LT4 engine—would wilt after just a few laps on track due to inadequate cooling capacity. A production halt for several months allowed for a redesign.)

Framing all those air inlets are unique aero bits like twin front dive planes, an extra-long splitter, and a proper pitched aileron at the rear, all of which conspire to generate 300 pounds (136kg) of downforce at 150mph (241km/h). The fenders are ¾ of an inch (19mm) wider to shroud the wide Goodyear rubber (305/30R-19 front, 325/30R-19 rear). I’m not a fan of huge wings on cars, but when they work this well and have actual testing time in several wind tunnels including Mercedes’ Formula 1 facility in Brackley, England, so be it.

Chevy’s Performance Traction Management provides “Dry,” “Sport,” and “Sport 2” settings which keep the system operating in a progressively freer stability control safety net. Select “Race” mode and you disable stability control entirely, leaving only the traction control system to maximize grip under acceleration. Not at all for the inexperienced, the 1LE chassis is nevertheless predictable, even with no safety net.

And so we come to the inevitable. Like most manufacturers building serious track-ready machinery today, of course Chevy spent time at Germany’s Nurburgring with the 1LE. The company’s own chassis engineer, Bill Wise put down a scorching 7:16.04 lap:

That’s 13.56 seconds faster than the “normal” ZL1; an eternity.

But the most stupefying part of the 1LE equation—in a veritable soup of stupefication—is how this 3,830-pound (1,737kg) nut job keeps working well past the peak threshold of grip. We didn’t go a full sprint race distance with these track sessions, but understeering, oversteering or four-wheel drifting, Goodyear has done the truly remarkable, building tires that never dramatically give up, no matter how ham-fisted you throw stupid inputs at them. And, this includes a driver, with about 4,000 pounds of weight on top.

Even though Chevy offers a 10-speed paddle-shifted automatic in the “normal” ZL1, the 1LE retains a six-speed manual Tremec gearbox with slightly shorter top end gearing. It also weighs 50 pounds (23kg) less than the automatic and offers excellent rev-matching ability, but the brake and throttle positioning is perfect for effortless heel-toe downshifting.

Despite the hard track focus, the 1LE promises to be a livable car, too. Standard equipment includes an eight-inch touchscreen, two-zone climate control, a Wi-Fi hotspot, head-up display, plus stellar heated and cooled power Recaro seats.

Aside from the tenacious grip that doesn’t fall off a cliff, the one pervasive takeaway from evaluating the 1LE on the track is weight. If it can do what it does at nearly 4,000 pounds with a driver, imagine what it could do after a diet.

Camaro goes nuclear: Chevrolet escalates the muscle car war

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