Road test: 2014 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Guilty pleasures behind the wheel of Chevy’s macho muscle car.

With supercar levels of power but improved handling, the Camaro ZL1 is an American muscle car that’s fast in a straight line and round corners. Courtesy GM Co
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Throbbing. That really is the best word I can use to describe the way a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 feels whenever there’s petrol coursing through the veins of its engine. There’s no getting away from it: it’s an antisocial, menacing hooligan and even the slightest blip of its throttle is enough to move the entire structure from side to side. When you hear people talking about muscle cars, the ZL1 should be viewed as Mr Universe; all rippling biceps and ripped abdominals – tremendously impressive and utterly vulgar all at the same time. I kind of like it, although I almost feel dirty even admitting it.

Naturally, I could never actually own one of these things. I’m a Brit, after all, and, most of the time, a reserved one at that. The ZL1 couldn’t be less reserved if it tried. Politically, socially and environmentally incorrect, it embodies all that the green brigade despise about the automobile – yet, if you put any sort of conscience to one side and just immerse yourself in its sensory delights, this is a car that can cause involuntary gurning and even the occasional “yeeeeeeee-haaaaaaaaa” when faced with a straight, empty stretch of highway.

The thing is, though, this is a new breed of muscle car: the road no longer needs to be straight for you to put your foot down. The ZL1 can – gasp in amazement – take corners at speed without giving up and heading for the nearest wadi. It’s still an almost completely analogue machine, but there’s new tech working away underneath it all that does its job without you ever feeling that you’ve handed over all control to the nanny state. The best of both worlds? It’s getting there. Proof, should any be required, comes in the form of a Nürburgring lap time of just 7 mins 41.27 secs, which puts it firmly in the supercar league – up there with the very best of them.

This is what hard work and determination can do for a car’s development. While the world at large might take time in adjusting its preconceptions about American muscle cars and their handling prowess, there’s no denying the numbers. Speaking of which, it’s probably time we looked at a few more.

The ZL1 has a supercharged V8 engine under that bonnet’s power bulge that generates 580hp – more, even, than a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. It produces 753Nm of twist, which is nearly double that of a Maserati GranTurismo and still more than the epic SLS AMG. It trounces pretty much any supercar out there. And, here’s the best bit (and the reason these muscle cars are so plentiful on our roads): it costs Dh245,000. Or about a third of what the Merc would set you back.

That so much firepower is available in an American two-door is perhaps not surprising, given the history of this type of car. But the fact that they now set lap times that rival Porsche 911 Turbos is something not even the wildest fantasist could have come up with a few short years ago. That’s magnetic dampers for you – tech that adds to, rather than subtracts from, the experience.

You might look at the ZL1 and, like me, think that it looks so preposterous that you’d never spend your own money on one. But if you (as my wife keeps advising me to) lighten up a bit, you can see that it’s imbued with a certain character. The kind that really couldn’t care less whether or not you like it. I actually admire the unapologetic arrogance of the thing.

Comic-book looks are simply heightened by the gargantuan wheels and tyres, which almost sit proud of the arches that they struggle to squeeze into. The nose section is straight out of Transformers and it does without the recent model refresh design, because the ZL1 needs to gulp down more cooling air than its new, lesser-spec'd brethren. Vents and spoilers are everywhere, but they're all functional and add to the air of menace.

Inside, however, is where the Camaro shows its peroxide roots – it’s the one area an SLS owner would point to, with scorn in his or her eyes. Because it looks like something that a teenager would sketch during a maths exam: all big, bold, brash and vulgar. Only the nasty plastics have been given a liberal coating of Alcantara, which is at least pleasing to the touch.

None of that matters, though, when you stick the gearbox into manual mode and drop the hammer. The soundtrack is riotous, the punch in the back violent and the experience addictive. Grip levels are colossal (hardly surprising when you see those tyres) and, despite the prodigious power on tap, it rarely feels unwieldy or wayward – rather, it remains composed and unflustered by the demands placed upon it by road or driver.

As a package, it’s hard to beat, no matter where you look. The ZL1 represents one of the truly great modern motoring bargains. You want more bang for your buck? Look no further – this one even throbs.

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