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2019 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performance review

By Dylan Campbell | Photos: Nathan Jacobs, 29 Jun 2019 Reviews

2019 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performance review feature

More ballistic grand tourer than snarling beast

It was such a comedown.

At the end of 2017, we were feeling high off a racy, home-brewed GM tonic comprising the VF II Holden Commodore SS-V Redline, Gen-F2 HSV GTSR and, of course, the still-can’t-quite-believe-they-did-it but so-glad-they-did HSV GTSR W1. We were so spoiled in such a short amount of time. And then... nothing.

Without anything to fill the vacuum except perhaps making a past-time out of ragging on Holden’s fairly barren current range of vehicles, it’s been a long couple of years for GM fans. Those in the blue camp have had hot hatches, V8 ponycars, DJR Team Penske and a whole lotta other fun things to keep them distracted. But with the arrival of the Chevrolet Camaro 2SS courtesy of Holden Special Vehicles, it’s been nice to know you can replace that SS with something warm and familiar, if you don’t mind paying a bit of a premium.

Now, HSV, from its glam new factory in Clayton, Victoria, has braved what must be a daring business case in supplying to the Australian market America’s big daddy, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Surprising, but credit to the leadership team at HSV, particularly in uncertain economic times and especially for the sports car.

HSV intends to import around 300 left-hand drive ZL1s initially, essentially rebuilding the interior in right-hand drive to OE-standard (no mean feat) in its Clayton facility. The other major change is ditching the US-spec Goodyear Eagle F1 ‘Supercar 3’ tyres for Continental ContiSportContact 5P locally in order to pass an ADR braking test. HSV will sell the Goodyears back to you for $1000.

Unlike the 2SS, HSV is offering ZL1 in both six-speed manual and 10-speed auto configurations. Yes, it’s the same 10-speed co-developed with Ford.

Having read about American muscle cars for decades and having somewhat classified the Camaro ZL1 in the same I’ll-never-see-one category as Viper, Corvette and so on, it’s a curious novelty beholding one in the metal in Australia. The hulking, wide ZL1 has a presence so aggressive that if it was some animal you chanced upon in the wild, you’d run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

Under the long, creased, vented bonnet is the LT4 6.2-litre pushrod V8. Supercharged, it produces a W1-usurping 477kW and 881Nm. HSV doesn’t claim a 0-100km/h time but Chevrolet does for 0-60mph (97km/h), that being 3.5sec and a quarter mile of 11.4sec at 204km/h. Times that would, if accurate, smoke a W1. And you can bet we’ll be running a ZL1 down the strip first opportunity we get.

Related: Why the ZL1's LT4 is one of the best V8s you can buy

First impressions. Aside from the centre console being very left-hand drive (HSV should really do its own centre console), there’s no telling the ZL1’s been converted to right-hand drive. The interior itself is not a patch on anything German but nice enough.

You sit pleasingly low and very much ‘in’ the car, in no doubt you are in something fast, sleek and sporty. But to drive, the ZL1’s personality is not quite what we were expecting.

Personally, I was hoping there’d be some W1 DNA in the ZL1. Particularly having set my hopes somewhat off the aggressive styling, I expected a roaring, son-of-LS9 engine that dominated the experience and a chassis that lived in its shadow. It’s almost the other way around.

As American muscle cars have never been the last word in handling ability, that’s not to damn the ZL1’s LT4 engine with faint praise, but instead to comment on the surprisingly good suspension performance, grip, ride/handling balance and road holding. And for all its scenery-blurring power, how ‘mature’ in personality the LT4 itself is. 

If you were coming from a Gen-F GTS with its LSA, you’ll find the LT4’s character quite familiar. Both engines have a lot of loud supercharger whine at any speed and load, but pin the throttle and an angry exhaust note somewhat fights for your attention with an unappealing hoarse, whooshing induction noise. This is true of the ZL1’s LT4 – for noise, it’s not as satisfying as the meaty, snarling, very V8 notes we enjoyed from the LS9, Gen-F2 LSAs and even the atmo LS3 in the VF II SS. Basically, we thought the ZL1 would sound a lot meaner.

Related: LT4 v LS9 - Which supercharged V8 is best?

Instead it’s the handling that far surpasses expectations. Having only experienced 2SS Camaros with fixed dampers (very much nothing special), the Magnetic Ride Control in the ZL1 is game-changing, offering outstanding ride quality, mid-corner compliance and giving you confidence to exploit the huge lateral grip of those tyres. Unexpectedly on a twisty road the ZL1 experience is mostly about daring to carry more and more speed into corners – and you can carry a lot.

Acceleration is also unbelievably strong but maybe we’ve driven too many supercars lately because it isn’t as dizzying as we thought 477kW would feel. The linear supercharged power delivery does hide the rampaging nature of the acceleration somewhat; the performance numbers will tell all, when we can get them.

The brakes are also outstanding. Meanwhile the 10-speed is pretty good but its surprisingly tall gearing such that it may as well be a six-speed auto with four overdrives (you never really get beyond fifth gear).

A tyre-frying, mega-mumbo muscle car still lives within the ZL1, buried under layers of electronics. It hasn’t forgotten its roots. But mostly, we’re surprised how the vibes of the ZL1 are very much more fast, mature, Euro-wannabe grand tourer than menacing, animalistic American muscle car. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on what you want.

The price is the real tricky one with the ZL1. In isolation it’s a great car and clearly HSV has been emboldened by the sell-out success of the $170K W1. At $160K the ZL1 is a hard sell beside similar-priced and very, very accomplished German rivals (of which there are many). Like the W1 though, it’s probable that HSV is betting those who want a ZL1, are unlikely to want or have tried anything else.

All about the drive on MOTOR car reviews

2019 CHEVROLET CAMARO ZL1 SPECS
Engine: 6162cc V8, OHV, 16v, supercharged 
Power: 477kW @ 6400rpm 
Torque: 881Nm @ 3600rpm
Weight: 1795kg 
0-100km/h: 4.2sec (est)   
Price: $159,990

Like: Don’t-mess-with-me styling; outstanding ride/handling balance; epic grip and grunt
Dislike: Bold pricing; interior feels a bit $80K; could sound ‘meaner’; trying to be too nice?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Nemesis

Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe
4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, RWD, 375kW/700Nm, 0-100km/h 3.9sec, 1725kg, $163,200

With its thuggish styling, lawless disdain for rear tyres and burbly, snarling V8, the C63 S Coupe is more of a muscle car than the ZL1. Big call. Sharper handling and nicer interior, too.