John Coletti, the former head of Ford SVT, made one of the boldest claims in the history of the Camaro vs Mustang rivalry in 2002 when he announced, “The 38-year Pony Wars are over, and Mustang wins.” At the time, he was introducing the so-called “Terminator” Cobra: a supercharged, 390hp variant that greatly exceeded anything any Chevy Camaro had on offer. Camaro, as it turned out, did face cancellation, and the storied nameplate entered the history books with no guarantee of revival, save for the collective prayers of the Chevrolet faithful.
We are now in the fifth decade of America’s fiercest vehicular rivalry, and that moment a decade and a half ago stands among the highest points for the Ford supporters. The relative performance of both cars ebbs and flows from one generation to the next, each car taking turns as the class benchmark.
Icons abound on both sides. For every Shelby, there’s a Yenko. For every Boss 429, there’s a ZL1 with an aluminum 427 derived from a CanAm block.That they’ve traded blow for blow for so long is in itself amazing, and while we’ll never truly revisit the classics, some argue that today is as golden an era as we’ve seen since the pony car genre emerged in the 1960s.
When Camaro made its return in 2010 with handling that was good enough to draw honest comparisons to the BMWs of the world, it was nothing short of a revelation. Lightning struck again with the fifth generation Z/28, which brought along legitimate track-going credentials. Mustang then countered with the Shelby GT350 and GT350R, before the inevitable Camaro fightback, first with the superb handling of the 1LE, then the supercharged ZL1. Both sides have been having their cake, as it were, for a few years now.
And it’s led us to this. The 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.
The stats jump off the page, as does the list of hardware that Chevy bolted on to its new track day weapon.
Walking up to the ZL1 1LE in person for the first time, I’m struck by the dive planes in front. They’re huge, serving to keep the front end close to the ground at triple digit speeds. Installing them required removing the daytime running lamps, the removal of which also ensures that enough air gets to a couple of the additional radiators that accompany the standard ZL1’s supercharged 6.2L V8.
And as if there was any doubt about the enormity of the rear wing, Chevy’s designers placed an “X” on the winglets, for “extreme.” That’s a good word for what is ostensibly a street car with a wing developed in an F1 wind tunnel in Brackley, England. At 150mph, it provides 300lbs of downforce. Extreme though it may be, that wing is not mere eye candy for bold owners: it’s a key contributor to the car’s balanced and composed performance around a race track.
Even the alcantara-heavy interior is functional. In a car capable of pulling in excess of 1.2 lateral Gs at times, I never once found myself needing to readjust my seating position or even brace myself against the dead pedal. A testament to the seats and their materials as well as the suspension.
The highlight of the ZL1 1LE package though is Multimatic’s DSSV dampers that, prior to the aforementioned Z/28, were exclusive to six-figure supercars and a who’s who of professional race teams, not the least of which was Red Bull F1 during its championship-winning seasons.
They’re serious equipment, but this is a serious car that comes from the factory with adjustable camber plates and a three-way-adjustable rear stabilizer bar. Subframe bushings have been replaced by solid mounts. Front ride height is adjustable up to 10 mm, allowing owners to find the perfect balance for their particular driving style.
At the (gladly) sacrificed expense of some road comfort, all of those pieces serve to help the gargantuan tires optimize their contact with the pavement. Coming in at 305/30/19 in front and 325/30/19 in back, Goodyear spent three years developing them specifically for this car at 11 different race tracks. They are in some respects the secret sauce of this top-shelf Camaro recipe.
All of this is in addition to Chevrolet’s Performance Traction Management system and the 650hp lump under the carbon fiber hood, which is actually somewhat necessary here and not a marketing maneuver, given the Camaro’s 3,820 pound curb weight.
That represents an awful lot of kit, and leads to an underlying question that cuts to the existential crux of the Camaro ZL1 1LE: is this a brash toy for boy-racers that will plummet in resale value until it’s stripped of all dignity and forced to dominate a LeMons race in 20 years? Or is it another high point in the latest round of the Pony Wars, a Camaro victory that will be cherished by bowtie loyalists, and even considered collectable in due course?
One of the lessons of the history of Camaro vs Mustang is that when enthusiast-pleasing function takes a primary role during development, that vehicle ages well. And boy, does this car ever function.
I’m at a brand new track in Canada, named Area 27. It’s partially funded by Jacques Villeneuve, and the unofficial story is that it takes its name from his father Gilles’ famed Ferrari number 27. After a few laps to learn the highly technical track using the LT (V6) and SS (V8) versions of the 1LE, Chevy’s team lets a few of us media types fire up the fearsome ZL1 1LE.
Every single component contributes to this Camaro’s overall greatness on a race track, and when you pay attention, you can sense each one executing its mission statement.
The aerodynamic bits help maintain control while cresting a hill in the middle of a high-speed kink. In the SS 1LE, this section has a high pucker factor, but not in the top dog ZL1. Those beastly tires communicate through sound and touch with all the familiarity and finesse of an old lover. After every undulation on this topographical wonderland of a race track, and over every strip of curbing at the apex and track out, those DSSV dampers reiterate their superiority to anything you can buy in the aftermarket.
Turn in is more precise than a pony car has any traditional right to be. At its considerable limits of adhesion, the Camaro is calm and collected. Even when slowing from 135 mph into a sweeping 90 mph corner, it remains almost serene. The confidence it inspires is such that it can make a once-intimidating figure like 650 hp seem perfectly normal.
Despite both the technology and, surprisingly, the heft, this is a pure driver’s car. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. The 1LE option package can trace its ancestry to the 1980s, when Camaro racers, tired of losing to Mustangs in the SCCA, begged and pleaded with GM brass to give them something more competitive on the track.
Of the 800 to 1,000 units Chevy expects to move each year, not a single one will have an automatic transmission. That’s not because the new 10 speed available on the standard ZL1 isn’t faster than the tri-pedal—it is—but because the ZL1 1LE is built to be driven by enthusiasts who want to savor the visceral experience, and who would rather work a clutch for themselves. To paraphrase Camaro’s Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser, giving the car an automatic would enable posers who would rather be driving the car down city streets while looking cool than sitting trackside, adjusting camber settings at six in the morning. This car, he reasons, is for enthusiasts. Performance car boulevardiers need not apply.
For all of these reasons, the Camaro ZL1 1LE exhibits all the hallmarks of a classic in the making. The fact that this might very well be the single biggest gap between the top Mustang and the top Camaro in the history of the now 50-year-runnit pony wars doesn’t hurt, either.