Note: this event was shortly before the COVID-19 situation really started to happen.

John tested the Camaro ZL1 recently, but the weather didn’t cooperate, and it bucketed down the whole time. Not optimum conditions for a rear-wheel drive supercharged V8. HSV took note of this, and invited a group of journalists to Hampton Downs so that we could appreciate the full power of the car in a controlled, and more importantly, dry environment. And to sweeten the deal they brought along HSV ambassador and all-round nice bloke Greg Murphy.

The right-hand drive Camaros sold in New Zealand starts life as a fully built left-hand drive car in the US factory. HSV Australia strips down the car from the front to the B pillar, removing around 350 parts, then re-manufacture and re-assemble the car as a right-hand drive version. This takes around 120 person hours and re-uses as many factory parts as possible, and adds some custom parts manufactured in Australia, such as an all-new dashboard. Other parts like the wiring loom are modified to suit the new layout. The result is a car that looks like it was right-hand drive from the factory.

Waiting for us at the Hampton Downs Club Circuit entrance were two Camaros – a blue 2SS and a white ZL1. The 2SS features a 6.2-litre LT1 Direct Injection V8 engine with Variable Valve Timing, making 339kW of power and 617Nm of torque. The ZL1 has a 6.2-litre LT4 Supercharged Direct Injection V8 engine with Variable Valve Timing, making 477kW of power and a fairly ludicrous 881Nm of torque. The 2SS gets to 100kph in 4.4 seconds compared to 3.8 seconds in the ZL1. Either car can be specified with either a 6-Speed manual transmission (with Active Rev Matching) or a 10-speed paddle-shift automatic transmission (with Custom Launch Control, Line-Lock and Lift-Foot Gear Hold). Both cars at the event had the 10-speed auto.

I won’t go full into detail here on the differences, but the ZL1 has active magnetic dampers, a more plush interior, external cosmetic differences, more drive modes, and different tuning for various systems. Full details can be found here.

The 2SS costs $106k for manual, $108k for auto, the ZL1 costs $174k manual, $176k auto.

The plan for the day was for each of us to have a few laps in each Camaro, with Murph in the passenger seat of the ZL1. I took the 2SS out first, completely unfamiliar with both the car and the circuit so I took it pretty easy. The Club Circuit is quite short, and judging by the marks and amount of rubber on the surface it’s used a lot by drifters. Both cars had very sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres fitted for the track. These tyres are not fitted to the road cars, they have Continentals instead. The F1s were so sticky that they were picking up chunks of rubber from the track, and Murph had to take the cars out every few laps for an enjoyable little skid session to clean up the tyres. 

First impressions: the bucket seat is comfortable and wheel adjustable in four directions, making the driving position easy to get right. The interior is very nicely finished, and there’s no hint or evidence of the steering wheel being moved over to the proper side. All of this was instantly forgotten once that V8 barked into life. On start, there’s a little blip of the throttle and growl, just to give you a thrill and a grin. There’s a bi-modal exhaust which can be set into quiet mode so you don’t annoy your neighbours too much. Of course, on track, we had the cars in their loud mode. I cruised slowly onto the track, easing the throttle towards the first corner. That V8 sounds fantastic and as I slowly wound it out towards the first bend my grin got bigger and bigger. In no time, I was on the brakes for the first corner, then back on the throttle, brakes again. This was a tight track.

My first lap seemed to go by in a flash as I got used to the car, sussed out the track and what I thought were reasonable racing lines, following the bulk of the tyre tracks. As I got more confident I found I was accelerating harder, braking later, really pushing the car through the bends. And everything about the 2SS inspired confidence. The brakes felt strong, with good feedback, and no hint of fade after a few laps, the steering was direct, and the car turned in beautifully. Applying the throttle out of the bends gave a fantastic feeling of being pushed forward hard, with just a hint of the rear starting to rotate – this is with the traction control systems on, it maintains a good balance of keeping you alive, but making you feel like a great driver. The whole time on track I left the transmission in auto, and never felt I needed to shift manually using the paddles. 10 gears plus the V8 torque meant it just got it right.

Before I was ready, it was time to pull in and hand the car over to the next driver. I felt exhilarated and wanted a lot more. Then after a very short wait it was my turn to get into the ZL1, with Murph riding shotgun. No pressure at all there!

The ZL1 interior has more alcantara than the 2SS, and does feel nicer overall. But again that all fell away the moment I got on track. The 2SS felt fast, but the ZL1 added another dimension, with that supercharger whine added to the glorious V8 soundtrack. I entered the first corner with a little too much enthusiasm, eased off, started to follow similar lines to the ones I followed in the 2SS. Murph said “Don’t follow the tyre marks, they’re from the drifters and are all wrong”. Dammit.

The first couple of laps went by in no time, with Murph calmly giving directions on when to accelerate, brake and turn, and occasionally grabbing the wheel to correct my lines. As I got a bit more confident that I wasn’t making a complete fool of myself in front of a pro driver, I was able to relax a bit more and enjoy the car. The acceleration and noises are the dominating things, and they are just fantastic, grin-inducing fun, but this isn’t just a straight-line car, it handles very well indeed. The grip on-track with the Goodyear tyres was surprising, as I really chucked it into some of the corners, and used full throttle to push out of each corner. I was also getting used to really using the brakes in a way I never would on a public road. I was definitely getting quicker and tidier the more laps I drove, and realising just how much practice it would take me to start to get faster and more consistent on track. But it was time to swap seats with Murph for a few “warm” laps.

Reluctantly I pulled and relinquished the steering wheel, jumping into the passenger seat. Murph hopped into the driver’s seat with a grin, strapped in, and we were off in full-on mode from the start. I was thrown back in my seat under acceleration, pushed forward under hard braking, and even strapped into the bucket seats I was getting thrown from side to side on corners. We came out of the first bend sideways, carrying quite some speed, tyres smoking, Murph with one hand on the wheel, looking calm and totally in his element. Hard on the brakes, round the next tight left-hander, up to three-figure speeds, rear tyres smoking, fully sideways, then into the big sweeping right-hander, still partly sideways, speed climbing fast and hitting 170+ before standing on the brakes to get around onto the straight. Supercharger whining gloriously as we accelerated, then seconds later braking again for the tight bend at the end of the straight then off again for more of the same. We did a couple of laps like that, with me grinning ear-to-ear and Murph casually chatting about the car while steering with one hand or sometimes no hands as the wheel re-centred, tyres smoking and chunks of rubber firing in all directions. Next was a neatly driven lap for all-out speed to show just how well the Camaro can handle and its impressive grip. Murph pushed the car much further than I would have dared, and it took it all in its stride. Finally we did a cool-down lap and it was time to stop and let someone else have a turn. Totally exhilarating and impressive.

So what have we learned from this experience? Firstly, the Camaro is a thoroughly impressive sports car which offers serious performance and fun. Secondly, if you do buy one, you really need to take it to a track to liberate its full potential. Thirdly if, like me, you’re not experienced at track driving, having someone like Murph in the passenger seat wouldn’t hurt.

Thanks again to HSV for giving us this opportunity to really experience the Camaro, and to Murph for his patience, skill and calm on track. 

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