MILFORD, MI – General Motors expects the powertrain mix on the high-performance ’12 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 to weigh upwards of 50% in favor of the automatic transmission, buoyed by evolving customer preferences.

“There are a lot of people out there who, as they age, do not want a third pedal,” says John Fitzpatrick, marketing manager for the Chevy Camaro and Corvette.

“And then you have younger people who have never been exposed to a manual transmission,” he tells WardsAuto during an event at GM’s proving grounds to detail the ZL-1’s hotly anticipated specifications.

The ZL-1, with its supercharged 6.2L V-8 engine, will produce 580 hp and 556 lb.-ft. (754 Nm) of torque, trumping output of the Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang. The ZL-1’s most direct competitor makes 550 hp and 510 lb.-ft. (690 Nm) of torque from its supercharged 5.4L V-8 engine.

Fitzpatrick says many younger buyers matured alongside video games, which simulate Formula 1-type paddle shifting found on the ZL-1’s steering column. As a result, most are lost on the notion that rear-wheel-drive sports cars with automatic transmissions lack performance credibility.

According to WardsAuto data, 89% of model-year ’10 passenger cars in the U.S. were equipped with automatic transmissions, up slightly from 88.3% a decade earlier.

Other performance cars under Fitzpatrick’s watch also lean toward the 6-speed automatic, including the Camaro SS, with 70% of buyers skipping the third pedal and 65% of base Corvette owners doing the same.

“It’s surprising,” he admits.

However, old-school enthusiasts likely will make the manual transmission more popular in the first few months of availability, Fitzpatrick adds.

Publicity over the technology backing GM’s in-house Hydra-Matic 6L90 6-speed automatic will help spur sales of the gearbox as well, he says.

The transmission, which first launched on ’11 models of the Corvette and Cadillac CTS-V, boasts lightning-quick shift times while in tap mode, thanks to enhanced software controls.

Based on throttle inputs, the transmission anticipates the next gear much like a dual-clutch variety, but without the costly hardware of DCT. GM estimates the “staged upshifts” trim shift times by upwards of 50%.

Expect the sophisticated transmission technology to bleed into other GM models, sources tell WardsAuto, although the business case for vehicles lacking sportiness would be difficult to make.

Pricing has not been released, so it’s unclear if the ZL-1 with an automatic transmission will command a premium over the Tremec TR6060 6-speed manual.

The ZL-1 also awaits federal fuel-economy testing, leaving in question whether it would escape a gas-guzzler tax. The Shelby GT500, rated at 15/23 mpg (15.7-10.2 L/100 km) city/highway, does not get hit with the charge.

Production of the car starts at GM’s Oshawa, ON, Canada, assembly in the first quarter of next year, with units arriving at dealers around the same time. A convertible model to match the Shelby GT500 would seem logical, although GM has announced no such plans.

Besides the advanced automatic transmission, the ZL-1 receives GM’s third-generation Magnetic Ride Control, a real-time suspension damping system, and Performance Traction Management, providing five modes of driving dynamics.

In a first for Camaro, the ZL-1 gets electronic power steering. Rack-mounted and belt-driven, it is necessary to strike the correct balance between everyday driving and track readiness, GM engineers say. Parasitic losses with a hydraulic system proved too great.

The addition of the ZL-1 gives the Chevy stable three big dogs, with the 638-hp Corvette ZR-1 and 505-hp Corvette Z06 also occupying showroom space.

Fitzpatrick thinks there’s enough room. “We think they (attract) different buyers,” he says of the cars, citing the Camaro’s unique styling and room for four passengers.

The ZL-1 moniker refers back to an engine developed for Corvette race cars in the late 1960s. A loophole in GM’s ordering system at the time allowed dealers to custom-order a handful of Camaros with the engine.

All ’12 Camaro models also receive a new steering wheel, as the auto maker yields to criticism over the “deep-dish” design of the original. GM wanted to suggest first-generation Camaros from the 1960s with a modern take on the design, but critics called it disastrous and complained about its comfort.

Output of the naturally aspirated V-6 engine bumps up to 323 hp from 312 hp, and the powerplant loses 20 lbs. (9kg).

jamend@wardsauto.com