Special Coverage

2011 Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Another skirmish in the pony-car wars breaks out on the floor at the auto show here as Chevrolet introduces a high-output version of the Camaro designed to stand toe-to-toe with the 550-hp Ford Shelby GT500.

The Camaro ZL1 arrives in early 2012 and will be assembled in Oshawa, ON, Canada, at the same plant that has produced standard coupe versions of the resurrected muscle car, along with the all-new convertible launching now. Chevy estimates the convertible will make up about a quarter of Camaro’s sales mix.

For now, the ZL1 is intended only in a coupe body style, but General Motors design chief Ed Welburn says at the show a convertible version is “technically possible.”

The ZL1 gets its power from the all-aluminum 6.2L supercharged LSA V-8 shared with the Cadillac CTS-V sedan and Sport Wagon. In those vehicles, the engine is rated at 556 hp and 551 lb.-ft. (747 Nm) of torque.

The power ratings for the Camaro ZL1, while estimated at 550 hp, surely will come in higher as GM attempts to one-up Ford, and vice-versa, in a segment where spec-sheet supremacy translates into instant credibility – and marketing gold.

“I’ll tell you it’s estimated at a minimum of 550 hp,” Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser says of the ZL1.

As a coincidence, Ford’s all-new GT500, with its smaller 5.4L supercharged DOHC V-8, is rated at 550 hp and 510 lb.-ft. (691 Nm) of torque.

Oppenheiser makes clear the GT500 is the primary target for the Camaro ZL1. “We didn’t just want to compete with them,” he says. “When we introduce a car with this much technology, we’re looking to dominate the sports-car segment in terms of performance.”

Effectively channeling this much power to the rear wheels in a relatively light 2-door vehicle creates enormous challenges dynamically. The GT500 uses a 3-link solid axle with coil springs at the rear, while the ZL1 has a more compliant independent rear suspension.

A further advantage for the ZL1 is its use of Magnetic Ride Control, which appears on certain Corvette models and delivers remarkable stability by allowing the vehicle to instantly adapt to changes in terrain. Magneto-rheological fluid is used continuously to stiffen shock absorbers when necessary and keep the vehicle flat during dynamic driving.

Oppenheiser says he is thrilled with how well the ZL1 handles, aided by changes to the body that create additional downforce and improve the aerodynamics of the car. Mass has been taken out wherever possible, including the hood that has carbon-fiber inserts.

“We’re putting the mass down low in the car and trying to lower the center of gravity, which allows it to hug the road better on the track,” he says.

Both vehicles come equipped with electric power steering. The ZL1 also employs a high-performance Tremec TR-6060 6-speed manual transmission.

How much will all this technology cost?

The GT500 has a base price of $49,495, and Oppenheiser says he hopes the ZL1 pricing will be competitive. If the pricing can stay under $55,000, it will be eligible for testing in the Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition later this year.

Even without the convertible, the Camaro outsold the Mustang in the pony-car wars in 2010, 81,299 units to 73,716, according to Ward’s data.

But don’t count the Mustang out, says Jim Farley, Ford’s group vice president-global marketing, sales and service. He says popularity in this segment can be fleeting, and a sports car’s performance cannot be based on the first three years of its life, but over several years.

“(GM is) coming out with a convertible now; we’ve had one all along,” Farley says.

“We don’t measure the success of Mustang every year. The fact is, most sports cars, if you look at the trends, have 18-24 months of glory, then they’re pretty challenged in the later part of their lives. The great thing about Mustang is we’ve been in the market and never left. And we have a very constant demand for the product.”

Both the Mustang and Camaro have solid V-6s that are selling well and attracting new customers.

Ford has another new variant of the Mustang, the ’12 Boss 302, which Farley says is being test driven next week. Its 5.0L naturally aspirated V-8 tentatively is rated at 440 hp. A Laguna Seca racing version of the Boss 302 also will be available.

“I think Mustang is alive and well,” Farley says. “The Boss 302 is really fun to drive. It harkens back to the era when the pony car could really handle. We wanted a car that can challenge the import tuner cars.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com