ALTON, VA – For the uninitiated and seasoned driver alike, a loop around the Virginia International Raceway can be a humbling exercise with maddeningly snug turns testing the driver’s skills and blind crests measuring his intestinal fortitude.

No matter the skill level, the ’12 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is an ideal complement, arriving now as a high-performance variant of the popular sports coupe resurrected three years ago to much fanfare.

The Camaro ZL1 boasts no fewer than five Performance Traction Management modes and Magnetic Ride Control, making it smart enough to keep the greenest track-running amateur’s chin up, but also so downright beastly that the more veteran driver likely will find it the perfect weapon for taming venues such as VIR.

With third-generation MRC, a General Motors technology until now used only by the auto maker’s Chevy Corvette and Cadillac V-Series performance cars, valve-less damping and magneto-rheological fluid technology vary the suspension firmness up to 1,000 times per second to match the road and driving conditions.

That means a ZL1 owner could cruise to work every day in relative comfort, but then dial up the stiffness for the sprint home or an afternoon at the track without pushing a button.

Should the driver want to get more selective about the ZL1’s setup, there are the five PTM modes, which integrate MRC, traction control, electronic stability control, power steering response and launch control.

Launch control helps prevent excessive wheel slip under heavy acceleration, although it comes only on models outfitted with the 6-speed manual transmission. A 6-speed automatic with manual-shifting capability also is available.

Think of the ZL1’s various PTM modes as five rungs on a ladder, with the performance quotient tightening with each step up.

Mode 1 sets the traction control for wet conditions with the stability control engaged and MRC set to its most pliable “Touring” level. Mode 2 adjusts traction control for dry conditions, providing more power to the wheels.

Mode 3 moves the traction control to the even looser “Sport 1” and MRC to “Sport,” tightening the suspension and driver control, while the stability control remains engaged.

Mode 4 changes the traction control setting to “Sport 2” and switches the stability control off, eliminating automatic brake intervention. At Mode 5 the ZL1 operates on the edge, with traction control set to “Race,” stability control off and MRC in the tightest “Track” setting.

Mode 5 also adjusts the launch control for drag strips prepped with a traction-enhancing resin used to make tracks stickier.

We spend our track time in Mode 3, dialing in the tighter suspension setting but keeping the stability control on our side.

Early laps on a track slick from an overnight rain reveal how easily the ZL1, with its 6.2L supercharged V-8 gushing a peak 580 hp and 556 lb.-ft. (754 Nm) of torque to the rear wheels, can wind up on the infield as the rear end breaks away freely out of turns under moderate throttle.

But as the track dries, the ZL1 bares its teeth. With its specially developed tires, grippy from warm-up laps, and crisp air hanging about for the Eaton supercharger to breathe, the ZL1 bites sharply into the track’s switchbacks and charges down its straights like a bull at Pamplona.

The ZL1 feels heavy in the corners as it tips the scales at a relatively portly 4,120 lbs. (1,795 kg). But the tightly sprung suspension, which unlike its Ford Mustang rival includes an independent setup in the rear, keeps body roll to a minimum.

GM engineers repositioned drop links for the rear stabilizer bars outboard of the control arms to improve performance and spent countless man hours tuning the electric power steering system to feel natural and precise for this modern muscle car.

Let’s just say that like a good foot soldier the ZL1 knows how to take orders. Point the nose in one direction, and the rest of the car follows decisively.

Big Brembo brakes custom-made for the ZL1 provide ample stopping power and instill enough confidence while barreling into turns at VIR to hold our speed until the last second before jumping on the pedal.

Not surprisingly, we prefer the 6-speed manual, with its short-throw shifter and easy clutch pick-up, to the 6-speed automatic also tested at VIR.

Models equipped with the automatic gearbox include steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, allowing drivers the experience of a manual transmission. Shift times are exceptionally quick with the automatic.

Unlike with some competitors, the software will not intervene at redline, but the automatic lacks the drama of rowing through the gears that makes sport coupes so fun to drive.

GM trims the inside of the ZL1 with the same polarizing cues of other Camaros; rearward vision remains poor. But the auto maker adds suede inserts to the seats to keep passengers firmly planted and puts the same fabric on the steering wheel and shifter so sweaty palms can maintain a good grip.

A grab handle for the passenger’s side would be a thoughtful addition for firm anchoring during hot laps with GM’s test drivers and engineers.

Without a chance to drive the car on the open road, it is difficult to judge the quietness of the cabin. But with the epic exhaust note of the ZL1, we can hardly imagine keeping the windows up for any duration.

The ZL1 retains the shapely curves making Camaro a hit in the marketplace, adding distinguishing performance features such as a vented carbon-fiber hood and revised front splitter to improve high-speed stability.

The grille receives a unique design inspired by an assault rifle, and the rear diffuser picks up the same look.

The ZL1’s rear wheels and tires also fill up the fenders more than other Camaros because of its beefier rear suspension, but the extra black rubber peeking out gives the car great presence. It looks like a body builder tearing out of his shirt.

But beyond all the raw performance and eye-catching styling, the Camaro ZL1 delivers on the No.1 attribute of Chevrolet sports cars: great value. The ZL1 can be had for $54,995, a relative bargain compared with other sports cars promising 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than four seconds and a top speed of 184 mph (296 km/h).

The ZL1’s starting price includes PTM and MRC as standard equipment, as well as factory-installed coolers for brakes, transmission and rear differential.

The sole black mark to its value equation would be a gas-guzzler tax of up to $2,600.

But don’t expect fuel economy to hold up sales of the ZL1, evidenced by the fact GM dealers have ordered 50% more ZL1s than the auto maker has the capacity to build at its Oshawa, ON, Canada, assembly plant.

GM will sell every ZL1 it makes, and thanks to sophisticated technologies and spot-on styling, customers for this bruiser-with-a-brain likely will come from all corners.

jamend@wardsauto.com

 

’12 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Vehicle type Front-engine, RWD 4-passenger sports coupe
Engine 6.2L supercharged OHV gasoline V-8
Power (SAE net) 580 hp @ 6,100 rpm
Torque 556 lb.-ft. (745 Nm) @ 3,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 4.06 x 3.62 (103.25 x 92 mm)
Compression ratio 9.1:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 112.3 in. (285.2 cm)
Overall length 190.4 in. (483.6 cm)
Overall width 75.5 in. (191.8 cm)
Overall height 54.2 in. (137.7 cm)
Curb weight 4,120 lbs. (1,795 kg)
Base price >$54,995
Fuel economy 14/16 mpg (16.8-14.7 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Pros Cons
Brutish 580 horsepower Polarizing interior
Smart technologies Gas guzzler tax
Big bang for the buck Narrow sight lines