First Drive: 2018 Camaro ZL1 1LE
The baddest sixth-generation Camaro yet leaves us impressed. - By Andy Pilgrim
KELOWNA, British Columbia — Have you ever been to Kelowna? Neither had I as I boarded the final flight on my way to drive the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Terra firma meeting my little Alaskan Air twin-prop prodded me out of nap land. I had to think for second where I was and what I was actually doing here. I’ve been traveling flat out since January, when I flew to the Middle East to compete in the 24 Hours of Dubai sports-car race. Since then, among other responsibilities, I’ve been to Germany several times to run at the Nürburgring, and now here I am — 170,000 miles later — in the Pacific Northwest for a test of the latest Camaro track special.
As I eyed the 1LE for the first time, its ultra-aggressive stance made me think of the long-standing Mustang/Camaro rivalry, with fanatical fans on both sides. They’re nothing like political or religious fanatics, of course; they’re way more civilized. That said, seeing the 1LE’s rabid front fascia in a rearview mirror may be the vehicular equivalent of a middle finger to anyone in its path.
Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser informs us, “The 1LE is focused towards track and then street. We aimed for a vehicle buyers (General Motors figures people age 50 and older) can drive to the track, enjoy driving on track, and then drive it home.”
The 1LE seems to follow function more than design. Air management was a chief consideration throughout its development. Bodywork had to change, because the 1LE’s wheels (11 inches in front, 12 in the rear) are an inch wider than the ones found on the standard Camaro ZL1. The fenders are 0.7 inch wider to efficiently move air around the larger rubber (305/30R-19 front, 325/30R-19 rear). As a historical note, this is the widest rubber ever employed on a factory-built Camaro. Unique to the 1LE package, Chevy chose to use 19-inch wheels instead of the base ZL1’s 20-inchers. The 19s pull air through them as they roll to aid brake cooling.
The 1LE has a longer front splitter molded over the standard fascia, plus racing-derived dive planes and larger front grille openings. All of this adds downforce to the front, which means a new rear wing is necessary to reestablish aerodynamic balance. The 1LE rear wing is highly efficient, adding downforce with little drag. The use of carbon fiber allows the wing to be very thin where needed, which means aero effectiveness dictated the shape rather than manufacturing limitations or design eccentricities. Total downforce, according to Chevy, is 300 pounds at 150 mph.
Chevy went to suspension masters Multimatic to work on the 1LE, the same company that’s heavily involved with the new Ford GT supercar. As does the Ford GT, the Camaro 1LE uses Multimatic’s Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve, DSSV, damper technology front and rear. DSSV technology has been used in Formula 1 and other professional racing series and is, of course, very expensive. The main tech difference in a DSSV damper compared to a typical one is the use of exquisitely engineered pistons, with port holes instead of the deflective discs, or shims, traditionally found inside.
DSSV technology allows for much more specific shock tuning and a wider range of capability. Note: The 1LE’s dampers are not adjustable. In an effort to delete chassis/suspension flex, traditional rubber mounts and bushings were eliminated where possible. The 1LE front dampers are hard-mounted, top and bottom, which should lead to more consistent handling at the limit. Interestingly, despite the hard mount, loosening just three bolts and rotating the strut can increase front camber to 3 degrees negative in minutes. This is a very useful option for trackside preparation. Ride height is also adjustable by a total of 0.78 inch via the front-strut spring perch. Plus, the rear stability bar has three positions.
Amazingly, the DSSV dampers on the 1LE save 23 pounds over the ZL1’s regular setup.
More than 20 years have passed since I worked with Goodyear tire engineers to develop super-sticky street-based race tires. After a long layoff, at least on my side, I can say Goodyear is back in the sticky street-tire game with this new Eagle F1 Supercar 3R (1LE specific). Think Pirelli Trofeo, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, etc. In other words, they are exceptional — and wear out if you look at them too long — but, oh, how they grip.
Goodyear worked alongside the Camaro group on the new R3. “Normally we would see maybe four iterations of development tire at most,” Oppenheiser says. “With the 1LE tire, Goodyear submitted seven over three years.” Indeed, it’s good to see another player in the sticky street-tire business, as it should provide more competition and improve and increase choices for all enthusiasts.
My street drive of the 1LE takes place in northwest Washington, around the picturesque Oroville, Tonasket area. I drive 300 miles, sitting in the driver’s seat for around eight hours. I’ll say something right here about the seats in the 1LE (identical to the ZL1): These are without doubt the most comfortable seats I have ever found in a GM vehicle. That is good news because this car feels stiff — and I mean really stiff. The 1LE does not have a lot of suspension travel, and the dampers are designed to work best on the limit at racetracks.
In fact, expansion joints on public roads cause the car to skip. Ripples in asphalt while approaching a couple stop signs send the 1LE into a tiff, as it skips from one ripple to the next. Staff photographer Robin Trajano and I find ourselves out of our seats a couple of times (yes, we have seatbelts on) as we encounter abrupt road heaves. But once I understand how the 1LE is set up, I drive accordingly. The car’s ride and handling reminds me of driving a Porsche 997 911 GT3; they seem to share similar compliance levels. I have not heard anyone with a GT3 complain about a stiff ride, as usually they know what they bought. I suspect and certainly hope 1LE buyers will be equally discerning.
Regardless of the stiffness, the 1LE feels fine 99 percent of the time on Washington’s superb country roads. Handling at spirited (not nutcase) speeds was predictable and impressive. The Goodyears provide constant lateral grip of more than 1g with no fuss. Despite the big grip, I could manipulate the 1LE at will. I practiced some “overdriving” scenarios with traction- and stability-control nannies set to minimum intrusion. I leaned on the front tires and used quick hands to upset the rear. Nothing caused a twitchy or snappy reaction, just manageable little slides corrected easily with steering input or by the traction/stability controls. The chassis and Goodyear combo worked well.
I could not use all 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque from the supercharged LT4 V-8 for more than a few seconds without reaching jail-time speeds. This is power enjoyed fully on a track, as the 1LE is a really big stick, and you can’t come close to using all of it on the street.
The MH3 Tremec six-speed manual gearbox is excellent. In fact, it is one of the best production-car manual transmissions I’ve tried, and the rev-match feature is flawless as far as I’m concerned. The brakes (six-piston Brembos front, four-piston rear) are superb. The steering feels connected and direct, probably helped by the solid mounted struts. A fair amount of tire noise comes into the car above 60 mph, but it does nothing to hinder conversation. Engine noise is a friendly burble in normal driving, only changing to “Can you freakin’ hear me now?” with a heavy foot.
Why, though, in such a track-tuned car, does the 1LE have electric seats, as there must be 60 pounds worth of electric motors included in them? Oppenheiser answers, “We left all the ZL1 content in, as we believe the 1LE buyer will demand it.” He adds, “This is not a stripped-out car, [something like] that would tend towards a Z28.” So then, despite all the track-focused bits and tuning, the 1LE remains all ZL1 inside and weighs only 67 pounds less (3,820 pounds).
The basic Camaro controls are simple to use, and I had no problem achieving an ideal driving position. I managed 15.3 mpg during our 300-mile day, including at least an hour of engine idle time.
As far as racetracks go, we headed to Area 27, a six-month-old facility just outside of Kelowna. The 3-mile track has 16 turns and was designed by Canadian F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve. I can confirm he did not design it to be boring. There are fast, medium, and slow corners, a wicked blind 100-mph chicane, and great elevation changes. It’s an excellent circuit.
The Camaro ZL1 1LEs Chevy brought out for track driving were set up before we arrived, the setup work carried out by Bill Wise and other GM ride and handling engineers. As mentioned, front camber, ride height, and the rear stability bar are all easily adjustable. These engineers know their stuff and are as fast as pro drivers in the cars these engineers have developed. (Check out the superb 1LE Nürburgring lap on YouTube: 7 minutes, 16.04 seconds).
Whenever testing, I try out all the traction-control modes from the most restrictive to everything switched off. I find no surprises here; the traction/stability systems do a great job of keeping the chassis and power under control. The 1LE gives me the ability to correct all the silliness I throw at it. The least restrictive “race mode” TC cost me only a few tenths of a second over “everything off” on a two-plus-minute lap.
However, there is no getting away from the fact the 1LE is a heavy car. The majority of its weight resides over the front axle, and a driver can induce understeer if clumsy with steering inputs. The rear stays really stuck unless severely provoked. The 3R tires stay consistent after multiple laps, times falling off only slightly, even with ambient temps in the mid-80s. The ultimate stick of the Goodyear does not quite match that of the Michelin Cup 2s I’ve tried, but it’s close. The brake pedal stays solid for me all day, though I am not known to have a gorilla foot. (On the track I would not let tire pressures exceed 35 psi, and 28-30 psi seems to be a sweet spot.)
My photographer wants some drifting shots at the end of the day, and the 1LE is a pleasure to slide, giving me plenty of control and feedback. I had used the same car/tires all day, and after finishing up I am amazed to see minimal tire wear. I don’t know how long the new Goodyears will last, but these well-abused specimens did much better than I expected.
It’s just another example of modern engineering and technology, and the fact we live in an amazing time for the automobile. Autonomous innovation is coming, millions of hybrids are out there, but we can buy a weaponized 650-hp Camaro ZL1 1LE for $69,995. No one knows for sure how long this will last, but I am going to enjoy the ride for as long as possible.