The kid who delivers pizzas near my house in Pennsylvania drives a stock Chevrolet Camaro. The car has a V-6 engine and costs about $23,000. Sure, the interior is plated in plastic, but the high hood and low roof give it an angry expression that’s catnip to the muscle-car set.
I recently tested a Camaro at a racetrack in the Catskills. The car looked pretty much the same as the kid’s, except for a wing protruding off the trunk and aerodynamic carbon-fiber elements skimming the nose and rocker panels. It cost $75,000.
All my car-fiend friends think this special Camaro, called the Z/28, is brilliant. Even the snobs have swooned. Welcome to crazy town.
How did we arrive at a $75,000 Camaro? The price puts the Z/28 in contention with used Porsche 911s or a very new Chevy Corvette Stingray. You could buy two Honda Motor Co. Acuras for that money, or a BMW M3. This generation of General Motors Co.’s Camaro has been on sale since 2009, and is on its way to a new underlying platform and a major refresh.
The punch line is that the Z/28 is specifically tailored for a racetrack, a throwback to a special racing model of the late 1960s. Talk about niche upon niche.
When I think of street cars I want to take on a racetrack, the Camaro doesn’t make the top 20. It’s next to impossible to see out of, feels numb when driven hard and is given to understeer. (Its brother, the Corvette, on the other hand, easily makes the top five.)
There is no race series that would let the Z/28 compete against one another, so the prospective customer goes something like this: You love American muscle cars; you have regular access to a racetrack; and you simply must combine these two passions.
Is there demand? Well, only 500 will be produced for the 2014 model year, Detroit-based GM says, and Chevy dealerships have already snatched those orders up because of keen consumer interest. It’s likely that some dealerships will mark up the price. Five times that many are planned for production in the 2015 model year.
Which still doesn’t explain how the new Z/28 came into being, unless you’ve ever spent a long dinner with a car engineer. (Advice: Avoid trying to turn the conversation to pop culture or other non-car-related topics.) Talk to their passion, though, and you’ll get an earful. For instance, these guys love to see how far an envelope can be pushed.
The Camaro’s engineers, basically, could not leave well enough alone. They’d already done a super-powerful version of the Camaro, called the ZL1, but the idea of a Camaro that handled better than any other was just too appealing.
So began the Frankenstein. First, the heart of a last-generation Corvette Z06, a 7-liter V-8 monstrosity, was further strengthened and dropped into its chest.
The suspension was put on the operating table next. The things that might make it reasonably comfortable on a normal street were done away with, sacrificed for stiffness and minimal front-to-back and side-to-side movement.
Weight is bad, so stuff that could be dispensed with, such as the air conditioner and radio, was chucked. A short-throw manual transmission was installed, and, crucially, carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes. You used to find these type of brakes only on exotic cars.
The final addition was special rubber. The Z/28’s P Zero Trofeo R tires from Pirelli & C. SpA look and act closer to racing slicks than regular road-legal tires. The front tires are wider than any ever put on a production vehicle, GM says, and there is barely any tread on them. This means they literally stick to the asphalt as they get hot. They are disastrous in the rain or cold, however.
The final result was the 505-horsepower Camaro I tested in upstate New York’s Monticello Motor Club. I certainly had my doubts. You can re-tailor an off-the-rack suit to within an inch of its life, and it’ll never fit as well as a custom job from the very beginning.
The temperature was in the mid-50s, and my first set of laps was on cold tires. Coming out of a turn, I pushed on the gas -- the engine is ferociously powerful -- and felt the rear tires begin to slip. A quick jiggle of the hands and I regained control. A colleague driving behind me wasn’t so lucky. He spun a Z/28 in the first 300 yards (274 meters), in the first turn, in sight of the pit lane and Chevy staff and other journalists.
Those tires simply had to be warmed up. The only way to do that, of course, is to drive on them. Yet by my third set of laps I still wasn’t feeling overly confident. I couldn’t see the front fenders of the car, so it was a matter of faith where I was placing the tires on the outside curbing. The rather numb steering didn’t help either.
Since the engineers were present, I had a talk with one about the best techniques to drive the Camaro. Most sports cars need to be finessed. Transferring between gas and brake is a delicate affair, as you don’t want to upset the balance of the car.
The engineer basically told me to stop treating the Z/28 like a sports car and more like a race car. Stab the brakes at the last possible opportunity, bound off the pedal, turn the steering wheel and trust that the big tires have enough traction to swing you through a turn.
In other words, be forceful.
The next lap, I warmed the tires up and then I let the Camaro have it. Hurtling toward a sharp right turn that opens to a straightaway, I kicked the brakes at the last possible second, then spun the wheel hard right. My body slammed into the seat belt, while the body of the car stayed level. The car sailed through the tight curve and cannonballed onto the straight.
I would brake later the next lap and later the time after that. The carbon-ceramic stoppers were beyond belief, and the traction from the hot tires was sublime. I could scare myself with a car like this.
Race cars are different than road cars. Even a road car as advanced as the $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder, which I tested late last year, has to be adept at many situations, comfortable in traffic and fast on a racetrack. That means compromises. A race car doesn’t need to serve those other masters. It can be a blunt instrument, single-minded in its pursuit of naked speed.
The current-generation Camaro has issues that simply can’t be solved. You’ll always feel like you’re driving a tank you can barely see out of. And I pity any buyer who plunks down his $75,000 (or more) and tries to drive the Z/28 up a steep driveway. Or worse, takes it out on a cold, rainy day.
But, as to the fair question of whether the Z/28 fulfills its narrow purpose of being a great car on the racetrack, I have only this to say: I can’t wait to get it back out there again.
The 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 at a Glance
Engine: 7-liter V-8 with 505 horsepower and 481 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 13 city, 19 highway.
Price as tested: $75,000.
Best feature: As close as you’ll likely get to a road-legal race car.
Worst features: Hard to see out of, still heavy and numb steering.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)