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First Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 [Review]

by Bryan Joslin

We hit the track in the most extreme Camaro ever to leave the factory.

Forget what you think you know about the Camaro Z/28. Tamp down your urge to make that mullet joke; suppress all thoughts of T-tops, stripey stickers and slushbox transmissions. Go back to the beginning, late in 1966, when the just-launched '67 Camaro's options list included the unassuming code "Z28.” To understand the all-new Z/28, you need to start there.

Ticking that box delivered a collection of track-oriented performance hardware developed with one simple goal in mind: to give Chevy's new Mustang competitor every legal advantage it could get in SCCA's Trans American sedan racing series. The original Camaro Z/28 was a legitimate track beast, and now Chevrolet is intent on returning the top-dog Camaro to its motorsport roots.

Back to its Roots

The Trans Am series, like the ponycar battle itself, is still alive and well with new Camaros dicing it out with Mustangs and Challengers in the TA2 class. But those are SS-spec Camaros racing in SCCA, and this new Z/28 - or rather the race-spec Z/28.R it will spawn - is designed to compete in the more advanced Continental SportsCar Challenge series instead.

The major reason the Z/28 exists, beyond returning a once-mighty nameplate to legitimacy among enthusiasts, is to give experienced high-performance drivers a Camaro they can drive to the track, run hard-and-fast all day long, and then drive home. Much like Porsche's 911 GT3, the new Z/28 is legal for the road, but built for the track.

Less Power but Less Weight

As odd as it may seem at first, the naturally aspirated Z/28 sits atop supercharged ZL1 in the 2014 Camaro hierarchy. Make no mistake; the ZL1 still tops the power charts, its blown 6.2-liter LSA cranking out 580 hp and 556 lb-ft of torque. The LS7 in the Z/28, by comparison, makes do with a "mere” 505 horsepower at a pushrod-friendly 6,100 rpm, with a very tractable 481 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. But gross output is only half the story; the track-honed 7.0-liter in the Z/28 delivers its power in a more predictable, linear fashion, which is what you need in the chicanes and between corners.

The differences between the two high-performance Camaros come down to more than just power, though. To offset the reduction in power and make the Z/28 even more balanced, Chevy engineers put it on a serious diet. The Z/28 weighs in a full 300 pounds lighter than the ZL1 thanks to an obsessive undertaking to eliminate as much unnecessary weight as possible. Decisions like smaller wheels - 19-inch on the Z/28 compared to 20s on the ZL1 - saved 48 pounds alone, while the carbon ceramic brakes shed another 21 pounds.

Air conditioning has been made optional to deliver a further 28-pound reduction, while a fixed rear seat with thinner materials plus a reduction in sound insulation each contribute another 10 pounds to the scrap pile. The striptease gets as ridiculously exhaustive as saving just over a pound by eliminating redundant wiring from the harness, and just under a pound by specifying a 0.3-mm thinner rear window. Floor mats, trunk trim, and even the emergency tire inflator kit have been left on the curb in the interest of getting skinny.

Elsewhere, lightweight materials have been employed to keep mass as minimal and as low to the ground as possible. The hood, for instance is pressed from aluminum, and the flow-through louvers are carbon fiber inserts. Carbon fiber is also used in the front splitter and the massive rear spoiler. Even the engine is in on the program. Ditching the blower and using lightweight internals like titanium valves brings the Z/28's LS7 in almost 64 pounds less than the ZL1's LSA.

The result of all those efforts is a 3820-pound coupe - 101 pounds heavier than the most basic V6 Camaro - making it the lightest V8-powered Camaro of this generation. If that doesn't sound all that impressive, it's important to remember that on the track, every ounce counts, and some of these reductions have even great benefits when the vehicle is in motion. The wheel/tire/brake combination alone greatly reduces rotational mass, making the Z/28 more responsive in acceleration, turning and braking. The lighter engine better balances the chassis for better handling as well.

Sharpening its Aero

One way to go faster with less power is to cheat the wind, and to that end the Z/28 team has spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel and at some of the world's most legendary racetracks getting the air to work for it instead of against it. The first thing you're likely to notice about the Z/28 when you first see it in person is its massive front splitter. It reaches out in front of the car to catch the air and direct it up and away, reducing lift at high speeds.

An underbody panel works in conjunction with the rear bumper's functional diffuser to clean up what air does move below. Along with the big rear spoiler, the ground effects pieces create up to an additional 150 pounds of downforce at the rear end at speed.

The front fascia contributes to improved aerodynamics as well, with cooling air moving through the engine compartment smoothly before exiting through the hood vents. Even the Chevy bowtie emblem has been optimized; the so-called "Flowtie” has had its center material removed to improve flow, and someone in engineering with time on his hands ran the calculations to determine that it allows an additional 2.5 cubic meters per minute.

Serious Hardware

The Z/28 borrows several key bits from the Corvette. For instance, it employs the Z06's dry-sump lubrication system for reliable oil delivery during sustained high-G cornering, and the ZR1's liquid-to-liquid oil cooler.

The rest of the spec sheet reads like a SEMA project car. Components from the aftermarket's most prestigious companies replace standard-issue items from the GM parts bin. Brembo makes the ceramic brake package, Recaro does the sport seats, Mahle pistons and Pankl connecting rods live inside the engine, and breathing takes place through an open-element K&N filter.

A Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual is the only transmission offered on the Z/28, a major differentiator between this model and the GenII, GenIII and GenIV Z28s (those without the "/” in the name), not to mention the current Hydramatic-optional ZL1. AAM supplies the limited-slip differential, which is optimized for power delivery in three unique phases of traction while turning - entry, mid-corner, and exit - as well as predictable straight-line performance.

The suspension does without the ZL1's Magnetic Ride technology, saving weight and complexity, featuring instead a lighter dynamic suspension spool valve (DSSV) damper system - the same Multimatic system used in Formula1 and Formula3, and by Ferrari and Aston Martin.

On the Track

All these go-fast pieces don't mean much it they don't work together harmoniously. Chevy claims every component chosen for the Z/28 contributed to a lower lap time on the track. To prove it, they brought us to Gingerman Raceway, a 1.9-mile road course in South Haven, Michigan, that's typically frequented by sports car clubs and track day fans from the Chicago to Detroit - exactly the kind of drivers expected to pony up for a turnkey track car like the Z/28.

Conditions on our all-too-brief test day were about as ideal as they get - upper 60s and dry, with slightly overcast skies. After a short introduction to the cars and a couple familiarization laps, we were set free to explore the limits of Z/28's potential. As we soon found out, a couple hours were hardly enough to discover what this car is truly capable of.

Let's start with the engine. With 11 turns in just 1.9 miles, there's hardly room at Gingerman to take the Z/28 out of third gear, but clearly the car is meant for much more than the 90 mph or so we're able to manage, especially with the front straight off limits to us. Nevertheless, third gear is enough to explore the engine's linearity, lacking as it does the peakiness that comes from high-capacity forced induction engines. Power builds predictably from the moment you roll out of pit lane, the engine making the fantastic bark that only an unrestricted pushrod V8 can manage.

Shifting the Tremec gearbox is a visceral experience, as always. It's not so much that it requires a major effort, but the action of engaging each gear has a distinctly mechanical quality to it. Paddle shifters are, and always will be, a poor substitute for this sensation. The clutch, for all the potential it must restrain, is remarkably civilized, requiring only modest leg muscles to engage. Clutch takeup, like the gearshift experience itself, communicates the sense that something very mechanical is happening, but in a way that's not an unnecessary burden.

The barely street-legal R-compound Pirellis, already with several recon laps on them, still needed a few more hard turns to get good and sticky. Once they had enough heat in them, they were practically unflappable until you do something stupid. The carbon-ceramic brakes, on the other hand, seemed up to the task at the first corner, and they only seemed to get better with each lap. If there is one piece of hardware that requires a new set of expectations, it's really the brakes. With each successive corner you go deeper and deeper, wondering if there isn't a point at which they just won't work. They never disappointed.

The Z/28's chassis is agile and responsive despite its two-ton weight; there is never a sense that mass is shifting, as the car remains supremely composed no matter how ham-fisted your inputs are. Lateral grip is astounding, owing much to the tires, but also the DSSV suspension and the differential, which does its best to keep the power going in the direction you point it. Chevy claims the Z/28 is capable of 1.05 g of cornering acceleration, as well as 1.5 g of braking deceleration. We would have a hard time disputing those claims.

The Powertrain Management (PTM) programming is surprisingly subtle as well, allowing for very high limits of cornering and acceleration with just enough safety net to keep you from killing yourself. Modes 4 and 5 in particular allow an experienced driver to get the most out of the Z/28 without interrupting the fun at the first sign of opposite lock.

While the Z/28 is dynamically brilliant, the cockpit leaves a bit of room for improvement. Specifically, the headroom is compromised once a helmet is on. Perhaps lowering those beautiful Recaro seats would address this. Despite having a flat-bottomed steering wheel, the steering column itself actually impedes right-foot activity, making heel-and-toe downshifting a bit of a challenge. The cowl that surrounds the column is bulky, and it requires a conventional ignition switch. A change to a push-button start switch on the dash could slim down this little knee buster and make fast driving a bit more enjoyable.

The $76,000 Question

The 2014 Camaro Z/28 starts at $72,305. Add in the mandatory gas guzzler tax ($1,700) and destination charge ($995) and you pull up right at $75,000. Throw in the air conditioning package (which also includes additional speakers) and you're at $76,150.

That's a lot of money for a Camaro, but if the track is your playground, you'll have a hard time finding a more focused and better-prepared car for the task at hand. If what you really want is a showy sports car for the street, better options are available in cars like the Porsche Cayman, Jaguar F-Type and even Chevy's own Corvette. But for the same money, none of these will deliver the kind of on-track experience that the Z/28 offers.

No doubt some Camaro SS owners will attempt to create their own Z/28 in the aftermarket. They will probably come close, but in likelihood will have spent at least as much in the process. In the end, the Z/28 is the real deal, the car serious collectors will be clamoring for at the 2064 Barrett-Jackson auctions. For the right kind of driver, the Z/28 is an exceptionally good value.

Leftlane's Bottom Line

Forget the mullet. Your new haircut is a helmet.

2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 base price, $72,305. As tested, $75,000. Gas guzzler tax, $1,700; Destination charge, $995.

Photos by Bryan Joslin.

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