The Chevrolet Camaro's Z/28 badge is as hallowed among US car fans as GT3 is to Porsche nuts, but this latest Zee, the first since 2002, is special because it’s the first for over four decades to really do the legendary name justice.
The original ’66-’69 Camaro Z/28 existed for one reason alone: to win the then-new SCCA Trans Am Championship, a kind of US version of the BTCC. It wasn’t a standalone model, instead Z/28 was simply the option code for a package that brought heavy duty suspension, quicker steering, plus a unique 4949cc (302-cubic inch displacement) V8 that fitted neatly under Trans Am’s 305-cid capacity limit, screamed to a most un-V8 like 6000rpm, and was cheekily underrated at 290bhp.
Chevy sold just 602 cars that first year, compared with 34,000 SS Camaros. Who’d have a 5.0 when you could have a 6.5 for less wedge? Racer Mark Donohue would. In the ’68 Trans Am season he won 10 out of 11 races to capture the championship, the first of two back-to-back series victories. But, mirroring what happened to BMW’s M3 two decades later, as the years passed, the lithe homologation special morphed into a high- (and, occasionally not very high-) speed GT. Thankfully, it’s now back on track, literally and metaphorically, coming closer in spirit to its progenitor than any M3 (bar the £120k GTS) has ever managed.
Chevrolet Camaro Z/28: prices, specs
The Z/28 costs significantly less than a M3 GTS, its $75k price converting to around £45,000, although something nearer £65k seems likely if GM Europe decides to officially import the car to Europe. Regardless of whether we’ll get it, that’s big money for a Camaro. The new BMW M3 and M4 undercut it. So does the Corvette Z06. And even if you are hell-bent on a Camaro, the fact that a 552bhp supercharged ZL1 version will leave you with $20k change would seem to seal the Z/28’s fate.
Or does it? Standing in the pitlane at Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park, hot metal pinging like it’s been attacked by 1000 pea-shooter-wielding Beano tearaways, I’m not so sure. This is a properly sorted track car, one that’ll lap a damp Nordschleife in 7min 37sec in the hands of a proper driver, but is so friendly that even novices will find themselves cycling through the five ESP modes in short order.
The Z/28’s heart is the 7.0-litre LS7 V8 from the old Corvette Z06, as the new one is now supercharged to keep pace with Europe’s supercar elite. It’s a mighty engine, still a simple overhead valve V8 with one camshaft, but fortified with titanium rods to ensure longevity at the serious 7000rpm at which it’s capable of spinning.
Like the original ’67, there’s no auto option, and GM doesn’t have a suitable dual-clutch alternative. The manual shift is surprisingly slick, the throw short, and only a chasm between the brake and accelerator making heel-and-toeing a little more difficult than it should be, spoils the experience.
Performance of the Camaro Z/28
And what an experience. Despite weighing 136kg less than a ZL1, the perennially portly Camaro still totals 1724kg in Z/28 guise. You’re aware of that bulk, but it’s managed so well when braking and turning that it’s rarely an issue. Much of the credit must go to the pricey spool-valve dampers, fitted in place of the ZL1’s magnetorheological shocks, and used by only one other production car on the planet, according to Chevy: the £1m Aston One-77. Their internal design gives much better control of oil flow within the damper, allowing for more precise tuning of both bump and rebound and, on this evidence, delivers superb body control.
That performance is matched by ceramic brakes that resolutely refuse to fade and deliver a level of pedal feel many carbon-equipped supercars can’t match, plus some seriously sticky Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres that work with a new limited-slip differential. There’s so much stick that the wheels themselves are now ‘media-blasted’ to make them grippier, because Chevy’s engineers found they were spinning within the tyres during fast lapping.
You could feasibly use a Z/28 as a road car, but that’s not its natural bent. The humungous front tyres cause tramlining and aren’t that great in the wet, there’s a fair amount of road noise, you’d be forever catching that front splitter, and the ride can get choppier than a Bruce Lee lookalike competition. To cap it all, hours spent in traffic would be give you time to notice the ropey cabin plastics.
Chevrolet knows it will only sell a handful of Camaro Z/28s, and many will end up with collectors, mothballed in garages. Having driven it, that is a terrible waste. It’s not quite a budget GT3, but no mainstream European carmaker offers anything like it for the money.