A legend stands revived, its spirit intact

Last Updated 17 June 2014, 15:52 IST

For the Chevrolet Camaro, burning rubber in a straight line has rarely been a problem. Turning and stopping? Not always a top priority.

But the 2015 Camaro Z/28 that I’m romping around Monticello Motor Club’s road course is cranking off laps that would surely beat any number of full-bore sports cars, including the Porsche 911 S and the Corvette Stingray. Forget the mullet jokes: This Camaro is a legitimate track star, albeit at a starry-eyed price of $75,000.

It’s a long way from 1967, when Chevrolet charged $358 for a Special Performance Package, option code Z28, on its Camaro pony car, looking to make the car eligible for a racing series.

 Only 602 were made that first year, with Chevy playing down the 302-cubic-inch V8 and chassis package to avoid scrutiny from a racing-shy corporate bureaucracy. But the Z/28 soon became a dream car for homegrown hot-rodders.

Through the bloodlines of the original Z/28, this new Camaro also traces a direct link to the romantic era of trans-Am racing in the late '60s and early '70s.

That series sprang to life as a battleground for popular American V8 pony cars - Camaros, Mustangs, Challengers and others - contested by hero drivers like Mark Donohue, Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney.

Discontinued after 1974, the Z/28 was revived in the late '70s, the '80s and the '90s, before the entire Camaro line dried up in 2002. But successive Z/28s (mostly with badges that read Z28) never approached the charisma and appeal of the early models. That all changes with the 2015 version, the first Z since Camaro’s return for 2010.

Today’s retro-tinged Camaro consistently outsells the Mustang, in part because Chevy continues to keep the car fresh with special high-performance versions like the ZL1, a supercharged, 580-horsepower beast that is the fastest Camaro in a straight line.

The Z/28 isn’t about stoplight high jinks. Instead, this is a sharply focused, special-purpose tool. Spending the money for one if you don’t have access to a racetrack, even for a few days a year, is a bit like buying an $8,000 carbon-fiber road bicycle for evening spins to the Dairy Queen.

The 2015 Z/28 is all beefcake, and it’s powered by one of my favourite motors: the 505-horsepower 7-liter V8 last seen in the Corvette Z06, hand-assembled with a dry-sump oiling system and titanium valves and connecting rods. A 6-speed manual is the only transmission available.

Chevy points out that the Z/28 is 300 pounds lighter than the ZL1. There’s no air-conditioning, the battery is smaller, and there’s only a single speaker that regulators required to sound the seat belt chime. (That air-conditioning and an audio system with five more speakers is an option.) But it’s still beefy at 3,820 pounds — just 88 fewer than a Camaro SS with a manual transmission.

Even the bow tie trademark proved too dressy for this occasion. Cutting out the grille logo’s solid center creates what Chevy calls the Flowtie, which passes enough extra air to reduce oil and coolant temperatures by two degrees on the track, the company says.

The Z/28 will let barroom debate societies use “Camaro” and “Aston Martin” in the same sentence: The monotube shock absorbers feature spool valve technology, familiar from Formula One racing, but never used on a production model - unless you count the $1.8 million Aston Martin One 77 supercar.

These precisely machined valves give chassis engineers a wider tuning range to tailor the suspension responses without sacrificing ride quality.

A Torsen limited-slip differential helps maximize traction under power. So-called square tires - all four are the same size, rather than using wider rubber in back - are ultrasticky 19-inch Pirelli P Zero Trofeos in the generous 305/30 size. That grip helps the Camaro top the 1 g mark in lateral acceleration, a remarkable figure for a four-seat car that weighs two tons with a driver on board.

Apparently, the lavish performance investment left only small change for the interior: It is a mineshaft of coal-black plastic, mildly enlivened from basic Camaros with the addition of Recaro seats, special gauges and some Alcantara bits.

But interior styling was the last thing on my mind when I exited the pits — and, on cold tires, promptly spun the Camaro on a tricky, descending left-hander. Lesson No. 1: When the Z/28 does finally break loose, it does so with little warning.

All warmed up, the Camaro and its driver proceeded to have a ball. The Z/28’s carbon-ceramic brakes are as impressive as the engine and suspension, so strong and impervious to fade that I could wait until the last possible moment to squash the pedal, saving time in every corner. The only real shortfall is a lack of steering feedback: The Camaro isn’t as nimble or connected as its Corvette cousin or other pure sports cars.

This is going to sound like a left-handed compliment, but it’s actually applause: It’s hard to believe this is a Camaro. In terms of improbability, it’s like seeing the Deathmobile from “Animal House” pirouette around a track. Speaking of realism, Chevrolet is probably wise to limit Z/28 production to 3,000 over two years. The list of Camaro fanatics may be long, but the list of fanatics willing and able to spend $75,000 is infinitely shorter. (The price won’t go much higher, as the option list is very short.)

The question is thrown into relief by the $65,000 Corvette Stingray convertible I happen to be driving this day. It’s a Corvette, for gosh sakes, a dream car that’s roughly as fast as the Camaro on the street, but also prettier, more deluxe, accommodating and prestigious. And it still costs $10,000 less.

There’s been some overheated talk that people will buy the Z/28 for its potential value as a collector’s item. But few people buy a new car with the hope of payoff decades away. Savvy Camaro loyalists might do better pursuing a vintage Z/28 instead.

Still, give General Motors credit. This Camaro is hardly a moneymaking enterprise, yet the company has developed a car that vividly evokes the spirit of the original.

Whoever ends up with this Z/28 is sure to be grease-stained: It’s a car for serious car people with a chip on their shoulder. Now they’ll have a Camaro to match.

(Published 17 June 2014, 15:52 IST)

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