In stark contrast to its almost fluorescent exterior, the cabin is blacker than black. Shapely Recaro chairs are in the front quarters, which reassuringly grip my sides as I scan my surroundings. The dash architecture can best be described as minimalist brutalism, where function was the only consideration and form was banished to the bucket list. It ain’t pretty but it does the job and that’s entirely in keeping with traditional muscle car philosophy. The instrument binnacle looks like it could double up as Madonna’s pointy conical bra, circa 1990, and the plastic trim that tops both it and the dash itself feels cheap as I tap it with my fingernails. You don’t buy a Camaro – even a range topper – if cutting edge cabin design is high on your list of priorities.
I throw the key fob into the bin housed within the transmission tunnel and press the starter button. The eruption of sound announces my presence to wildlife over in Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi at the same time and threatens to shatter the windows of surrounding office blocks. The sound is physical, a harbinger that heralds the arrival of power, muscle and warp speed. It’s quite scary.
As the V8 settles into tickover, there’s no escaping its presence. You can feel reverberations as it lazily rocks away like some malevolent creature of the night just waiting for an opportune moment to strike and kill its prey. All I need to do is get it home through Dubai’s Media City and Marina rush hour traffic in one piece but there’s genuine fear here that an injudicious stab of the throttle will turn car and driver into road kill.
I needn’t have worried, for the ZL1 is fairly easy to drive at sedate speeds, able to negotiate vicious speed humps and ramps without spoiling its spoilers. The steering wheel, wrapped in grippy Alcantara, feels chunky in my hands but the action is light and precise. I’m sitting a bit too low for my liking, though, and visibility isn’t ideal, making for some nailbiting encounters with unforgiving car park walls and other road users but the car emerges into Dubai’s failing light unscathed.
My journey home is tortuous, taking nearly an hour to cover just three kilometres, but the time is wisely spent familiarising myself with the controls, in preparation for the following day’s planned sorties. It’s all fairly straightforward and the displays are clear and concise, although the head up display relating the car’s cornering g-forces are straight out of a teen’s wish list. Each door features a slash of neon lighting that matches the exterior colour, like a couple of glow sticks have been glued onto them – perfect for Dubai Marina, where the sides of dizzyingly high skyscrapers are festooned with multi-coloured lights that zip up and down their extremities.
The following morning I’m out nice and early to beat the commuters and enjoy some space on the roads and, for the first time, I’m able to unleash some of the ZL1’s performance potential. It’s soon apparent that this car has difficulty sticking to 120 – even 140kph – such is the frequency with which I’m reminded via the windscreen that I’ve breached the speed limit. I think it would be happy sitting at a steady 170 or 180, which is where it seems to head for whenever I’m not concentrating on keeping it in check. It’s like a caged lion at legal speeds, raring to get going. How anyone could drive this in the States with that country’s draconian approach to enforcing speed limits is beyond my understanding.
I peel off the motorway and intentionally take a roundabout at a speed that I’m probably best keeping to myself. And, what do you know, this crazy machine simply hunkers down, gets its talons into the tarmac and refuses to let go, managing to remain entirely composed no matter how much I try to provoke it. It’s now that I begin to comprehend the tireless efforts of GM’s chassis engineers in making ridiculous power controllable and that includes its substantial rubber boots. Not content with off-the-shelf tyres, Chevrolet tasked Goodyear with designing Eagle F1 Supercar tyres with a compound and construction unique to the ZL1. The Corvette Z06’s traction control system has been deployed, too, making this crazy Camaro entirely capable of keeping up with more nimble machinery on twisting canyon roads.
The speed is still scary, though, as it’s so easy to pile on without even thinking about it. Given enough space it’ll crack 320kph and reach 100 from standstill in 3.5 seconds, and you can’t help the feeling that it’s desperate to prove those numbers all the time. As I reach a road that’s perfectly straight, disappearing into infinity, I know there are no functioning speed cameras and there’s no other traffic, either. I take a deep breath and, while doing 120kph, I floor the (literally) loud pedal.
The Chevy squats ever so slightly at the rear as it picks up its skirt and barrels towards the horizon in a cacophony of blood curdling noise, while the scenery blurs like the stars do when Han Solo selects Hyperdrive in the Millennium Falcon. It’s a rush like few other cars can provide and the meaty rumble of the V8 transforms in an instant into a full-on scream, punctuated only by the inescapable high-pitched buzz saw racket from the supercharger. It takes every ounce of determined self-respect for me to not emit a deafening “yeeeee-haaaa!” every time I squeeze that throttle.
The fact that this car is fast is no surprise. What does come as a bit of a shock, though, is how brilliantly matched its 10-speed automatic is to that screaming motor. At normal highway speeds it does have a tendency to opt for the highest possible ratio as soon as it can do so without stalling, no doubt to reduce its prodigious thirst. But get on the power and take control using the wheel-mounted shift paddles and it behaves just like a sequential twin-clutch ’box, changing gears far quicker than you or I could. The rev-matching six-speed manual might provide a more dynamic feel but I doubt it could ever outgun this auto.
It could do with a bit more drama when shifting up and down its 10 ratios, though. An F-Type V8, even a Range Rover, when gunning it offers audio theatrics with pops, bangs and crackles with each downshift but here there’s none of that. – just straightforward brute force that happens to be exploitable even to those, like me, who have only just begun to delve into its character.
I suppose the million-dollar question is, though, after spending a few hours behind the ZL1’s wheel, would I choose to buy one? And the answer to that is no, I’m afraid. For me it doesn’t make sense in the way that a new V8 Mustang does – a car that I fell in love with almost immediately. It’s too ‘out there’, too in your face, too overt in its intentions to rip your hair out at any given opportunity. It’s a triumph of engineering and its build quality is vastly improved compared to its predecessor, and it never fails to entertain. But it’s ridiculous in almost every respect and, when it comes to my cars, I need a bit more sanity from my daily driver.
An acquired taste, then, the new Camaro ZL1 is, nevertheless, a car that inspires awe. That’ll do, Chevy. That’ll do. You’ve made your point in inimitable style.