Creating the ZL1 Camaro

Gary S. Vasilash

Power, performance and awfully clever design and engineering are characteristics of this variant of the six-gen Camaro.

You might think that from a developmental and engineering point of view that a Chevy Camaro with a 2.0-liter, 275-hp, I4 engine mated to an eight-speed automatic would essentially not have much more than its name in common with a Camaro with a 6.2-liter, 640-hp V8 mated to a six-speed manual or a 10-speed automatic.

But Al Oppenheiser, Camaro chief engineer, will tell you you’re wrong if you think that. Because, Oppenheiser explains, during the development of the sixth-generation Camaro they anticipated from the very start the likely permutations that the car would have, be it the first-mentioned daily driver or the second-mentioned ZL1 that can ride on the street or the track with equal aplomb.

The car was engineered such that it could meet both requirements without the less-high-performing version carrying what Oppenheiser calls “scar mass” of the ZL1.

“We ran nine-million hours of simulation,” Oppenheiser says, “running several interactions at the same time, all day, every day.” By doing the analysis on the computer, they were able to not only dial in the structure better, but it meant that they needed to build fewer development vehicles to be tested.

“In the recent old days,” Oppenheiser says, “Aaron’s team”—that’s Aaron Link, lead development engineer for the Camaro—“would have 40 to 100 cars, depending on the program, and we would wait to hear until they’d do all of their development tests.”

There are at least a couple of concerns with that approach. For one thing, each of those development vehicles could cost from $250,000 to $500,000. For another, the development was going on at a point in the critical path when tooling should be started, but it wasn’t.

In the case of the sixth-generation car—and Oppenheiser points out that it has almost 30 percent more structural integrity than the fifth-generation car and is lighter (on the order of 230 pounds, of which 133 pounds is taken out of the body-in-white)—not only did they start out by doing early work on a modified Cadillac CTS, but because they were running so many analyses in computer-aided engineering, “The first car we built was a rock star out of the gate.”

One of the clever things they’ve done to achieve the performance targets of the high output vehicle without weighing down the car with the four cylinder (to say nothing of the V8-powered convertible) is to create 11 component modules that are added to specific modules only as needed. That way it isn’t necessary for additional mass (i.e, “scar tissue”) to be applied to vehicles that don’t need it.

Looked at from another direction, when they were engineering pieces like suspension components, they designed lightweight components and didn’t automatically assume that it would be necessary to up-gauge the materials to accommodate the V6 and V8 models. The computer-aided engineering helped them determine whether performance parameters were being met.

Which, both from the development and the manufacturing points of view, is much more cost effective.

In the case of developing the ZL1, John Mack, exterior design manager, and his team worked hard on providing the aerodynamics that would be required of the vehicle. Compared to a more-conventional Camaro, this one has a hood with a carbon-fiber insert and heat extractor, a larger front splitter, unique rockers, wider front fenders and a wing-style rear spoiler. Mack explains that developing these components—which must not only be functional, but look good—is a very model-specific undertaking: it wasn’t as though they could look at, say, an aero package for the Corvette and then transfer analogues to the Camaro: “Everything is unique to the particular surface,” Mack says.

Not surprisingly, the Camaro designers and engineers spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel at the Tech Center. What is surprising is when they did that work. Oppenheiser says, “The graveyard shift—midnight to 8 a.m.—is not the first shift that people generally sign up for, but our Camaro team has always taken it. I don’t know how many calls we get from them on Tuesday mornings when we all get together—calls from people who have worked all night. It’s the commitment that they have.

“Camaro never sleeps.”

And as can be expected, the interior of the ZL1 is not like the interior of an LT or an SS. “From the interior side,” says Tristan Murphy, interior design manager, “before we started sketching we started thinking about how we’d walk this car up and give the customer something that doesn’t feel like just a little more. That’s the hardest thing with this car: How do you design strategically so that you can enable yourself later on to do things to open it up and make it more special for the customer?

“On the interior side it is a little more challenging because a lot of these things get architecturally set in place. It’s not like on the exterior, where you know for performance and design you’ll be doing a different front end, new hood and different wheels. On the interior, it is tougher to make that dynamic shift.”

Though shift they did, by going suede and leather from top to bottom in the ZL1, and offering an optional carbon fiber trim panel that’s placed in front of the front passenger. (Front passenger begs the question of why a car like the ZL1 has a back seat. For one thing, Chevrolet already has a two-seater, the Corvette. For another, Oppenheiser explains: “We discovered, as did some of our competitors, that the rear seat acts as structure. If you take it out, you have to add structure back in, otherwise you get body chucking. You might add in more mass.”)

There are other elements that make the ZL1 special. Like the Magnetic ride suspension. Electronic limited slip differential. Brembo brakes with 15.35-inch, two-piece, front brake rotors. And more.

But at the end of the day, the sixth-generation Camaro is essentially a sixth-generation Camaro, whether you go for the entry model or the top-of-the line.