With pony cars, it's all about horsepower.
So it's possible there's never been a greater case for dual-overhead-cam engine architecture than the 98-wheel-horsepower chasm between the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and 2013 Ford Shelby GT500. The Shelby, with a displacement some 350cc less than the Camaro, still manages to crank out enough horsepower to lay claim to having the most powerful production V8 ever built. Indeed, its massive potency alone makes a good case for choosing the GT500 over the pushrod-motivated Camaro.
But it gets worse for the Chevy.
The über Mustang is also 227 pounds lighter than the Camaro. Combine that with its massive power advantage and it looks like curtains for the Camaro.
It probably would be if the ZL1 didn't have a couple trump cards of its own. And by that we're referring to its independent rear suspension and magnetorheological dampers. They're interesting high-tech features, but it's hard to imagine they would be enough to overcome a serious horsepower-to-weight deficiency, right?
In case you've been sleeping under a big block for the last 45 years, here are the facts: Camaro and Mustang comparison tests are to enthusiasts what ice is to hockey, what minivans are to soccer moms and what cheese is to tacos. This is the foundational bedrock of our passion for performance, and when two pony cars as epic as these arrive at the same time the awesomeness is arresting.
And so are the numbers.
Power figures like this, not long ago, were the realm of hydroelectric plants. Rivers, not cars, produce this kind of mechanical energy. And as different as their output might be, some similarities exist under their hoods. They're both powered by port fuel-injected, Eaton supercharged, aluminum-block V8s. Ford rates the GT500's output at 662 horsepower and 631 pound-feet of torque. Chevy says the ZL1 pumps out 580 hp and 556 lb-ft. Although you'd never know it from behind the wheel, both utilize Tremec's TR6060 six-speed manual transmission.
And if we have to tell you the power goes to the rear wheels, you're reading the wrong comparison test.
Did That Just Happen?
Nothing is more humbling than watching a car with 100 fewer horses and the extra weight of an NFL running back disappear into the distance on a back road. But that's exactly what happened when we brought the two cars together to establish which is the best-driving pony car ever. The answer, as improbable as it seemed, was as obvious as the Camaro's shrinking taillights.
The angriest Mustang in history, the car that had face-punched the ZL1 for months at auto shows and in Web forums was being systematically annihilated by that exact car. Every corner was another opportunity for the Camaro to drop trou and wave its giant bowtie-emblazoned butt in the GT500's face.
Driver swaps ensued to ensure impartiality, but a repeat performance sealed the deal. There wasn't anything to do but appreciate the stunning piece of work that is the 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1. As one tester bluntly put it, "This might just be the best performance car General Motors has ever produced." A bold statement, for sure. But one for which there's much support.
How It Happened
Here's the amazing part about the ZL1's Shelby-stomping back road performance: It's not as if the GT500 makes no nod to handling. Plenty of effort was made to raise the Shelby's cornering ability to match the level of stupefying speed its engine can deliver.
Sure, it's saddled with a solid rear axle, but Ford has, in the last five years, refined the Mustang to the extent that, in GT form, we prefer it over the Camaro SS. And with the 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, the handling efforts are bigger than ever. Two-mode electrically adjustable Bilstein dampers coupled with unique spring and stabilizer bars are optionally available and fitted to our test car. Its Goodyear's Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires are as sticky as they are costly. Three-mode adjustable steering assist doesn't hurt, either.
Even so, there's a level of at-the-limit comfort in the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that you don't get in the GT500. On the road, the Camaro will rotate as commanded when its wheel is turned. In other words, there's less understeer in the ZL1 which, coupled with better steering feel, makes it more trustworthy. Perhaps most significant is that, in the real world, where bumps too often occur in less-than-ideal locations, the Camaro is more confident. The tables might turn marginally on a smooth road course, but the ZL1 will always be the more rewarding — and easier — car to drive.
Its Performance Traction Management (PTM) system, which doles out power at a level precisely metered to match available grip, makes the Shelby's "sport" stability control feel archaic in comparison. PTM eliminates the throttle-chopping punishment common to the Shelby and replaces it with rewarding acceleration at corner exit. And if you insist on measuring your manhood by switching both systems off completely, you'll live longer in the Camaro.
What the Instruments Say
If this were a contest of power plants alone, it should be obvious that the Shelby is the clear choice. Its modern motor snaps to attention with every touch of the throttle, revs higher (up to 7,000 rpm for brief periods) and, to our ears, sounds better. Put the two on a drag strip and physics predictably delivers the lighter, more powerful GT500 to the traps half a second and 7.4 mph ahead of the ZL1.
Specifically, that's an 11.9-second pass at 123.5 mph — an impressive number, but not an easy one to achieve. Our best run was made using the GT500's adjustable launch control set to only 3,000 rpm to accommodate our low-grip launch surface. Also, the GT500's shifter protested aggressive 1-2 shifts, sometimes rejecting 2nd gear altogether — a problem we've had when testing previous versions of the Ford Shelby GT500.
For its part, the ZL1 proved easier to drive in every measure. Its shifter snaps rapidly from gate to gate, encouraging the flat shifts Chevy engineers programmed its engine calibration to accommodate. By keeping the supercharger's bypass valve closed for 0.2 second when the clutch is depressed, boost remains peaked as the next gear is engaged, improving acceleration. What's more, its shorter 3.73 rear-end gear is less likely to produce the bog-or-boil scenario to which the Shelby is prone when not using launch control. The Camaro's clutch is also more easily modulated leaving the line.
But it's still slower. Our best pass was 12.4 seconds at 116.1 mph.
We managed, after several runs, to beat the ZL1's launch control, but only by about a tenth of a second to 60 mph, which arrived in 4.4 seconds (4.1 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as at a drag strip). At 4.0 seconds (3.7 seconds with rollout) the Shelby, again, was quicker.
Sit Down, Brace Yourself
Then, just as we were convinced the GT500's power was utterly untouchable, we moved on to handling tests and things changed. Our first hint that there's something truly special about Chevy's ZL1 came when it calmly circled the skid pad at 1.03g — a number higher than the last Chevy Corvette ZR1 we tested and matching the McLaren MP4-12C and Porsche 911 GT2 RS for the highest lateral acceleration we've ever recorded for a production car.
Wait. Isn't this a Camaro? Yes, yes it is. The best Camaro ever.
At 70.8 mph it was also quicker through the slalom than the GT500, which managed a still respectable 69.1 mph.
One hundred and ten feet are required to bring the ZL1 to a halt from 60 mph — 1 foot longer than the GT500. Both cars suffer from a too-soft middle pedal when driven with purpose — hardly surprising given the road-crushing mass and power at work here.
When it comes to the ZL1, Chevy rejects the notion that cars this capable need to reflect those abilities in their ride quality. This was evident as we drove the Camaro 2,300 miles across the country to clash with the GT500 in Southern California. Never once during the journey did our backside lose consciousness. Calling the Camaro comfortable is a stretch because its ride is taut even in Tour mode, but it's still a wholly worthy long-distance car. In fairness, the Shelby, too, manages a decent ride on the highway, but it lacks the latitude provided by the Camaro's magnetic dampers.
Some fundamental problems still persist in the Camaro. It remains only a periscope away from rivaling a Virginia class submarine's forward visibility. As a result, placing the Camaro in a corner precisely is consistently frustrating. Even after three full days behind the wheel we were incapable of discerning exactly where the Camaro ended and empty space began. Chevy somewhat mitigates the problem in Reverse by installing a back-up camera that displays in the rearview mirror. Submarine commanders would be proud.
The Ford answers back with better visibility and more supportive seats if you order the optional Recaros. It's still not possible to see the edges of the Shelby from behind the wheel, but being smaller in every dimension except height helps.
What the Ford gains in perception, it loses in drivability thanks to a tall 3.31 rear-end gear that allows it to reach 60 mph in 1st gear and claim a top speed over 200 mph. This gearing is purely a marketing tool designed to achieve stunning 0-60 numbers and a headline-worthy top speed. The trade-off is overcoming that tall ratio every time you pull away from a stop in the Shelby. Ample torque makes this manageable, but it still requires considerable attention to an area where the ZL1 is utterly seamless in comparison.
It's a similar, although much less drastic difference, when it comes to their respective shifters. They're both rowing the same gearbox, but the linkage in the Camaro has far less resistance. It makes every shift a non-event while the Mustang often pushes back against aggressive shifts. And let's face it: In cars like this, ripping gears is their stock in trade, so the Camaro's superiority here is a big deal.
How and Why
There was a time when a $63,080 Mustang (OK, Shelby) was as laughable an enterprise as gold-plated diapers. But a 662-hp Mustang that rings up such a tally somehow seems like a genuinely good value. The 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, outfitted with the SVT Performance package, SVT Track Pack and the Recaro seats has $8,085 in options pumping up its $54,995 base price.
At $56,295 (including the mandatory gas-guzzler tax) the ZL1's cost of entry is similar. This car's $500 Interior Microfiber package, $470 bright forged wheels and $600 carbon-fiber hood insert (a no-cost option on 2012 models) brought the total to $57,265.
But it's not the $5,815 cost advantage that wins the comparison test for the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. It's this car's ability to fight above its weight class that makes it undeniably more attractive. It's virtually unprecedented that a car with such a dramatic power deficit and weight disadvantage could come out ahead.
So in other words, we were wrong. When it comes to pony cars, it's not always about horsepower. At least not anymore.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.