By Zack Klapman.
These two vehicles fight for your right foot’s attention: If you like driving, there’s never been a better time to be alive. Never. I’m jealous of the absence of radar/laser guns in the 60s and the Cannon Ball runs, but no car back then holds a candle to the what’s available today. Heck, today’s minivans can wax many a muscle legend.
Today the options range from the Spec series seedling Mazda 2 to the teleportation device Koenigsegg Agera R. Manufacturers have refined speed to a science, and they’re all building amazing machines for those of us who put driving at the top of serotonin-releasing activities. Best of all: they don’t have to be expensive.
2 of the very best examples are the 2012 Camaro ZL1 and the 2011 BMW 1M. “Enthusiast”, “racer”, “weekend warrior”, these cars are for you. Chevy and BMW put their blood and sweat into two things: performance, and balance. Some of the things you look at (dashboards, radios) aren’t great, but everything you touch-shifter, pedals, wheel- and everything you feel through the perfectly fitted seats is excellent, and both are predictable, beautifully-engineered drives.
But, comparing these cars is like standing in Wonka’s factory and being told you can only taste one thing. I can’t tell you which to buy, I’ll merely explain what the cars gave to me, and let you choose whichever candy you want. No judgments.
The 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1
Let’s get the paperwork out of the way: 6.2 liters, a supercharger, 580hp, 555 torque 6-speed (AT or MT, your choice), 20” wheels, big brakes, and the absolute suspension gem of ever, GM’s Magnetic Ride Control. Those are the ingredients in the Chevy Camaro ZL1 pie, but what deserves more breath is how it all comes together.
This is not a small car; at 190” long (18” longer than the BMW) it’s the size of a mid-size sedan. It’s also wide. Pronounced rear fenders look at you through the side mirrors, laughing at Compact parking spaces. Visibility is like watching baseball through bleachers. Sounds similar to wearing a Halloween mask and piloting a tanker, but it is not.
Drive fast and, thanks to amazing grip and light steering, the car shrinks like spinach in a hot pan. The big front end leads you around corners like a sled dog. “C’mon, it’s this way.” The grip (.98g) is unbelievable, but it’s how easy the car makes it that deserves praise. It’s a broad sword made from titanium. “Here, William Wallace, this makes it much easier to kill the English.”
Of course it’s fast, why even ask? Big power, but delivered as smooth as avalanche of crude. 60MPH in 4.1s, continuing like a cannon ball thrown off a building. Two-stage exhaust means it’s quiet under 3k RPM, and then AMG-loud above. It sounds amazing; Pops, barks, and then roars. It’s the exact sounds you want from a muscle car.
Most of the interior is a cheap homage to the original Camaro, and the trunk opening is the size of your mouth. Don’t care. This is the best performance bargain for sale today, and it rides like butter if asked. Considering a base Corvette? Buy this instead.
The 2011 BMW 1M
If the ZL1 is the bull then the 1M is the matador. I’ve covered the 1M here before, but here’s the quick rundown. This pint-sized M car is the truest iteration of BMW’s performance brand in decades. It’s the timeless recipe for fun: big motor (a turbo inline-6 with 332HP) in small car. Worked for the Shelby Cobra, works here.
Its MSRP is slightly less than the Chevy ($47k to $56k, respectively) but the demand for them means markup, so call them even. It’s only available with a 6-speed manual (good), the interior looks circa 2002, and it has the proportions of Franco Columbo. Its soundtrack is nothing compared to the Chevy; in fact, it’s almost nothing at all.
It is one of the most fun, responsive and charming cars I’ve ever driven. While the ZL1 is a big car that feels small, the BMW 1M is small (~800lbs lighter), and a small car is always fun; this just happens to have a big boy engine. It won’t beat the ZL1 in a drag race, or any race, but it’s easier to drive quickly, and its heavier steering and clutch give you a more visceral connection. It’s the hare to the ZL1 greyhound.
No wrong answers.
Both of these cars perform at a level bigger than their price tag. They are such a joy to drive, to turn, to shift, to rev. That combo is their big value. For me it comes down to attitude; The ZL1 has the bark and bravado of 60s muscle combined with some McLaren-esque brilliance. The 1M is everything we have loved about cars like the Mini, Sprite, Sunbeam, GT86, and M3, juiced into a single cup of fun. Me? 1M. I’ll let someone else hold the sword.