2013 Chevy Camaro ZL1 vs. Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE

By Zack Klapman and edited by Christina Selter.

If you read my comparison “2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1 vs 2011 BMW 1M”, you’d know I love how Chevy’s force-fed pony rides and drives. It’s like a Mercedes AMG but more comfortable, mainly due to GM’s Magnetic Ride Control. MRC is a cure-all that rides comfortably over battered highways then stiffens when things get twisty.

That’s the nature of the ZL1 in general: a dual-mode car. It’s extremely docile and easy around town, a testament to how much cars have evolved considering it has 580HP. Commute in a 1968 Camaro with matching power and you’ll get shellshock, if the engine lasts. The ZL1 is a perfectly trained Pit bull; it just has a few visibility issues.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

Well, last week I got to drive both the ZL1 and the new Camaro SS 1LE cars at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

On this undulating circuit I got test the louder, faster, angrier side of the Camaro ZL1. The magic shocks, while good, definitely have more give than the 1LE’s. It feels like a really good street car, but not a track warrior. Nonetheless, as predicted, it was really, really fast. There’s big numbers going through the rear wheels, and you can feel it. Speed increases with the determination of a falling tree.

But I also learned something that many people on the Internet won’t admit about themselves: I’m not skilled enough to use all the power. I’m just not. I’m not the slow one at press launches, usually far from it, but I don’t have enough experience tracking high power cars to see their full potential, and the consequences for wielding a sword badly can be really painful.

And that is one of a few reasons I like the 1LE better than it’s bigger, badder brother.

For those that don’t know, “1LE” is a package option you can order on your 2013 Chevy Camaro SS. It’s like a Camaro GT3, for only $40,000 ($15k less than the ZL1).

2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE

GM engineers’ goal with this car was to erase understeer. To do that it has the wheels, tires, bushings and bearings directly off the ZL1; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, put it on other cars. New shocks (not MRC), stiffer springs, big sway bars, and a cross-brace all work together very well. It feels as stable and sticky as a brick at the bottom of a tar pit. Understeer: vanquished.

As far as power, the 1LE has the SS’s manageable 420HP, but with lower gears out back (3.91 to the ZL1’s 3.73) it doesn’t feel much slower than its sibling. It’s fast, just not crazy fast. Through videos featuring Koenigseggs and twin-turbo Corvettes we’ve become jaded, so to our brains the number “580” seems almost weak. It is not. Many racecars don’t make that kind of power, and professionals drive those, which most of the public are not, no matter how big their ovoid egos may be.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

420HP is an amount my skills can handle, that I can learn on, and fully enjoy. Plus, no supercharger means no hood bulge, which means better visibility, an ailment the Chevy Camaro species is known for.

But what most impressed me was how quickly I felt comfortable in this. After half a lap I felt like we were old friends. Great suspension, broad power-band, predictable manners. I got out thinking, “Big Subaru BRZ?” and that is a high compliment.

Remember, race tracks are like computer simulators; what’s great there might not be so in the real world. Disregarding the price difference, if I was buying a street car, I want the ride and giddy power of the Chevy Camaro ZL1.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

But the Camaro SS 1LE is intended as a track car, and there, it is the better car. You can always use the money you saved to buy more horsies.

(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Chevrolet.)