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580 horsepower of commanding, effective, fun

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POSTED September 26, 2012 6:45 p.m.

The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is a reluctant halo of refined engineering from General Motors.

The 580-horsepower ZL1 is a racetrack-infused muscle car with an old-school, overhead-valve, supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. The car is everything socially shunned in a polite public atmosphere of green contrition, doing more with less and being happy with just enough.

The street prowess of the ZL1 is sanctioned by its smoldering sense of right from wrong. GM has made muscle-bound pony cars in the past, and at best, they could be described as "Crude but effective."

The ZL1 is commanding and effective, as pleasurable for its furious power potential as its engineering refinement.

It is one of those "one" cars. It takes just one twist of the ignition to get a shivering response from the driver. One shift to first gear and the release of the clutch to know this is a special car. And it takes just one run through the gears, one dive into a far corner and one lift of the throttle to hear the crackle and pop of the exhaust wailing like rock-star applause for the driver's job well done.

Steering, braking, gear ratios and accelerator response are ideal for street or track. And, hallelujah, there is no skip shift from first to fourth with the manual transmission. It can be wound out in first gear to redline then stitch a neat shift to second and keep rolling on the power. Or just short shift (at low revs) around town to pretend to be saving fuel. The engine can be rolling at 10 mph in third gear and easily responds to the throttle for power.

There is safety in the numbers of 556 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm. If big engines ran on water, all cars would have this much power to keep up with traffic and avoid knuckleheads.

There's also safety in 14.6-inch front Brembo disc brake discs with six-piston calipers and 14.4-inch, four-piston rear brakes.

The ZL1 runs on premium fuel and has fuel economy ratings of 14 mpg city and 19 highway, which invoke the ugly "gas guzzler" tax of $1,300. But so what? Half of the older pickups on the road today get worse fuel economy and get driven far more than will the ZL1.

The buyer of a ZL1 will pay around $60,000 for a nicely equipped car, and you can bet he or she has other Chevys in the garage. The ZL1 starts at $54,995 including the $900 freight charge from Ontario, Canada, and the test car was $57,265, which includes the gas-guzzler tax, a carbon-fiber hood ($600), microsuede interior trim ($500) and 20-inch polished wheels ($470).

There are comparisons to the new 662-hp, Ford Shelby GT500 (See the Motor Trend Youtube video), but I'd compare the ZL1 to the Mustang Boss 302. Both are limber street and track machines with near-perfect attitudes and are equally righteous to drive.

The Camaro isn't perfect. The doors are huge, and the 11 cubic feet of trunk space is restricted by a narrow opening. The standard rearview camera in the rearview mirror is just marginal help when backing out of a parking slot.

But every day starts with a smile as the owner fires up the ZL1 and shifts into gear.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

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