The ZL1 is the most powerful Camaro ever built, and thanks to a right-hand drive conversion done by HSV, we can experience that power on Aussie soil. But does this Red Hot powerhouse suit Aussie tastes when it comes to the way it drives, or is it better served staying on American roads? We grabbed the keys to one over a rainy Melbourne weekend to find out.

When the doors closed at Holden’s Adelaide plant in 2017, it left the Melbourne-based Holden Special Vehicles division and Walkinshaw Performance – both best known as being true purveyors of speed and absurd body kits – were left with a bit of a problem. With no Aussie muscle cars to make even faster any more, what ever were they to do?

Thankfully, shutting up shop wasn’t part of the plan, and with Walkinshaw having been converting RAM 2500 and 3500 pickup trucks from left-hand drive to right-hand drive since the time of Holden’s manufacturing closure, HSV figured out a way to keep giving V8-loving Aussies the muscle they so desired.

This is where the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 you see pictured here comes in. With Walkinshaw having proven itself to be confident in executing a total right-hook remanufacturing of the RAM twins, it made perfect sense to bring some Chevrolet models in to be sold under the HSV banner in showrooms – namely, the Silverado and Camaro 2SS, along with the ZL1 tested here.

Before I delve into anything else to do with the ZL1, would you just take a look at it? It’s absolutely stunning. If you’re looking for a head-turner, you’ve got to get yourself one of these, because I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never been on the receiving end of quite so many stares despite having driven cars with a greater brand cachet or price tag.

There’s something about its menacing looks – aided perfectly by the ‘Red Hot’ paintwork – that makes it unable to not catch your eye. Low, long, and wide, this is the real definition of stance – not a clapped-out Honda Civic on chopped springs, contrary to the belief of P-platers everywhere.

The big rear haunches, the mile-long two-tone bonnet, the contrasting front lip and side skirts, and those huge quad exhausts all dress it up the perfect amount to let you know from a distance that this isn’t any old Camaro, while tiny little details like the front badge actually being hollow to avoid blocking any airflow to the radiator and intercoolers reaffirm its performance focus.

Open the incredibly long doors and on the inside, it might catch you by surprise as to how nice it is. Expecting it to be made of more plastic than an American newsreader, most surfaces are actually trimmed in very plush sueded microfibre, including the seats, steering wheel, door cards, shifter and shift boot, and centre console side padding.

Now sure, there are some scratchy plastics in some parts – none of which, it’s worth noting, you’d ever be touching regularly – but given the original price point the ZL1 is sold at in its home market, they’re totally forgiven by me, even if they aren’t 100 percent befitting of its Australian price tag.

And on that note, it’s worth pointing out that the price is inflated so much – we’ll touch on numbers properly later – not just because of the cost of importing the cars, but how much work goes into reengineering them for right-hand drive. Not only are things like the steering rack and firewall changed, but the entire dashboard and menial things you wouldn’t think about like the wipers, window switches, and wiring loom are all reproduced to help it feel like it came with the steering wheel on the correct side from the factory – like its key rival, the Ford Mustang. In total, the new componentry amounts to 357 bespoke pieces made by HSV for the conversion, and 130 hours is spent fitting them to each car.

And I’ve got to hand it to them and say that it really does feel like an original factory effort. The new dashboard and switchgear is all remarkably well executed, and nothing you touch or look at across the higher sections of the interior give its left-hook origins away. Only the unchanged centre console that leaves the shifter position lights on the passenger side and has the centre armrest and cupholders inconveniently the wrong way around gives anything away, and even then, I personally could live with that without it bothering me too much.

On the topic of interior comfort though, it’s worth noting that you’ll definitely want to be in good shape given just how tightly body-hugging the heated and cooled front Recaro seats are. They do grip you in all the right places though, I must say, and keep you firmly in place when you’re really going at it, so they score well there.

I’ve also got to give it to the Camaro and say that its back seat is perhaps the easiest to fit an actual human adult in of any coupe I’ve tested. The legroom is actually decent, although headroom is at a premium, so if you’re as tall as I am you can count out the possibility of fitting back there, although I did manage to fit three fairly regularly during the time I had it, with the main issue being origami-folding yourself through the small opening to the rear seat more than actually fitting once you’re back there.

Ultimately, however, no one is buying this for anything to do with practicality, as realistically it’s one of the least practical cars I’ve ever driven, despite having some positive traits such as the surprisingly roomy interior for a coupe, or the fairly big boot I forgot to mention until now.

The reason for its impracticality comes from two things – its proportions are all wrong for driving around somewhere like Melbourne as it’s too wide and too low, and the visibility is atrocious. The rear deck lid is way too high, the bonnet is too long to see where the front of the car is, the wide C-pillar blocks all blind-spot visibility, and its high beltline means that you need to peer over the windowsills in such a way it’d be fitting to write “Foo was here” on the doors.

But again, in the same way that no one is going to buy it due to what practicality it does offer, I doubt any interested buyer would be put off by any of the impracticality that you expect. The key thing here is that this is a muscle car, and all that matters other than it looking like a proper muscle car – which, obviously, it does – is what its packing under the bonnet.

And oh boy, is it a cracker of an engine. The ZL1 variant of the Camaro packs the LS-derivative LT4 under it’s bulging bonnet, and after a flick through the spec sheet, it’s the perfect engine for the job on paper.

A 6.2-litre pushrod V8 with a 1.7-litre supercharger stuck on top, it produces an insane 477kW at 6400rpm and 881Nm at 3600rpm. That’s right – for what I find to be an easier-to-visualise way of summarising it, that’s 640 thoroughbred American horses hauling this thing along.

Although a six-speed manual is available, my tester – HSV’s main press car that you may have already seen on a couple of magazine covers – was fitted with a new 10-speed automatic co-developed with Ford. This being a muscle car, rear-wheel drive is the only option for the power delivery itself.

From the moment you fire it up from the remote-start key as you approach it, the exhaust growls into life like a lion on heat. Despite Aussie-spec ZL1s actually having quieter exhausts than the USDM originals due to our stricter ADR noise regulations, you still clearly get the impression that the sound you’re hearing is that of pure horsepower and not just some computer trickery.

The moment you first try to pull out onto a public road, the sheer power your right foot is controlling quickly becomes clear. A small tap of the throttle easily sends it sideways – did you really expect anything else from it? – with the wheelspin easily controlled as you power out and get it back in line due to the snappy throttle response of the supercharged donk.

Puttering around Melbourne’s city streets and highways, theres a certain bittersweetness that you feel from behind the wheel. The surprising refinement of the drivetrain is perfectly exemplified in these conditions – the transmission is one of the smoothest I’ve encountered and the engine is incredibly relaxed and muted while on the move – but you can’t help but feel that there’s a lot of potential being wasted, especially when the fuel consumption is nudging 21L/100km in these conditions. It’d be like signing LeBron James for $150 million and starting him on the bench every night.

With Melbourne always managing to deliver four seasons in as many days, when the rain I dreaded hit over the weekend, it confirmed what I feared most. In the wet, the Camaro is more than a handful. With this much power all going to the rear wheels, it’s easy to just spin it all away if you don’t caress the throttle gently enough. Certainly, you can still get it going a bit and its Continental rubber helps it grip through soggy bends, but you do have to take things easily.

But when the weather finally comes good and the road opens up with a decent speed limit that allows you to put the hammer down, you quickly get a feeling for just what this thing is all about. The sheer brute force the big engine propels it forwards with is unlike much else, especially for the money. Although it takes some finesse to get it off the line, once you feel those wide rears hook up and you can really bury the loud pedal into the carpet, the bent-eight opens up those lungs with the most menacing baritone timbre, and the supercharger whines louder than a spoilt child denied a chocolate bar.

The way it builds speed is most impressive. So immense is the power on tap, it feels like its barely breaking a sweat charging well on into triple digits – a barrier it’ll quickly break in around 3.5 seconds (based off the American 0-60mph time) if you get it off the line right, which you probably won’t – and it sits at speed so quietly and solidly that it would rival any German car in that regard.

How planted it feels on the road is a big contributing factor here, as well. While it’s steering is overly heavy and ride is far too firm on tight city streets, once you open it up, it feels more solid and connected to the road than anything else for the money.

Gone are the days of muscle cars being all talk and no trousers when it comes to handling, as the Camaro shames many a sports car with how flat it remains through the bends. While on a ribbon of tarmac like Arthurs Seat Road in the Mornington Peninsula it feels perhaps a bit too cumbersome in the hairpins due to its sheer size, a blast out to Reefton Spur and some of the other glorious roads around Warburton before handing back the keys showed that through both sweepers and tighter bends it feels remarkably well composed, its big Brembo brakes washing off speed effectively, and the heavy tiller helping it steer with incredible confidence.

And of course, as you pin it on the exit – something you can certainly do on the longer straights on these sorts of roads – it quickly builds back all the speed its lost in the blink of an eye. You really do get a rush in the way that it drives given just how good a performance car it is, as it’s far more than your average straight-road muscle car. If it wasn’t so physically large, you could almost call it an actual sports car given how tight it feels.

Given my presumptions going into driving the Camaro, I was really blown away with how well it drove, even if it was impossible to be driven to its full potential in the conditions I faced. However, it perfectly fits the brief for what HSV needed in this post-Aussie-made Holden era. The ludicrous amounts of power and the V8 rumble will keep the brand’s traditional fans happy, and the work that goes into making it happen keeps Australians in manufacturing jobs. It’s a win-win, in that regard.

The catch is the price tag. At home, a regular Camaro ZL1 like what’s tested here would run you US$61,500 (AU$90,857 at time of publication) but after all the work that has gone into it in order to put the steering wheel on the correct side, that figure balloons out to $159,990, while the 10-speed auto adds another $2,200 to that total.

Given that number includes the ridiculous Luxury Car Tax despite work being done on it in Australia, it is actually a fair increase compared to most RHD conversion jobs given the larger scale production facilities HSV brings to the table, rather than with smaller outlets.

Still, that puts it right in line with European heavy-hitters like the BMW M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63, and I doubt the buyers of more luxurious cars like those would be swayed into one of these, even with the supercar power levels.

Perhaps if you miss out on buying one of the few Lexus RC F Track Editions that will be heading to Oz this may be enough to make up for it? Otherwise, the ZL1 sits as somewhat of a niche offering in that it lacks a truly direct competitor.

However, I don’t doubt for a second that plenty of these will find homes here in Australia. Given our love of V8s, it only makes sense, and the fact that the ZL1 is as good as it is only seals the deal.

2019 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 List Price: $159,990 | As Tested: $162,190
  • 9.5/10
    Performance - 9.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 7.5/10
    Practicality - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: The power and the noise is just incredible, looks absolutely stunning, feels much tighter than you’d expect
Cons: No built-in sat nav or auto wipers, steering too heavy and suspension too firm in town, struggles to put the power down

In a nutshell: The Camaro ZL1 is more than just a muscle car, as it drives like a proper sports car when the road is right. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it certainly is to mine. 

Full Disclosure: Holden Special Vehicles lent us the vehicle tested here for four days with a full tank of petrol and covered the cost of tolls. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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