Spending an entire week with this year's best vehicles, putting them through their paces on both the road and the racetrack, deliberation for the 2015 Yahoo Autos Performance Car of the Year provided little contention among our judges — the Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 stole the show.
Not long ago, believing that an American-made muscle car could not only line up and compete alongside some of the world’s best sports cars, but also end up as victorious, would be unimaginable. For the Z/28, this year’s competition was rich with worthy rivals, like the Alfa Romeo 4C, the BMW M235i, the Subaru WRX, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, among others.
As judges, we consider a wide range of criteria – ride, handling and power delivery; engineering and innovation; design; efficiency, and value. Naturally, when deliberating over the best performance vehicle, efficiency takes a back seat, but performing well in this department is still noteworthy. (With just 13-mpg city and 19 highway, the Z/28 clearly didn’t stand out here.) In the same breath, simply having more power does not necessarily equate to victory. We’re seeking the total package.
The Z/28 delivered. With a dry sump, 7.0-liter naturally-aspirated V-8 pushing 505 hp and 481 lb.-ft- of torque, power clearly was never an issue. But what impressed us most was how efficiently it handled that brute strength. While the 707-hp Hellcat fights you with every touch of the gas pedal — especially on our tight autocross course — the Z/28 works with you. Traction is immense, thanks to near-slick Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires; the DSSV dampers by Multimatic (the same folk that provide the Red Bull F1 team) ensure the car’s balance is beautifully neutral and predictable when pushing to the limit; the driving experience remaining visceral and explosive.
On our autocross course, the Z/28 lapped over 1.5 seconds faster than anything else we tested. For a 3,820 lb. muscle car – on a tight, twisting course; going head-to-head with a 2,465 lb. carbon-fiber Italian – that’s not only impressive, but quite astonishing. It was also the easiest car to extract a lap time from; the Alfa 4C was second quickest – thanks to that lightweight, nimble chassis on a course where power came second to handling – but it was on-edge the entire time; maintaining consistency was difficult.
It’s fair to say that of all the cars we tested, the Z/28 and its $72,305 price tag was only surpassed by the Maserati Ghibli. That may seem astronomical for a muscle car, but the Z/28 is not your typical pony. It arrives standard with Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, which, when combined with the monster tires, provide some of the best stopping power we’ve ever experienced on a production car. Air conditioning is optional, and you only get one speaker assigned – left only for the mandatory door chime. The rear windshield is also 0.3 mm thinner, saving 400 grams. And sound deadening? Ha. Why would you want that?
Yes, the Z/28 is a track car, albeit a street legal one – even forgoing carpet in the trunk to save every gram of weight possible. The technology and innovation in the Z/28 may not be evident on the surface – bar a hefty body kit for downforce – but within, it’s some of the finest engineering we've seen in years.
It should, therefore, be a one-trick pony – a car that excels on the track but remains horrifically unlivable elsewhere. What we unearthed is that, while not a daily driver by any means, the Z/28 isn’t as harsh on the streets as you’d expect. The grippy soft tires provide some form of cushioning on bumpy roads, and the V-8’s burble is so enticing that you don’t want materials to drown it out. As one of our judge noted: “The stiff damping doesn’t crash hard on rough roads like the Alfa 4C, and its cabin isn’t race-car noisy like a Viper ACR.”
One thing you do need, however, is air conditioning. It adds $1,500 to the bottom line, and 30 lbs. of extra mass. Our test car arrived without cool air, and it quickly became uncomfortable for even the shortest of drives: “This beast gets hot,” one judge said. We also wouldn't mind more than mono radio regardless of the weight penalty.
In our testing, the Alfa Romeo 4C won a lot of hearts for its nimbleness and go-kart-like dynamics – lapping our track faster than the Mustang, WRX, M235i and, yes, even the Hellcat. But on the road, the harshness and drone of the motor made livability too low for many. The BMW was so well rounded that it was always a strong competitor, but again, the Z/28 does its intended job of going quickly so darn effectively nothing else could compare.
What of the new Ford Mustang Ecoboost and its independent rear suspension, equipped with the optional Performance Pack? That felt like a good start rather than the highly developed ride presented by the Z/28; its a comfortable car with bags of rear grip that makes its handling almost too mature. The affordable Subaru WRX is perhaps the most akin to the Z/28 in spirit, but our judges couldn’t ignore the level of understeer that developed on the autocross.
Despite its Camaro nomenclature, the Z/28 should not be thought of as a muscle car – it’s a Porsche 911 GT3 competitor, one that, like the Porsche, crushes exotics worth twice as much (it’s also $60,000 cheaper than the 911 GT3). Its engineers went above and beyond to take a heavy platform and turn it into something very special — a raw, brutish racer, featuring rear-wheel drive and a proper, delightful, manual gearbox. It’s everything a true performance enthusiast could ever dream of, at a price that’s more attainable than its direct competition.
As the king of our test track, the Z/28 deserves the title of 2015 Yahoo Autos Performance Car of the Year. As one tester put it: “It’s intoxicating. A heavy Camaro simply shouldn’t be this good.”