Australian muscle car enthusiasts have been in mourning since the shutdown of local automotive manufacturing in late 2017. As many feared, we didn’t realise what we'd lost until it was gone.
Although it sounds like a cliché, Australian-made performance cars truly were the most metal – and had the most power – for the money anywhere in the world.
While demand for Aussie V8s climbed in the lead-up to the factory closures, these performance variants were only made possible by the six-cylinder family and fleet sedans that once dominated our driveways. It was relatively cheap to add a V8 to a car that already existed, than it was to design a performance vehicle from scratch.
Once buyers shifted away from sedans and into SUVs, the plug got pulled on the whole damn lot. The factories closed and we became a nation that imports all its vehicles. No more cheap V8s.
By a fortunate coincidence, Ford Australia was able to fill the void left by the Falcon V8 after Detroit decided to bite the bullet and make the Mustang a global model – even if at first it did not make financial sense.
Holden, on the other hand, was left without a V8 in its showrooms for the first time since the 1960s, when the homegrown Commodore reached the end of the line.
To fill the gap, Holden’s performance-car partner for the previous 30 years, Holden Special Vehicles, embarked on a mission to import the Mustang’s US rival, the Camaro, and convert it to right-hand drive at its facility in Clayton, south-east of Melbourne.
While it might seem like a straightforward process, it is anything but – especially as the vehicle must be crash-tested three times to ensure it meets Australian safety and quality standards in order to be sold as a 'full volume' model rather than a private import.
It takes about 12 hours to convert a US pick-up to right-hand drive, but the same process for the Camaro is three-and-a-half days because it’s more complex. A ute body and chassis are easily separated, but a car like the Camaro needs to be stripped back to a shell, and much of the building process started all over again.
More than 500 new and unique components go into a HSV-built Camaro, many from suppliers that previously made parts for local manufacturers. Which is why it has been such a long road getting to this point, and why there is a $20,000-plus price gap between the Ford Mustang and the entry-level Chevrolet Camaro 2SS that starts from $85,990.
After releasing an initial batch of 550 cars this time last year, Holden Special Vehicles has introduced a facelifted version of the 2SS with the option of a six-speed manual or a 10-speed auto. With a 6.2-litre V8 and, by coincidence, the same 10-speed auto used in the recently updated Mustang, the updated Camaro 2SS is a formidable package.
But the car we have here is the $160,000 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 powered by a supercharged 6.2-litre V8, the performance flagship of the range. It has so much grunt, it’s the most powerful vehicle ever turned out by Holden Special Vehicles.
For the tech heads, it has 477kW of power (or 650hp in the old money) and a mammoth 881Nm of torque, giving it a better power-to-weight ratio than HSV’s final locally made sedan, the $170,000 GTS-R W1.
The ZL1’s power output is slightly less than the 485kW claimed in the US, because the HSV version had to be tested to European emissions standards. There are no mechanical differences and there is no less power between the US and Australian versions, it was merely how the output was measured.
Likewise, it’s worth noting the Camaro ZL1 has significantly more grunt than the GTS-R W1 once power is compared to the same standards. The W1’s published output figures of 474kW/815Nm were measured to the older German DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) standard, which translate roughly to 466kW/801Nm according to ECE testing protocols.
Given the Camaro has more power and is about 100kg lighter than the W1, the ZL1 promises blistering performance. This presents a new problem: getting all that power to the ground via the rear wheels.
While the Camaro is as much about corners as it is about straight-line performance, it turns out to be quite a beast to move off the line smartly. Which is why I was stuck in a wall of smoke during the first few attempts to test its 0–100km/h credentials during the preview drive at Sandown Raceway. Granted, the road surface was cold and the circuit is known for its lack of grip, but this was comical.
Eventually, we eked out a time of 4.8 seconds which, for the uninitiated, is still quick. But there is no doubt that with the right tyres on a warm day and a sticky surface, there is time to be saved.
Fortunately, there is more to the Camaro ZL1 than its straight-line speed, although it must be said that its rolling acceleration is up there with the Mercedes-AMG C63 and BMW M3 sedans that we happened to be testing the week prior.
The steering is slightly heavier than the regular Camaro, but just as linear and responsive. The brakes (six-piston calipers up front and discs the size of pizza trays) have a superbly accurate feel that enables you to meter out precise amounts of braking force.
The standard tyres – road-legal racing rubber from Goodyear – didn’t pass Australian requirements for wet-weather emergency braking, so HSV switched to Continental tyres similar to those fitted to the final run of HSV Commodores, but much wider for extra grip.
Given that tyres are also a key part of how the suspension responds and feels, it’s remarkable that the ZL1 has lost none of its agility, and nor is it brittle to drive around town.
While most of the preview was on a racetrack, we did venture briefly into the suburbs and onto freeways, and came away impressed with how comfortable the ZL1 was to drive in normal conditions.
Best of all, though, is the supercharged sound. It’s intoxicating, but you need to take it in small doses, otherwise you may not have the freedom to drive on public roads for much longer.
The only question that remains, given the considerable cost: is the Camaro ZL1 a legitimate rival to the fast European sedans and coupes in the same price range?
The price is high compared to the US, not only because of the considerable cost of the conversion. The ZL1 is slugged with 33 per cent luxury car tax on every dollar above $66,331. Buyers in Victoria and Queensland will pay even more due to those states imposing their own arbitrary luxury tax.
It’s fair to say that buyers of fast Audis, BMWs and Mercedes might not cross-shop a Camaro ZL1, but they’d be missing out. For me, dollar for dollar, this US muscle car is more than a worthy rival to the Germans.
NOTE: Stay tuned for our drive video
Nuts and bolts
- Price: From $159,990 plus on-road costs
- Engine: Supercharged 6.2-litre V8
- Power: 477kW at 6400rpm
- Torque: 881Nm at 3600rpm
- Transmission: 10-speed auto or 6-speed manual, rear drive
- Fuel use: 15.3–15.6L/100km
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling