||08-28-2012 01:18 PM
1LE through the eyes of...me! (1LE Review)
I was honored and fortunate enough again to be welcomed to a Chevrolet Media Drive Event. This time we were invited to thrash the 1LE Camaros around Gingerman Raceway.
Below is a copy of my impressions. Better late than never, right? ;)
Camaro 1LE: Family Matters
This is just a performance package, right?
Years ago, you couldn’t get a 1LE unless you knew the magic words…actually; they were magic options…When you specified you’d like the performance axle and air conditioning delete, the rest of the 1LE performance package options were triggered automatically. The car became suddenly built for the track with beefed-up brakes, tuned suspension, special gearing, upgraded wheels and tires, and improved baffling and extra fuel tank pickups. Sound at all familiar?
What’s important to note about this history lesson for the purists…is that the 1LE wasn’t about not having air conditioning, or power windows, etc…it was about going fast on the track, pure and simple. Checking the A/C delete box was just a means to that end.
Fast-forward to today…and this 5th generation 1LE package has brought that adrenaline-induced goal to the 21st century…in a HUGE way! Not only do you get a car that lives up to its famed ancestry…but you get it with air conditioning, too! I was fortunate enough to be invited to another Chevy media drive at Gingerman Raceway; and as a ZL1 owner, I was very interested to see what this new model had to offer.
The 1LE is good…it’s very good. In fact, it’s such a great version of the Camaro SS…that on a track, the uninitiated could mistake the driving experience for that of the ZL1. There were moments when even I caught myself forgetting that this wasn’t my car I was flinging around the corners. Can a $3500.00 performance package really do all this?
Gearing up for the track
At the heart of the 1LE is the transmission and differential. Like everything else on the 1LE, the engineers took the same approach as they did on the ZL1, only they did it with SS components…the results are light, and inexpensive components (relative to the ZL1) that allow the 1LE to fly around a track with perfectly-matched gear ratios. In fact, 1st through 4th gears in the MM6 version of the TR6060 are identical to the ZL1’s transmission, but 5th and 6th are a hair taller, to offset the aggressive 3.91:1 ratio out back, maintaining fuel economy and road manners.
That differential makes an incredible difference in the amount of torque you can feel from the LS3. In the 1LE, the engine has been unchanged from a standard manual transmission SS, but the rear axle, being more aggressive, really lets the LS3 pull hard. The cars we were allowed to push around Gingerman had been running non-stop laps around the track for an hour and a half before I got to them. So they were running very hot…even with that in mind, they felt noticeably stronger on the straights than a regular SS.
Finally, Chevy chose to include their in-house designed shifter from the ZL1, suede and all. I love it in my car, and I love it here just as much. Shifts are crisp, short, and almost thoughtless. The springs are wonderful at finding center, so I was about as prone to missing a 2-3 shift as I was at missing 1-2. The shifter and specific gearing are one of those features that really make the 1LE feel like a ZL1 out on the track: and that’s as high a compliment as you can pay a Camaro, I think.
Truth be told…with the likes of the Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca out there, the 1LE has some work to do if Chevy’s intent is to let this “track package” really impress. To accomplish this, and leave no stone unturned…they again borrowed some of the developments from the ZL1 to offer more control of the suspension and virtually eliminate under-steer when driving at or near the limit of the car (a limit that is very high, I might add…).
Probably the biggest change to the undersides is the monotube rear dampers. When developing the car, internally referred to as the Yellow Jacket (named because the ferocity of the yellow and black mule they were using fit the bill), engineers found that there was limited control to be had with the existing twin-tube dampers in the SS. The new monotube pieces allow for more precise tuning of damping from the factory’s perspective, which translates to better control of suspension movement for you and me, the driver.
The 1LE is also fitted with the FE4 lower control arms found on all 2012+ SS, and ZL1 Camaros. Except it has larger (and stiffer) 27mm front and 28mm rear stabilizer bars to minimize body roll.
In addition, the 1LE gets fitted with a strut-tower brace to enhance steering feel and response, as well as the wheel bearings, rear toe links, and shock mounts from the ZL1.
The suspension on this car is excellent. Capable of over 1g of lateral grip, it rips around the track with the best. What the Camaro team has done is spent a few dollars in the right places, to enhance an SS’s handling capabilities to near-ZL1levels, and that’s no small accomplishment.
The gearing and suspension changes the 1LE package offers are significant. However, there’s one component that allows these changes to maximize their effectiveness on track: the tires.
Begin with the same black, ten-spoke, forged-aluminum competition wheels standard on the ZL1. Add 285/35R20 Goodyear Eagle F1 G:2 supercar tires on all four corners…and you have a recipe for face-melting levels of grip around corners. I’ve said it before when I wrote about the ZL1, and I’ll happily repeat myself – these tires are just magic.
The tires fitted to both front and back of the 1LE are found on the front of the ZL1. Why do we care where they came from? Because when developing the ZL1…the tread pattern on the front and rear tires are actually a bit different. The 285mm front tires were designed for turning responsiveness and lateral grip, while the rears were designed with a slight bias for straight line traction. The 1LE gets those handling-biased front tires in both the front and rear. Together, this combination amounts to over 22 lbs of weight reduction versus the standard wheel and tire combo on the SS.
Furthermore, the square setup of the tires virtually eliminates any traces of under steer. The team working on the Camaro is very well-attuned to their product, and what drivers think of their products…they openly acknowledge that under steer is an issue for a small percentage of SS drivers that take their cars to the limit on a road course. The 1LE package was designed to completely solve that problem for the fan of road-racing. And boy, does it ever…I am tempted to say that the balance and feel of the 1LE mid-corner is actually superior to the ZL1!
Drivers…Start your engines
It’s always a thrill for me to get inside of a Camaro with a wide-open track ahead of you. As you approach a 1LE, I cannot help but feel as though this car was born and bred on the race course…it knows no other life. Personally; I would order a 1LE in Victory Red paint, 1SS trim, and not choose the RS appearance package. There was one just like it at the track, and it was a thing of beauty…It was “raw”. The black roof-ditch molding, the black hood, black spoiler, black front air-dam, and black wheels all contrast with the red paint and deep eyes of the halogen headlamps to say, “I am here to race. You ready?”
Then you turn it on. Oh, heaven – you’ve graced another Camaro with a beautiful voice…or else…hell hath granted a Camaro with an unholy roar…you decide which. This is another one of those things that makes you think you’re in a ZL1. The LS3 simply blasts through the dual-mode exhaust. It is not included in the 1LE package…but I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone interested in purchasing a manual-transmission SS.
After I finished drooling over the looks and sound of this ultra-SS, I sat inside and gripped the wheel only to realize that it, like the shifter, is covered in sueded microfiber. The thick wheel, and flat bottom designed borrowed from the ZL1 help continue to fool me into thinking that I’m driving my car…not a bad thing…
Race to redline...
Immediately out of the pit lane, any fears about being underpowered at 426hp (at least versus the competition) are put to bed. The gearing in the 1LE allows for a tremendous punch off of the line. By the time I enter turn one I’ve already shifted into 3rd, and the car is right in the power band for acceleration out of the corner and down the straight. In fact, there’s so much torque on tap that you hardly have to leave 3rd gear for most of the track.
For all the impressing the 1LE does on paper and in looks and sounds…actually driving it is where it made a believer out of me. As I turn the wheel to hit the apex and then continue out of the turn to the exit those massively-sized and massively-sticky front tires grip and go without any drama. The car doesn’t flounder…in fact, it stays planted flat as ever. Finally, as you exit a turn and apply throttle, the rear tires put all the power the LS3 offers to the ground without spinning, hopping, or sliding out of control.
Steering is again one of those features that lets the 1LE act and feel like a ZL1. Like the SS, the 1LE is equipped with Electric Power Steering, and this allows for impressively precise control for the driver, and it lets the development team tune in different levels of feel depending on whether the driver selects competition mode or not. When used in the ZL1, the EPS system helps overcome the weight of the car and gives the driver a sense of nimbleness…that effect is even greater on the already-lighter 1LE.
One of the engineers was helping me hit the points around the course to optimize my performance, and one of the things he kept saying as I exited a turn was: “Let the car relax”. At first I thought that was an odd thing to say for a track car, but it became apparent real quick, that the 1LE can go this fast without tearing itself apart. It does feel relaxed as you enter and exit turns…methodical, like a professional at his trade.
The 1LE, being an SS at heart, doesn’t have the divine PTM system found on the Z, but it does have a specially-tuned competition mode for that is very competent if the car starts to slip. For the first two laps around Gingerman, I left Stabilitrac completely on – and maybe it was because I was being a little cautious at first, but I didn’t notice the system interfere. That all said, once I began to really push the car, the extra leniency competition mode offers became obvious. On a bit of an aggressive exit, the system will let the back end slide out a hair, but it’s always within control.
There were four 1LE’s available to drive around the track; each a different color and configuration. The only track prep these cars received was a higher boiling point brake fluid, and a warm-up. For the entire day the brakes never once faded, and since the car is lighter than the ZL1 by about 250 lbs, it doesn’t really need the expensive 6-pot front calipers to perform well.
The bottom line here…is that this car is simply astounding! It doesn’t feel like an SS…it races so much better. And while it isn’t a superhero like the ZL1 – it’s really close! We (you and me, the enthusiasts) weren’t really told what to expect with this car…not entirely. A few numbers and components on paper don’t tell the whole story. And I’ll be frank with you – I didn’t believe it would be this good. If the releases had been switched…if ZL1 had come out now, and the 1LE had come out in February...I think I’d be driving a 1LE right now, with a smile on my face and no regrets.
Don’t get me wrong…I love my ZL1 – but the 1LE is just unbelievable!
If you don’t park it at the track…
So we’ve established that it’s a fantastic racer, but you’ve got to drive back home at some point, right? To that end, I’m afraid I’ve got some good and some bad news…
First the good news: The new wheel, electric power steering, and shifter are excellent to use around town. 5th and 6th gear are better for fuel economy than the ZL1’s ratios, I noticed that right off the bat. It makes for very smooth driving at low speeds. And although the tires are much wider and lower-profile than the standard Pirellis, it’s surprisingly compliant in terms of steering and general ride quality.
Now, on to the “bad” news; Thanks to the new trick suspension the Camaro team has fitted, the 1LE has a very stiff ride across bumpy roads. It’s like a Z06 Corvette stiff; take the metaphor as you will. Over nasty bumps, I could describe the ride as harsh. But then, if you’re a better driver than I am, you could avoid those potholes. To be honest, in the spirit of research, I wasn’t trying very hard…
There isn’t a whole lot to tell here. The 1LE is an SS outfitted for the track. That means it’s stiffer than an SS, and harsher than a ZL1 in sport mode.
Given that, you can still live with it – you just need to pay attention for nasty holes in the road to avoid. Frankly, though…if the 1LE excites you (and it should), then you are likely already prepared for a little bit of a stiff ride.
Grown on the family tree
Developing the ZL1, the ultimate Camaro, I think was the single most important task the Camaro team performed since the initial development and release of the car. We’re all very familiar with the “trickle down” effect of automotive technologies, where expensive (but awesome) new components and methods are first tried on higher-priced models…and eventually the lessons learned make their way into less expensive cars. This is so true of the 1LE.
The development car, nicknamed the “Yellow Jacket”, overlapped with some of the ZL1 development. As something succeeded on the ZL1, it was looked at and adapted for the Yellow Jacket. The engineers’ only goal? Make this car go fast around a track.
What may have started life as an option for the Camaro to compete with the Mustang’s “track pack” on the GT, has evolved into something much more significant: the 1LE outruns the Boss 302 Laguna Seca by a wide margin. Nearly 3 seconds faster around Gingerman, in fact! If there was ever any doubt that the Camaro holds the performance crown in its segment – let it be now that Camaro enthusiasts let those doubts go. It is THAT good!
So where does it fit in the Camaro hierarchy?
The ZL1 is the ultimate Camaro…complete with a nuclear 580 horsepower, space-age Magnetic Ride, and a host of driveline improvements; it is simply excellent at everything, and has the price tag to prove it.
The 1LE is, in my opinion…the weekend track car for the 3-5% of buyers that want this level of performance. It’s nearly as fast around a course as the ZL1, but it is much more fun to drive fast because it lacks the buffering of Magnetic Ride, or the terrifying speeds that the LSA engine achieves. The trick with the 1LE is its equilibrium: The power, handling, and braking are so well balanced, that one characteristic doesn’t overcome the others. That makes it confidence inspiring. This confidence, together with the magnificent composure of the Independent Rear Suspension, translates to wicked fun on the track.
The SS will slot below the 1LE, but don’t forget that the 1LE IS an SS at heart…and that’s saying something. In standard trim, the SS will satisfy the need for speed for the vast majority of buyers, with competent handling, and overkill levels of braking. I think you’ll find a lot of SS buyers will modify their SSs with superchargers, flashy wheels, etc…it’s something of a blank canvas for the hardcore enthusiast. (I will add here….if you get an SS manual transmission – you must give serious thought to the optional dual-mode exhaust. It sounds fantastic!)
Finally, the LT/LS models offer very good handling with a healthy dose of power for a budget. This car will suit the needs of those looking for a stunning car with some guts.
This guy thinks that with the introduction of the 1LE package, the Camaro lineup for the 5th generation is complete. It may not be perfect in everyone’s eyes…especially not for those still dying to see a “Z28” badge on a Camaro, again…but they’ve got a Camaro for everyone, now: ZL1, 1LE, SS, LT, and LS. Each of these models is thoroughly Camaro. Each of them fills some need in the market, and they’ve all been built by the same people, with the same vision, for the same enthusiasts.
Now the only question you have to answer is: Which one is your favorite?