US su­per­power

It’s been a bo­nanza year for Yan­kee per­for­mance cars. We gather 2,245bhp the Cal­i­for­nian desert in to sac­ri­fice some tyres

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: PAT DEV­EREUX / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JAMES LIP­MAN

Three mus­cle cars from the Land of the Free-breath­ing V8 go head to head at Ther­mal Club race­way

Afist in the face of­ten of­fends, but – on the up­side – it doesn’t leave you in any doubt about the perp’s in­ten­tions. It’s the same thing with Amer­ica’s lat­est mus­cle and su­per­cars. They don’t bother with sub­tlety. They know you want as much power, speed and smoke as your dol­lar will buy and to not spend too long dress­ing it up, thanks very much. The net re­sult is these three al­most car­toon­ish cars you see here.

Why these three? They are sim­ply the trio of US per­for­mance cars which most im­pressed us over the past 12 months. Each of them, as dis­cussed when we first drove them, ex­presses the term ‘per­for­mance’ quite dif­fer­ently. But each one melts your mind with the way it con­verts fuel into fun.

There’s a bit of Hol­ly­wood pre­sen­ta­tion, stars and stripes pa­tri­o­tism and Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tion in each one. But there’s also some Google, Ap­ple and SpaceX-type tech and so­phis­ti­ca­tion in there, too. So they are not to be un­der­es­ti­mated.

Let’s start with some head­line num­bers. These three char­ac­ters muster no less than 2,245bhp be­tween them, yet you can drive away in all three for less than $300k – or the same price as one McLaren 720S. And that’s far from the whole story.

In our first ex­pe­ri­ences with each ear­lier this year/late last year, we also dis­cov­ered the De­mon, in the right con­di­tions, will do a sub 10-sec­ond quar­ter-mile and pull wheel­ies while do­ing so. The ZR1 will give you an all-Amer­i­can thrill ride that’s un­matched in all-round abil­ity. And the Chevy Ca­maro

ZL1 1LE will de­liver a track ex­pe­ri­ence that could em­bar­rass a Porsche 911 GT3 RS.

Let’s start with the most ob­vi­ous out­lier, the Dodge Chal­lenger SRT De­mon, to give it its full name. This road thug is like the cock­roach of the car in­dus­try – time, eco­nomics and trends just can’t kill it. Based on a plat­form that ex-par­ent Daim­ler stopped us­ing for the E-Class right af­ter the turn of the cen­tury, and top­ping a range that starts with a V6-pow­ered, nar­row-tyred, bud­get model, the fer­vour around the De­mon ini­tially makes no sense what­so­ever.

Then you see it, hear it and drive it and it makes all the sense in the world. Fill it with 100-oc­tane petrol, punch a few but­tons on the dash and you are trans­ported to a world of warm, hu­mid Satur­day night mus­cle-car heaven. A place where cor­ner­ing prow­ess is sec­ondary and all that mat­ters is get­ting down the 1,320 feet as quickly, loudly and im­pres­sively as pos­si­ble. And, boy, does it de­liver.

But only if you re­ally know what you’re do­ing. And you’re on the right sur­face. Any­one can spin up the fat drag ra­dial tyres and make clouds of smoke. But to get it to launch prop­erly, you need real skills. For those who think that drag rac­ing is sim­ply hold­ing the car on the brake, then stamp­ing on the loud pedal when the lights go green, the De­mon is here to set you straight.

Set the car in Drag and it pre­pares for bat­tle. You get ac­cess to the 840bhp mode, the sus­pen­sion soft­ens the front re­bound damp­ing, to help weight trans­fer – con­trary to what you might have heard, the rears stay the same; Dodge tried soft­en­ing off

the rears too and the car went slower. All the cool­ing from the air­con flows to the en­gine, so the cabin heats up. And you can en­gage the trans­brake.

In this con­fig­u­ra­tion, on a prepped sur­face, with the skinny front wheels fit­ted, sav­ing 30lb (13.6kg) off the front axle, the De­mon’s 315-sec­tion Nit­tos will dead hook into the sur­face and shoot the car for­ward, front wheels hov­er­ing just above the track, faster than any other petrol-pow­ered pro­duc­tion car on the planet. Never mind one that weighs well over 1,800kg.

But you have to have the re­ac­tions of a ninja to cor­rectly se­quence the re­lease of the trans­brake – by let­ting go of whichever shift pad­dle you are hold­ing in – and then roll in the power. So it’s some­thing you need to prac­tise and can get bet­ter at, which makes it all the more en­joy­able and sat­is­fy­ing when you do. The fact that the De­mon has a war­ranty that al­lows – en­cour­ages you, even – to do this is worth an award all on its own.

As is the fact that you can drive this car ev­ery day and never feel that the hy­per per­for­mance in any way im­pinges on your com­fort or prac­ti­cal­ity. The cooled and heated seats are huge and well up­hol­stered, there is a 17-speaker sound sys­tem, and the boot would hold enough lug­gage for a transcon­ti­nen­tal trip. Plus it looks sim­ply in­sane.

Yet that still is not enough for it to take top hon­ours in this shoot-out. As good a drag car and daily driver as the De­mon is, it’s no cir­cuit star. That’s why we have these two Chevro­lets here at the heat-hazed, im­mac­u­late track com­plex at The Ther­mal Club out­side Palm Springs.

Typ­i­cally, these aren't prime con­di­tions for ei­ther car. The Z06 Vettes typ­i­cally have a habit of call­ing time early on the track when tem­per­a­tures rise much above 32°C, but Chevro­let has lis­tened and learned from this. The lat­est ZR1 packs a new LTS twin-in­jec­tor mo­tor un­der -or rather through - its car­bon-fi­bre bon­net, which is so pow­er­ful, tractable and gen­er­ally ef­fi­cient, it em­bar­rasses Europe's finest.

As the last of the C7 Vettes be­fore the com­pany switches tack to the mid-en­gined C8 model some­time next year, this ZR1 is the ul­ti­mate cur­rent-shape Corvette in ev­ery sense of the word. With 755bhp driv­ing 1678kg, it's al­most got more power than the chas­sis can han­dle. Or at least that's what it feels like to drive at first. Even with the su­per-clever Per­for­mance Trac­tion Man­age­ment in its least in­tru­sive track mode, you still get the sense that it's quite busy keep­ing the car in line.

But once you get used to it, which takes less than a lap, you can push this car to speeds you might not be­lieve at first. Wit­ness the Chevy de­vel­op­ment team's lap of Vir­ginia In­ter­na­tional Race­way while shak­ing down a new part -they smashed the Ford GT's lap record by more than a sec­ond. And they didn't even know it un­til later. Hand­ing the ZR1 to ex world drift­ing champ Dai Yoshi­hara, who you see here shred­ding the tyres, was also in­ter­est­ing.

“This ZR1 is the ul­ti­mate cur­rentshape Corvette in ev­ery sense”

Mi­cro­scop­i­cally sen­si­tive to car set-up, he got out of the Vette as im­pressed as the rest of us with the power and im­mense brak­ing abil­ity, but still not 100 per cent happy with the non-lin­ear way the car’s chas­sis sys­tems in­ter­vened when cor­ner­ing.

So rather than push it to a point that it failed – some­thing none of the cars here did in the ex­treme 46ºC heat, which was im­pres­sive – we agreed that the ZR1, which also does a fine job of be­ing an every­day car should you want it to do so, feels very much like as far as the C7 plat­form can go. And that the mi­dengined C8 will be wel­comed when it ar­rives in a year or so.

With that near-or­bit per­for­mance level, you’d think the ZR1 has enough to see off the ZL1 1LE. And you’d be right in most nu­mer­i­cal, Top Trumps ways. It is faster, stops shorter, has a higher top speed, weighs less. And so on. But what those num­bers don’t show is how the driver feels be­hind the wheel, the width of the grin, the heart rate, the dopamine rush…

Us­ing these as a guide, it quickly be­came clear that the fast red Ca­maro was be­com­ing our favourite.

It just has that im­me­di­ate feel within the first few ro­ta­tions of the wide, spe­cial Goodyear-tyred wheels that it’s a very sorted thing. You sit low, al­most stupidly low, in the car and peer, race­car style, over the in­stru­ment clus­ter. The com­pe­ti­tion seats hug you just so, and it’s got a man­ual 6spd rev-matched gear­box. So it all feels right from the off.

And it just gets bet­ter and bet­ter from there. It doesn’t have any of the Vette’s gi­ant car­bon brakes and ac­tive damp­ing – just a set of Mul­ti­matic DSSV dampers which can be very sim­ply ad­justed for road or track. In the lat­ter mode, once

“The two Chevys might come from one brand but they couldn’t feel more dif­fer­ent from each other”

the tyres are up to tem­per­a­ture, the big car gets up on its toes and dances around the track, flat­ter­ing driver in­puts by be­ing re­spon­sive and for­giv­ing at the same time. This in­spires con­fi­dence which in­creases speed and makes you happy. Then you get out, look at your lap times – twice, just to make sure – and re­alise you’ve gone faster than you thought pos­si­ble.

The Z06 en­gine, which had so many heat is­sues in the Vette, is ab­so­lutely fine, too, as there’s more space for cool­ing here. So you de­cide when you stop, not the car. Which is as it should be. What’s ab­so­lutely not, is that the 1LE can­not be im­ported to the UK be­cause of pedes­trian-pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tions, due to it bristling with thigh-slic­ing car­bon fi­bre dive planes and the like. But some­one will surely work out a way to get one across the At­lantic. When they do, we’ll be wait­ing for them.

So what’s the fi­nal fin­ish­ing or­der, then? As I men­tioned be­fore, it is re­ally only be­tween two cars, the Corvette and the Ca­maro. The De­mon is long sold out, so has been consigned to hall of fame his­tory. You can get a Hell­cat Red­eye, which has the big-breath­ing mo­tor, but not the drag shocks, trans­brake and other spe­cial drag good­ies. So it’s not quite the same.

Which is true of the two Chevys. They might come from one brand but they couldn’t feel more dif­fer­ent from each other. The Vette is lighter, faster but ul­ti­mately more syn­thetic. The 1LE Ca­maro – a mus­cle car as ex­tremely de­vel­oped for the cir­cuit as the De­mon is for the strip – just feels bet­ter, more hon­est and pre­dictable. You might go faster in the Corvette, but you’ll have more fun in the Ca­maro. So, with that knock­out punch, it’s the Ca­maro that wins.

Dai Yoshi­hara. Ex-world driftcham­pion ex­plains chas­sis sub­tleties through hand sig­nals

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