What’s in a name? Quite a bit, Al Oppenheiser says.
As chief engineer of the hallowed General Motors product line, Oppenheiser has made it his life’s work to set in stone exactly what separates, for example, a Camaro Z/28 from a Camaro SS. It’s some serious business, too.
“I want that to be my legacy, that we establish the naming strategy and we stick with it,” Oppenheiser tells me trackside during recent testing the Z/28 at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, MI.
A defined naming strategy has been a GM weakness for years. Despite objections from a core group of executives at the automaker, performance monikers such as “SS” would make their way onto bowtie vehicles ranging from family cars to pickups and many lacked serious punch or genuine driving dynamics.
The Chevy Malibu Maxx SS comes to mind, and the mere mention of it makes Oppenheiser cringe. For good reason, too, because such cavalier naming can dilute a brand with the dreaded “all show and no go” reputation. Even the Z/28 saw use on Camaro variants not markedly different from base models.
Oppenheiser would rather lay in traffic than go there again. “I just don’t want to see it,” he says shaking his head.
So when his team started kicking around plans in 2009 for the Camaro Z/28, easily the most famous variant of the pony car and arguably one of the automobile industry’s most recognizable labels, Oppenheiser turned to the first-generation of the car line for guidance.
“If we were going to do it in the fifth generation it had to be true to what it was originally,” he recalled.
That meant a true track car with a lightweight, naturally aspirated V-8 engine, quick steering and rock-solid suspension package. And just like the model that bowed in ’67 for the SCCA Trans-Am series, it would not be available with an automatic transmission and air-conditioning would be optional.
But as the Z/28 program embarked, the water started getting muddy. The team knew it needed to solve nagging understeer issues with a better suspension, and the 6.2L LS3 small-block V-8 was power limited without a supercharger.
“We called it a Z/28 for a while, but to the purists the Z/28 had never been supercharged,” Oppenheiser says. “I didn’t think it should be, and we convinced our leadership we should save the Z/28 name for the ultimate track car.”
What came out instead were the Camaro SS 1LE and Camaro ZL1. The 1LE gives Camaro fans “bang-for-the-buck” value with a 426-hp 6.2L LS3 V-8 engine that adds a 6-speed manual transmission featuring a higher final drive ratio than the base SS, as well as a strut tower brace for improved steering feel, beefier front and rear stabilizer bars, and tunable monotube rear dampers in place of the twin-tube jobs standard on the SS. It comes in a modestly priced, $3,500 option package.
The ZL1 goes a step further, adding the supercharger for its LSA 6.2L V-8 engine to make 580 hp, an aerodynamics package for increased downforce, and magnetic ride control to retain a daily driver demeanor.
The RS does entry-level work for the nameplate, grabbing customers on styling more than performance, while the Z/28 with its 505-hp LS7 7.0L V-8 engine and suite of track-oriented technologies now tops the Camaro range.
It may seem like alphabet soup to some, but for the engineers and enthusiasts the naming strategy carries unprecedented accuracy and authenticity.
“We’ve got a really good definition of what the Camaro is here in its fifth generation,” Oppenheiser says. “I’m trying to lock us in so that in the sixth generation, and the seventh generation, you can look here and know exactly what we mean when we talk about what a ZL1 or a Z/28 is,” he says.