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Chevrolet rolls out the fastest, most powerful Camaro ever , the 2012 ZL1, at the Chicago Auto Show.

Chevy is adding a little more muscle to the pony car wars by bringing back the once-formidable Camaro ZL1.

The General Motors division rocked the market when its reborn Camaro outsold the Ford Mustang, last year, for the first time in a quarter century.  But GM officials admit it won’t be easy to keep that momentum going – not without broadening the Camaro line-up.

The long-delayed Chevrolet Camaro Convertible is about to go on sale.  (For a review, Click Here.) Now comes the 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1, which is making its debut at the Chicago Auto Show.

Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of design, recalled how the original Camaro ZL1 became an instant classic when it first appeared in the late 1960s.  The hope is to repeat that success with the new car.

“The 2012 ZL1 will be the most technically advanced Camaro every built by GM,” Welburn said, during the GM press conference.  “The new ZL1 continues the momentum of Camaro, propelling it into an entirely new realm of leading-edge performance technology,” added Welburn, who said the car will be rolling into Chevy showrooms next January.

The 2012 Chevy Camaro ZL1 - shown here with GM Design Director Ed Welburn at its Chicago debut.

The ZL1 will be powered by a supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 engine producing an estimated 550 horsepower, and if early promises come true, it will be the fastest Camaro ever offered by Chevrolet.

The power train, however, is only part of the ZL1 story, Welburn insisted.

The interior of the ZL1 has been upgraded to include luxury touches appropriate to a super car.  Meanwhile, a number of improvements to the top-end Camaro’s chassis and suspension are designed to yield balanced, “track-ready” handling – as well as braking power to complement its high engine output.  (Among other things, the ZL1 will borrow some of the modifications made to stiffen the chassis of the Camaro Convertible.)

In fact, GM is still testing the Camaro ZL1 to insure it meets expectations of demanding drivers.

Welburn explained that the ZL1 name is derived from the all-aluminum racing engine of the same name, which was developed in the late 1960s and installed into a handful of regular-production 1969 Camaros. Only 69 were built with the engine, but they have an almost mythical status among enthusiasts, as they represented the pinnacle in Camaro performance – until now.

The central goal of the car’s development was creating something new – a Camaro intended to reach optimal lap times on top road-racing circuits and excellent driving dynamics on the street.

Rather than using decorative elements, ZL1 is visually differentiated from other current Camaro models with elements vital to the car’s elevated capabilities.

“Everything about the ZL1’s design is directly related to its technology and serious performance, especially aerodynamics,” said Welburn, vice president. “Our goal was to execute that function-oriented design with beautifully sculpted forms, creating an imposing, powerful persona. Function becomes the aesthetic. The intent is a car that delivers on the attitude it projects.”

The major elements of the ZL1’s design are a new front fascia and hood with air extractors, designed in tandem to create aerodynamic downforce to aid handling. The car’s hood includes a signature center section constructed of carbon fiber and rendered in satin black finish.

New rocker panels, wide tires, 20-inch wheels, custom designed tires and exhaust tips portray the car’s handling and power.  The ZL1 badge appears on the grille, hood and the brake calipers, all key areas portraying the technology.

Historically, while there’s been a traditional gulf between Ford and Chevy, pony car buyers have been a fickle lot, and even the hottest offerings tend to lose their bloom after about 18 months to two years, which is why the additional Camaro models are so critical, analysts stress.

So do the folks at Ford, global marketing chief Jim Farley insisting, “We don’t measure Mustang’s success one year at a time.”  The maker is betting that the pair of new powertrains it has launched for 2011 will help it push back Chevy’s sudden advances in the pony car segment,

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