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|Behind the Wheel: Supercharged 650-Horsepower Mr. Norm's 2010 Camaro|
|Written by Rich Truesdell|
|Wednesday, 07 July 2010 19:02|
While our friends at Autoblog.com were out flogging the Callaway SC572 Camaro, we occupied ourselves over the July 4th weekend driving the new RPO SERIES L78 Kenne Bell-supercharged 2010 Camaro up to Death Valley
One of the truly great things about this job are all the cars that I get to drive, often before almost anyone else has the chance. This past weekend, thanks to great connections at Mr. Norm's Garage and Kenne Bell, I had the opportunity to go prototype hunting in Death Valley from behind the wheel of Jim Bell's personal 650-horsepower 2010 Camaro. It's the one with his exclusive and patent-pending liquid-cooled supercharger, the stage-one 650-horsepower RPO SERIES L78 six-speed package. And this time, I had company for the long trip, Debbie and Larry Weiner. They run the Performance West Group, which, coincidentally, handles media relations for both Mr. Norm's Garage and Kenne Bell. These are the people who made last summer's Tire Melting 101 Challenger feature one of the most-read articles on AutomotiveTraveler.com, and the images among the most downloaded of our screensavers. So without further delay, let's get to the heart of the story.
The Mr. Norm's Garage RPO Camaro program consists of three packages. The first is the RPO L78, a 650-horsepower version that upstages the factory Z28 model expected later next year. Where the Mr. Norm's Camaros have a leg up is that they feature a liquid-cooled supercharger that cools the compressor, thereby lowering oil temperature; meanwhile, the air-to-water intercooler reduces intake-charge temperature going into the cylinders. Anything that cools oil increases the life of the gears, bearings, and supercharger seals. It's a win-win-win situation. The same technology is applied to the stage-two RPO L72 (825-horsepower) and stage-three RPO L88 (1,000-horsepower) versions. All three feature the proprietary billet chassis LC 2.8 and 3.6-liter compressors. Variation in horsepower comes from the displacement of the engine, supercharger pulley, and how much street-legal boost you care to dial in. In the case of the L72, it results in 825 horsepower. (For all the technical details on the Kenne Bell LC supercharger package, visit the Kenne Bell web site.)
Our test car, the RPO L78 version, adds the supercharger running 9psi boost to what is essentially the Camaro SS's 6.2-liter LS3 V8. It is mated to the GM-supplied Tremec TR6060 six-speed transmission and a Centerforce dual-disc clutch. Ride height sits about 25mm lower than stock due to the installation of the Detroit Speed-lowered suspension, which addresses the first of three complaints with the stock Camaro SS: its less than sterling handling characteristics, especially when compared to its closest competitor, the new Mustang 5.0. This issue is compounded by the second complaint, the simple fact that at nearly 4,000 pounds, the Camaro is something of a porker (like the Dodge Challenger), its independent rear suspension not withstanding.
To put Jim Bell's personal RPO L78 to the test, we came up with a unique challenge... Death Valley. With temperatures expected to be 115 degrees or higher over the long holiday weekend, we thought this would provide a suitable challenge to Jim's boast that the 650-horsepower L78 was up to any real-world trial. And it would be the first time this year I'd make my summertime sojourn up to Death Valley to add exclusive images to the Automotive Traveler Spy Photos Gallery. (More about that later.) We'd originally planned to make the trip earlier in the week, but a magazine that shall go nameless torpedoed the car's rear differential. Thankfully, Adam Montague at ST Motorsports in San Bernardino got the parts at 4:00 p.m. Friday and worked until almost midnight putting Jim's RPO L78 back together. As Jim didn't want us stranded in Death Valley, his team came in Saturday morning to test drive and re-calibrate the car. We left the Kenne Bell headquarters just before eleven, still early enough to make the 200-plus mile run up to Death Valley--in time, I hoped, to catch some prototypes being tested.
The direct route to Death Valley from Kenne Bell in Rancho Cucamonga is up I-15 through the Cajon Pass to U.S. 395, heading north towards Ridgecrest. As I've made this trip more times than I can count, I already had in mind a couple of photo ops, including the Summit Inn, a Route 66 landmark, as well as an antique store with great gas station memorabilia in Kramer Junction (just north of the intersection of CA 58 running between Baker and Barstow). These stops provided us the opportunity to appreciate fully the subtle differences between the stock Camaro SS and the RPO L78. Such differences include the carbon-fiber hood with aircraft-inspired, clear Plexiglas window displaying the billet supercharger along with the carbon-fiber deck lid and spoiler. One oft-overlooked set of upgrades are the retro Fenton-style 20-inch wheels standard with the stage-one and stage-two RPO packages. Well matched to the car and ZR-rated, the OEM Pirelli tires work perfectly with the new wheels.
In addition to these two planned stopovers, we pulled over to check out a cool 1962 Chevy drag wagon for sale in Victorville on the west side of US 395. We took the Chevy drag wagon as an omen that the day would be fruitful. We then stopped to top off our tank at the T-Stop convenience store in Trona, a town that never seems to change from year to year. The arrival of a soda ash train trying to clear CA 178 delayed us almost 30 minutes. As it was well over 110 degrees at the time, we just sat at the crossing with the A/C running full blast. Even with the extra heat generated by the supercharger and its drive components, the temperature barely moved beyond the Camaro's quarter hash mark. What a clear illustration the system was designed with extreme conditions in mind. Liquid cooling is evidently the way to go in supercharged applications.
North out of Trona, the Trona-Wildrose road heads into Death Valley National Park. I consider this to be my own semi-private Bonneville, where I often wring out my test vehicles since I've never encountered the California Highway Patrol here. I have encountered low-flying military jets from nearby Edwards Air Force base, though, buzzing the desert floor at close to the speed of sound. This would be more than three times the calculated terminal velocity of the RPO L78, which we conservatively estimate to be around 185 m.p.h. I base my assumptions on the calculated weight of a Camaro SS, the added 200-plus horsepower, and my own time behind the wheel of a stock Dodge Challenger SRT8--my 2008 Vanishing Point drive, previously chronicled here on Automotive Traveler. But given that Jim and Adam moved heaven and earth to get the RPO L78 prepped for me and that the differential was all-new, discretion was the better part of valor. So, I kept things comfortably under 100 m.p.h.
Turning east on CA 190, we headed up into Death Valley National Park, climbing to nearly 5,000 feet as we approached Towne Pass. I almost always encounter cars testing here. The reason is simple. CA 190 from Towne Peak down into Stovepipe Wells presents a unique challenge. Test drivers can stress components during the 16-mile uphill drive that begins almost 200 feet below sea level and rises to almost 5,000 feet above, with summer temperatures often 120 degrees or more. Factor in nearly zero humidity and the easy availability of fuel in the park, and you have an almost perfect place for automotive test purposes. Coming over the rise, we spied a car at the side of the road--clearly the 2011 Mini Countryman soft roader. As it has been seen in near-production form at numerous auto shows, we just drove right up next to it. If you look closely at the photo, you'll see the Camaro's side-view mirror in the right-hand side of the frame. Mission accomplished. (We caught the entire three-model line-up of the 2011 Mini Countryman 20 minutes later in Stovepipe Wells. For the up close and personal look at the Mini Countryman, visit the ever-expanding Automotive Traveler/Fotki Image Gallery.)
With the requisite spy shots in the can, Debbie, Larry, and I were free to act like tourists, hitting several points of interest in the park, including the dunes just east of Stovepipe Wells. We then headed south on CA 127 to Furnace Creek Ranch--190 feet below sea level--where we photographed the Camaro in a variety of settings ... the park's power plant, the fire station, a 20-mule-team wagon train, and the Pete Dye-designed Death Valley Golf Course. When staying at the Furnace Creek Ranch, I often get in nine holes early in the morning. With the outside temperature displaying 115 degrees on the Camaro's radio display, it was no day for golf. (The course is actually quite challenging. Balls don't carry as far as you'd expect when you're below sea level, and water hazards do exist!)
Getting back on schedule, we pointed the Camaro south on CA 127 after passing the Furnace Creek Inn, closed for the summer. This route would take us to Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest point in the United States. (Badwater also holds the distinction of having recorded the highest temperature in U.S. history: 134 degrees back in 1913. Even at almost six in the evening, the temperature there was still 114 degrees.) Although we didn't have a stock Camaro SS for a direct comparison, it was obvious to me that our car, equipped with the now-available Detroit Speed lowered suspension, addressed some of the stock Camaro's dynamic shortcomings. The road to Badwater was fairly smooth--with elevation changes and turns of various radius, some off-camber--and the RPO L78 was tighter and more responsive than the OEM setup, improving feel with subjectively reduced oversteer. We were hampered a bit by the fact that the car was still shod with the street-drag radial slicks from the previous Monday's activities at Fontana Speedway. We've already discussed with Jim Bell doing a side-by-side drive as soon as I can secure the use of a stock Camaro SS for a few days.
At Badwater, Larry took his turn behind the wheel while I relaxed, having accomplished all of my pre-trip goals. It also gave me time to better appreciate the difference the red inserts of Katzkin leather trim made on the Camaro's stock interior. It boggles my mind that not just Chevrolet, but other manufacturers as well, don't offer more interior trim selections. There really are more colors in the palette than black, grey, and taupe and color-coordinated combinations that offer little contrast. We stopped for a few minutes at the intersection of CA 127 and CA 178 to grab some shots of the sign leading back into the park ... and to look for any pieces we might find of the SR-71 Blackbird that crashed here on the night of 18 December 1969. Packing our gear and having covered almost 400 miles already, it was time for dinner. I almost always stop at the famous Crowbar Café and Saloon before the long drive home, where long-time chef Jeremy Galland serves up a truly great prime rib along with legendary soups and deserts. (Check out my complete 2009 review of the Crowbar Café and Saloon.)
From the Crowbar Café and Saloon, it's a 45-minute drive 60 miles south to Baker to pick up I-15 for the drive back. We made one final, just-after-sunset photo op at the landmark thermometer in Baker, a beacon to countless travelers driving I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. With the last shots captured on my memory card, it was a non-stop drive back to Southern California, save for topping off the tank in Baker where we calculated our mileage right at 19 m.p.g. Just before 11:00 p.m., exactly 12 hours after we left Kenne Bell, we arrived at Jim Bell's house in Upland and relinquished the keys to his RPO L78. Even without hammering the car, it was obvious to me that this is the real deal, an instant 225-horsepower upgrade that truly transforms the stock Camaro SS. While many other fine aftermarket tuner Camaros are now on the market or expected soon, the balance, poise, and bullet-proof design of the LC RPO L78 puts it at the top of its class.
And that's the beauty of the Kenne Bell supercharger as installed in the 2010 Mr. Norm's Garage RPO L78 Camaro. In day-to-day driving, it has virtually no impact on drivability, even when driven through some of the most taxing conditions you're ever likely to encounter. But when you're confronted by some pesky Ford Mustang or Dodge Challenger, with 650hp on tap, all the other driver will see are your taillights.
When it comes to getting your money's worth, go ahead and compare the RPO SERIES Camaros to any other post-production versions on the market. Compare what it costs, and what you get. Most of all, be sure to factor in the performance. You'll find that, dollar for dollar, you get more bang for your buck with the RPO SERIES Camaros than any of the others. Go ahead, bring on that Callaway, 'cause the RPO SERIES Camaro is more than ready to go toe to toe. Just like Chevrolet says, "May the best car win!"
Visit the Automotive Traveler/Fotki Image Gallery for photos and poster-sized photographs of the Supercharged 650-Horsepower Mr. Norm's 2010 Camaro.