Of course, most of what we cover here at Car and Driver involves OEM vehicles rather than aftermarket specials. But we can always find room for stuff like the wicked wheels that roll out of Hennessey Performance Engineering of Sealy, Texas, stuff like the 2010 HPE700 Camaro.

This is the super-Chevy that GM hasn’t (yet) built: a new Camaro SS with the supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 heart of the Corvette ZR1. As we’ve long known and find to be the case yet again with the HPE700, Hennessey’s creations are way more than back-alley chop jobs. So when we were offered to drive the HPE700 Camaro on the roads around Hennessey’s outpost in Lake Forest, California, we jumped at the chance.

Promises Made, Promises Kept

In fact, we were overdue. The better part of a year has passed since the HPE700 was first announced, and when we last wrote about it, the car was little more than computer-generated renderings and big promises. Now that many of the 24 HPE700s Hennessey has planned for 2010 have been built, it appears those big promises have been kept, and some even surpassed.

The juiciest promise of them all was that of big, big power under the hood. The aforementioned 6.2-liter LS9 V-8 makes 638 hp and 604 lb-ft in the ZR1, so it’s ridiculously powerful to begin with. But Hennessey, being a tuner shop first and last, couldn’t leave well enough alone. Most significant among Hennessey’s enhancements was boosting the potency of the LS9’s supercharger to about 15 psi, versus the stock 10.5. A new intake system and stainless-steel headers are fitted, too. Otherwise, most of the ZR1 engine bits are retained, as are the Camaro SS’s stock exhaust system and its Tremec six-speed manual transmission (the HPE700’s sole transmission offering). To that, HPE adds its own upgraded clutch, flywheel, shifter, and shift knob.

Surprisingly little alteration was required to fit the new engine, since the Camaro SS’s 6.2-liter V-8 is dimensionally close to the LS9. Certain plumbing components had to find new routes, but precious few fabrications were necessary. The centerpiece of the engine compartment remains the LS9‘s trademark blue-and-silver engine cover, but a sexy, carbon-fiber intake assembly designed by Hennessey is sure to garner some supplemental oohs and ahhhs once the hood is popped for show-and-tell.

Twist the key, however, and it becomes immediately clear that there are differences between the HPE700 and the ZR1. This HPE700 is L-O-U-D—closer in volume to a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral than the full-tilt howl of a muscle car. The boost in power over the LS9 is similarly huge: Hennessey claims a monstrous 725 hp at 6400 rpm and 741 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm for its tuned LS9. These figures trump its previous estimates of 705 hp and 717 lb-ft, which, frankly, we would probably have been fine with. But hey, why hold back at this point? Furthermore, the company claims that dyno tests verify that some 691 hp and 661 lb-ft of torque of that make it to the rear wheels at 6000 and 4700 rpm, respectively. In any case, Hennessey’s LS9 is an entirely beastlier powerplant than that of the ZR1.

A Big, Brash, Loud, Thirsty Hoot

Idling out of Hennessey’s facilities and onto the minivan-ridden streets of Orange County—ever mindful of the expensive (and gorgeous!) carbon-fiber front splitter hovering mere centimeters from the ground—we savored the HPE700’s ready-to-go demeanor. While there was no untoward bucking as we negotiated parking-lot speed humps, the smooth, low-rev rumble made it clear that there was copious power waiting to be unleashed. What wasn’t clear is at what point that power would outstrip the car’s ability to contain it.

So we cautiously eased deeper and deeper into the throttle leaving every stoplight, and were rewarded each time with more and more accelerative force, and ever-higher volumes of that inebriating exhaust sound which wailed with all the restraint of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet stocker. People held their ears as we roared past, and cars ahead could both hear and see us from behind as we barreled toward them. We don’t think we broke any windows in nearby homes or storefronts, but if we did, we sincerely apologize. (And send the repair bill to Sealy, Texas, please.)

And yes, we found that at a certain point, those 20-inch rear wheels and their expensive 305/30-series Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires will indeed break loose, but not as early as one might expect. Be judicious, learn this car’s limits, and within a few attempts, it rewards you with buckets and buckets of face-peeling acceleration. Hennessey claims that the HPE700 hits 60 mph 3.5 seconds and covers the quarter-mile in 11.3 at 126 mph. Those numbers are easily believable, if not conservative; this car is faaaast. (We tested a stock SS manual as hitting 60 in 4.8 seconds and legging a quarter-mile in 13 seconds at 111 mph.)

Now, with so much torque ever ready to unglue the rear end, the steering wheel becomes—how shall we say this?—less necessary for the purposes of rotating the vehicle around turns. Tail-out antics are ultra-fun and easily controlled. Much credit goes to HPE’s suspension modifications, which snap the car down via adjustable KW coil-overs and upgraded front and rear anti-roll bars. The HPE700’s steering remains as light and precise as in the stock Camaro SS, in spite of its wider 20-inch front wheels with their 275/35-series rubber. Aside from some noticeable fidgetiness at triple digits, the HPE700 felt as comfortable as any factory Camaro we’ve sampled, and its low-speed ride quality is quite hospitable.

Yet we remained in a constant state of disbelief of the suspension’s ability to allow so much driver control over all that power. Maximum grip is 1.01 g, according to Hennessey, and the arresting power of the huge six-piston front and four-piston rear Brembo brakes is stupendous (and certainly reassuring). As for fuel economy, we didn’t measure it in our limited time, but we seemed to go through fuel at the pace of about a quarter-tank every half hour. Yeah, this thing is a hoot. A big, brash, loud, thirsty hoot.

More Menacing than the ZR1

So we learned that this dragon can be tamed. But you wouldn’t know it by looking. Indeed, to some of us, the muscle-bound, chiseled-faced HPE700 looks more sinister than the bright-eyed ZR1 Corvette to which much of its visual mods pay homage. Specific ZR1-isms include its full skirt of unpainted carbon-fiber aero extensions; lacy, thin-spoked racing wheels; and, in the case of this particular example, the ZR1’s “launch” color scheme: Cyber Gray metallic paint with blue accents, the latter coming in the form of hockey-stick fender stripes and matching brake calipers. Initial renderings had also shown a cool ZR1-like plastic window in the hood to display the supercharger assembly, but according to Hennessey, the engine’s lower mounting point in the Camaro’s engine bay made it hard to see through the aperture, so it was scrapped. We doubt anyone will really miss it, however, as the HPE700 hardly needs any help making a statement.

The cabin remains largely stock, which is okay, since the Camaro’s interior isn’t totally terrible. However, materials that are merely questionable at the $25K level suddenly seem very low-rent at the $120K asking price for this car, even with the carbon-fiber trim pieces Hennessey adds for good measure. Then again, the sounds that fill said cabin are not reproducible by anything at this price, including the ZR1. So we can deal with the occasional hard plastic bit and so-so leather upholstery.

Indeed, the Hennessey HPE700 is a special automobile that delivers an unforgettable performance experience, along with the sort of curbside amperage normally reserved for Porsche GT2s, Lamborghini Murciélagos, and Nissan GT-Rs. As a complete package with more than a sentimental connection to the fastest Corvette in history, this beast stands head-and-shoulders even above HPE’s other superhero Camaros, and, for some, perhaps even the living legend that inspired it.

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