[cars name="Corvette"] engineers, who orchestrated the ZR1 to entertain a driver, a passenger, and neighboring counties with the big-block, side-pipe sounds of the 1960s, describe the usual reaction to any indulgence of this car’s throttle as “shock and awe.”
Yes, that’s exactly what we experienced flat-footing an early-production ZR1 around General Motors’ Milford Road Course and on public roads surrounding the company’s proving ground. The car is noisy-fast and armed with enough decibels and speed to startle and spank the target Aston Martins, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches, as intended. But the real shocker is that a throttled-back ZR1 is well-mannered, highly endearing, comfortable, and composed. This benign beast ventures-at whatever velocity you’d prefer-where no has gone before.
Like each Corvette leap forward, the new ZR1 is powered by a breakthrough engine. The noise generator living beneath the picture-frame hood pumps out a hearty 638 hp and 604 lb-ft of torque thanks, in part, to the Eaton supercharger that spins up to 15,000 rpm, singing just the right amount of blower whine as it works. This 6.2-liter small-block pulls like a Peterbilt at low rpm, provides sufficient oomph to visit the dark side of the 200-mph barrier (205 mph, actually), and is smart enough to give the blower a break while cruising to save fuel. Throttling back to 60 mph in sixth gear, we registered 30 mpg on the dash’s instantaneous-mileage display. Loafing along in conservation mode, the new mighty mouse makes no more ruckus than the standard Corvette’s 430-hp V-8.
So what took GM so long to bless its immortal small-block with a blower? The answer: operating efficiency. Recent advancements in supercharger-rotor design have diminished parasitic losses to the point that the Corvette ZR1 is the first sports car able to pair more than 600 hp with 20 mpg in EPA highway mileage tests.
Thanks to the look-at-me hood, the new LS9 V-8 is a prime candidate for becoming the next American idol. But hold your applause until we introduce the support heroes of the ZR1 project: a well-behaved cast of chassis items (steering, brakes, tires, and dampers) along with the brain trust (headed by Tom Wallace and Tadge Juechter) who shaped the ZR1’s dynamic character.
Their strategy was to tune the ZR1 to complement, rather than confront, the Z06. The $72,125 (2008 price), 505-hp, high-strung Z06 will continue its boy-racer role. The ZR1’s mission is to demonstrate that an astonishingly fast Corvette can also be fastidious in every move it makes. Moving from a standstill, the ZR1 will reach 60 mph in just 3.4 seconds and whiz past the quarter-mile mark in 11.3 seconds at 131 mph, according to Chevrolet.
The ZR1 is a track master without resorting to the steely suspension settings or the nervous limit behavior tuned into the Z06. Steering effort builds in direct proportion to cornering forces, with a decent amount of feel as part of the deal. Huge Brembo carbon-ceramic rotors take the fear out of late-braking into every bend. New aero aids keep axle loads balanced at high speeds.
Trail-brake the ZR1 too quickly into a tight corner, and it will slide its front Michelins, but a momentary relaxation of the center pedal neatly recaptures the desired line. Likewise, drifting the tail wide in a fast bend is certainly possible, especially with the throttle locked down and the stability system minimized, but the ZR1’s suspension metabolism is so friendly and forgiving that delicate steering and throttle adjustments keep the rotation within the fruitful range.
Over the distressed Michigan roads near GM’s proving ground, the ZR1 took bumps and grooves in stride, capably filtering the worst of the road rash while strictly controlling bob, pitch, and lean.
So how was this astute blend of speed and savoir faire achieved? By showering the C6 Corvette‘s aluminum-frame architecture with fresh technology and by sweating blood over the ZR1’s behavioral traits.
New carbon-composite brakes and body panels trimmed 22 pounds, partially compensating for the 182 pounds added in pursuit of more power and superior ride and handling. Substituting 0.4-inch wider Michelin tires for the Z06’s Goodyears and mounting them to wheels that are an inch larger in diameter notched up the ZR1’s grip. Upgrading both the magnetically adjustable dampers and the antiroll-bar diameters provided additional wheel and body control to compensate for the softer spring rates selected to calm ride motions. The driveline has been fortified with a new dual-plate clutch, closer gear ratios, and a sixth gear that syncs the engine’s redline to the car’s top speed for the first time.
So what got screwed up? The only notable warts we found were the carryover bucket seats that provide virtually no thigh support. The brain trust has been notified.
With a base price of $105,000, which includes a $1700 fuel-guzzling tax and a trip to driving school, the ZR1 is the new screaming deal. Only 1800 will be built this year for global consumption. If you hesitated to place a deposit, commence your self-flagellation now.
Base Price: $105,000
Engine: Supercharged and intercooled OHV 16-Valve V-8
Displacement: 6.2 liters (376 cu in)
Horsepower: 638 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 604 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: Control arms, semielliptic spring
Suspension, Rear: Control arms, semielliptic spring
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 2
Tire Size F, R: 285/30yr-19, 335/25yr-20
L X W X H: 176.2 X 75.9 X 49.0 in
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Track F/R: 63.5/62.5 in
Weight: 3324 lb (per manufacturer)