Let me tell you a little story. Last Christmas, I needed to get a tree, and the only vehicle at my disposal was a silver Chevrolet Corvette Z06. So, I bungeed my chosen evergreen to the roof, and I was on my way home when I decided to roll into the throttle at about 40 mph in second gear. That supernova of an LS7 engine pulled into the meat of the powerband, and with cold tires, the car’s rear end began lazily crabbing sideways as if I were on a frozen pond. I went with it, modulating the throttle, countersteering, and wondering if any bystanders were around to appreciate the spectacle of a sideways Corvette with a Christmas tree on its roof.
I mention this because it seems that the last thing the Corvette Z06 needs is more power. As it stands, the Z06 represents Ferrari F430 performance for sub-Porsche 911 money. With 505 hp crammed into a car that weighs barely more than 3000 pounds, the Z06 is a terror on the track and a weapon at the drag strip. There’s only one problem: that other domestic supercar icon, the one with ten cylinders and all the nuanced subtlety of a WWE cage fight, just got a major horsepower infusion aimed at taking the Z06 down a peg. With the Dodge Viper now packing an even 600 horses, the volley is back to Chevrolet, and it appears the company’s preparing a hell of a return.
Let’s assume for a moment that Chevy does not intend to receive a daily power-wedgie while Dodge marches around the hallways thumping its chest and yelling “Mopar rules!” Let’s assume that Chevy is readying the baddest Corvette ever built, and this impending dreadnought will extract about 650 hp from a supercharged V-8. Well, that’s something that we’d like to compare with the new Viper, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we’re guessing that you won’t see that hypothetical showdown until next summer, and we can’t wait that long to find out how a 600-plus-hp Vette compares with the 600-horse Viper. That’s why we got a hold of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering and their four-wheeled, 626-hp crystal ball.
Lingenfelter offers a range of modifications for the Corvette, but the Z06 package is the one that appears most germane to predicting the potential performance of Chevy’s upcoming flagship. When I first saw that Lingenfelter squeezed more than 120 extra horses from the Z06, I figured that forced induction must be involved. But, in general, the bigger the engine, the more latent power there is to unlock, and the LS7 is the Andre the Giant of modern V-8s.
Thus, Lingenfelter is able to break the 600-hp barrier through old-fashioned hot-rodding tricks, and it all comes down to better breathing. The engine is removed and partially disassembled. The cylinder heads are ported and polished. There’s a multiangle valve job, new induction plumbing, exhaust headers, and, most obviously, a more aggressive cam. I say “most obviously” because the cam is responsible for the Lingenfelter car’s defining personality trait–a stuttering, ragged idle that’s so mean it belongs in Michael Vick’s kennel. Fire up a Lingenfelter Z06 in Toledo, and you set off tsunami warnings in Taiwan.
All this gratuitous bad-assedness costs a bit more than $10,000 installed, and fears of fragged LS7s are assuaged by a three-year/ 36,000-mile warranty. The blue beast loaned to us by Lingenfelter customer and all-around fine American Bob Sullivan also has a few extra goodies, including gooey Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires that stick like a flip-flop on hot chewing gum but also follow every imperfection in the road, so the total bill is $13,212. That would put it right in the same mid-$80,000 ballpark as a certain car that begins with “V” and ends with “iper.” However, this car carries 7440 dollars’ worth of supersize Brembo brakes, which push the total price over the $90,000 mark but are probably strong enough to stop a Freightliner headed down the ski jump at Lillehammer.
We collect the Vette and the Viper and head into the cornfields of northern Ohio, a land where the roads are straight and the cops are elsewhere. Curves here are hard to come by, but we already know these cars can slay a racetrack, so we’re more interested in finding out what they’ll do when the road stretches straight to the horizon and you flatten the throttle until you run out of either courage or pavement. My first stint is in the Viper, a car I haven’t driven in its latest incarnation. I’m amazed to tell you, the new Viper is a revelation, a silky, refined piece of machinery that feels like nothing so much as a 600-hp Honda.
OK, good. Just making sure you were paying attention.
The Viper is still the crudest, most brutal car on the road. If the Viper had any more testosterone, it would be an essential component in female-to-male gender reassignment programs. (“Betty, on your path to becoming Bill, first you must take these keys . . .”) Within fifteen miles, I’ve already suffered a heart-stopping moment when I depress the clutch for an upshift and my shoe catches the brake pedal, too. While the pedals are adjustable, the Viper’s pedal box itself is sized for elves. Barefoot elves.
The sidepipes bark in your ear as you wind up that 8.4-liter maelstrom under the hood. It sounds like a punched-out old Dodge 360-cubic-inch V-8 with two extra cylinders grafted on, because that’s basically what it is. Accompanied by the sound track of hell’s own bar brawl, revs build so fast in the lower gears that your brain doesn’t have time to react to the red shift light that warns of impending redline. I bounce off the rev limiter a few times in first and second gears before I begin to aurally anticipate the shift points. Flattened back in the seat and praying that the rear end stays glued down (the Viper laughs at your traction control systems!), by the time you hit 100 mph you feel like you’re doing Mach 100. That copiously vented, razor-fendered nose is bobbing back and forth over the rippled Ohio two-lane, and I squeeze the brakes because I’m seriously concerned about inadvertently making an early harvest, Viper-style. As I roll up to an intersection, a guy driving a Chevy pickup on the perpendicular road drifts onto the shoulder and nearly broadsides me. It’s certainly true that your car tends to go where you’re looking, because his eyes were fixed on the Viper. This, it turns out, will not be an isolated incident. I guess when there’s a Viper in your cornfield, you keep an eye on it.
The Lingenfelter Corvette is a Lexus by comparison–high-tech, refined, and a little bit anonymous. While the Viper sports a shallow, cup-shaped indentation for an ashtray that’s emblazoned with the enigmatic warning “Not a cupholder” (it would be more accurate if it said, “Not a very good cupholder”), the Z06 has two unapologetically functional Starbucks holsters. It has keyless ignition, traction control, stability control, heated power seats, a Bose sound system (the Viper rocks an Alpine), and a head-up display. The ride is quite comfortable. Even the look-at-me Lingenfelter fender badges come off as understated, since the stock Z06’s boastful “505 hp” badges remain in place, vestiges of the car’s slower self.
It’s a good thing the Lingenfelter wears those quasi-race Michelins with their 80 treadwear rating, because once that lumpy, grumpy cam finds its happy place, great fury is visited upon the atmosphere, the pavement, and your inner ear. Hooked up in first gear, the Z06 can exert 0.76 g of acceleration. So let me drop a little math on you: If you weigh 185 pounds, as I do, that means the Lingenfelter Z06 on full boil can make it feel like you’ve got 141 pounds pressing your body back into the seat. And if a train left the station at 8:40 and the Lingenfelter Z06 left at 9:00, the Lingenfelter Z06 would still be way cooler than the train.
Despite the monster engine, the Lingenfelter is a sweetheart to drive. Thanks to the high-rpm power bias, it actually seems to hook up off the line at least as well as a stock Z06 (that’s also down to the tires). And once the revs come up, the power is simply devastating. As the engine comes on cam, the Harley V-twin idle commotion fades away, the power smoothes out, and things actually seem to quiet down, as if you’re outrunning your own exhaust noise. On paper, it looks like the Vette should be faster than the Viper, but the Z06 downplays its own abilities while the Viper strives to convince you that you’re driving possibly the fastest car in the galaxy.
Soon enough, we put that perception to the test. I’m back in the Viper, and senior editor Joe DeMatio is ahead of me in the Corvette. We haven’t agreed to a race, but you know how these things happen: we’re trundling along at sane speeds when we crest a hillock to find the road stretching before us, desolate, for about a mile. I bury the throttle in third gear, and out ahead of the Viper’s nose, I see the Vette squat as DeMatio does likewise. The corn blurs out of my peripheral vision, and I focus on the Vette as the Viper cabin fills with a cacophony of wind noise and ten cylinders of barely contained internal combustion. At 124 mph, I grab fourth gear and hold on tight. But for all the white-knuckle drama and violent acceleration, the Vette is walking away from me.
The test numbers support the result of our impromptu hound-and-hare chase across the farmland. While both cars reach 60 mph in 3.7 seconds (in first gear, no less), the Lingenfelter pulls away as speeds increase. The Viper’s 12.1-second quarter-mile run at 123 mph is suitably heroic, but the Vette cracked off an even more ridiculous 11.7 at 127 mph. And in just under 30 seconds, the Vette is at 180 mph, a speed that requires the Viper an additional eleven seconds to attain. “Time to 180” is a pretty arcane performance statistic, but it gives you an idea of how effectively the Lingenfelter modifications assert themselves when you’re running wide-open.
Of course, this is a pitched battle, a tuner Vette versus a stock Viper. Hennessey Viper owners would probably point out that they could run 11.7-second quarters with one turbo dragging behind the car like an anchor. But as a literal vehicle for prognostication, I think the Lingenfelter Z06 gives us a good idea of how things are going to shape up when Chevy pulls back the curtain on its own factory supercar.
Limited-edition, high-power Corvettes have always had two defining characteristics–off-the-charts performance wrapped in styling that, for better or worse, looks a lot like the base Corvette. Whether it’s the ZR1, the Z06, the Lingenfelter Z06, or whatever comes next from Chevy’s skunk works, these are supercars that can pass mostly unnoticed among the general population, their numerous lesser brethren acting as decoys that cloak the capability of the few. So while the Viper and the souped-up Vette look like competitors on paper, their underlying philosophies are so at odds that I feel like you’re either a Viper person or a Vette person, and ne’er the twain shall meet.
The Lingenfelter Z06 is the livable, understated Ferrari-eater, and those traits will probably be still more pronounced in Chevy’s factory effort, which could have even more power and ought to idle like a car instead of a paint mixer. The Viper, though, is the attention-getter, the charisma car. It’s visceral and loud and feels faster than the Z06 even though it’s not, which speaks to a question you could extend down to, say, a Mazda MX-5 versus a Saturn Sky Red Line–what’s more important to you, the sensation of speed or the hard numbers?
It’s possible the upcoming hero Corvette will be a little more outrageous, packing a little more visual punch to go with its underhood firepower. Who knows, it might not even have cupholders. But as it stands, there’s a simple metric that applies to the Lingenfelter Z06 and the 600-hp Viper: Buy the Viper if you want to get noticed. Buy the Vette if you want to win the race.