First Drive: 2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Our pro racer puts the latest, craziest Corvette to the test and comes away impressed
BRASELTON, Georgia — The first time Teddy Roosevelt's words—you know, "Speak softly and carry a big stick"—came into my head as I reviewed a car was after driving a 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. Jump ahead 10 years and I stand perusing a shiny new 2019 Corvette ZR1. I had just ripped this particular example around the awesome Road Atlanta racetrack in Braselton, Georgia. I smirked as I thought to myself, "Speak rudely and wield a really fat club" might be more appropriate for this new force of engineering passion.
Engineering passion? Yes, for real. I noticed the faces of the numerous Chevy engineers on pit lane as each journalist exited a ZR1 after taking their first blasts around the track. The engineers hung on every syllable uttered, noting every gesticulation and throwing a satisfied smile at every "holy $*!!" They looked a bit like a group of dads pushing their noses up to a delivery room observation window: proud fathers, every one.
Not content with the kidney-flattening supercharged LT4 engine that kicks out 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque in the Corvette Z06, the new ZR1 has a super-supercharged LT5 V-8 spitting 755 hp @ 6,300 rpm and 715 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm. You don't need your kidneys, anyway. Certified top speed is 212.49 mph, which came from a two-way average (215 mph/210 mph). Chevy informed us the ZR1 is "restricted" to a top speed of 215 mph to be within tire-safety standards. So, let's recap: "Restricted to 215 mph," base price of $119,995.00 for the coupe (actually $122,095 when you add the $2,100 gas guzzler tax) and $126,095 for the convertible, and it's a "street" car. I'm now thinking: "Big fat club, with bells on."
You probably have read hyperbole, and then some, about road cars that sound unreal. In this case, though, I really have never heard a production car sound this much like a race car in both tone and volume. It is bonkers loud on full "rude" mode. Some Jaguars can compete on the loud scale but I think the ZR1 has them beat. There is some engineering trickery in one of the mufflers, featuring a spring-loaded valve that burps open or stays closed based on driving style. Bring your earplugs, Mildred.
Chevrolet says the ZR1 (with the $1,725 eight-speed automatic transmission) runs from 0-60 mph in 2.85 seconds and from 0-100 mph in just 6.0 seconds. Launching the ZR1 from a standstill is not easy; you have to keep wheelspin at bay all the way to 60, which doesn't do much to help the time. I'm interested to know how much time it needs to accelerate from 60-160 mph, as I think very few cars, regardless of price, would keep up with the ZR1.
If you have this much power, you better have strong brakes to slow down the ZR1's 3,600 pounds. Despite temperatures hitting almost 90 degrees on the day we tested at Road Atlanta, I saw more than 168 mph heading down the circuit's serpentine back straight heading into the 45 mph turn 10a. The braking area into 10a is downhill and bumpy, but let me back up a few hundred yards: The ZR1 screamed at full rip at around 145 mph, still accelerating hard as I followed the bend to the right and flew over the hill that leads down to the brake point for 10a. I have driven many race cars which were far less stable going through this flat-out bend and cresting the hill. This was both impressive and confidence inspiring.
So, I see 168 mph, shut my eyes and think of a quiet safe place. No, I didn't. I progressively pressed the stop pedal hard and the ZR1 dutifully spit my eyes balls out of my head. I recently tested a very capable GT4 race car at Road Atlanta and was very impressed with its brakes; the ZR1 was equally impressive. The tires, aerodynamic downforce, and all-new Brembo carbon-ceramic stoppers combined for more than 1.7 g's of deceleration (serious race-car good). As I mentioned, stability in this bumpy brake zone was also excellent. I made a mental note not to use the brakes this hard with a cement truck behind me out on public roads.
I tried both the automatic and manual versions of the car. If I'm buying the ZR1 to track, there is zero doubt in my mind I would buy the automatic. This car pulls serious g loads in both longitudinal and lateral aspects. I only weigh about 155 pounds and found myself moving around a bit too much in the seats while doing my maximum attack, despite using the seatbelt-locking mechanism. To be sure I didn't mess up, I took a little extra time making a shift in the manual while trail-braking or cornering. I was much more comfortable lapping hard in the automatic, as I could always keep two hands on the wheel. I had no issues at all with the seats holding me solid with normal or spirited street driving.
The tires on the new ZR1 are the same make and size found on the Z06: Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s; 285/30 R-19 up front and 335/25 R-20 rear. The ZR1 does have a half-inch wider front rim size compared to the Z06, which apparently helps the ZR1 front-end work better when combined with the 60-percent increase in overall downforce. The downforce improvement (the car produces a total of 950 pounds at top speed with the $2,995 ZTK/high-wing option) also came with no increase in drag versus the Z06, Chevy says; a nice trick if you can do it.
However, the ZR1 is not a "downforce car," as it still relies mostly on mechanical grip. However, the amount of downforce it does have makes it very stable while cornering at speeds sometimes 10 mph faster than would be possible without the downforce. The faster you go in the ZR1, the higher the speed differential becomes at corner apex. For instance, turn 10a (45 mph minimum speed) feels no different in the ZR1 than it does in a Corvette Grand Sport, as it's a mechanical-grip corner. But you can take the much faster turn 12 maybe 8-10 mph faster in the ZR1 (128 mph) compared to the Grand Sport. Fun stuff.
Three and a half years ago I was also at Road Atlanta for the launch of the Corvette Z06. On that occasion I managed to run a 1-minute, 29.8-second lap and was looking forward to see by how much I could improve on that with the new ZR1. Upon arrival at the track, I was a bit disappointed to hear from the engineers the circuit was running 2-3 seconds slower than it had been, due to temperatures being almost 40 degrees hotter than they had been earlier in the week, making for an extremely greasy track. This is not unusual; many times, we qualify for a race with a really fast time on a cool day and then see lap times 3-4 seconds slower if race day is significantly hotter. It was about 3 p.m. by the time I got a chance to drive a ZR1 with some new tires. Despite the greasy track and almost 90-degree air temperature, I did manage to run almost a second faster in the ZR1 than I had in the Z06, without really pushing hard.
I was grabbing water in the pit lane when I remembered the reports made by some Z06 buyers who said they were disappointed with overheating issues at track days. Well, considering the day's heat, I asked the engineers if I could possibly do a long run in the ZR1, just to see how things would go. Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter gave me the green light and pointed me to a ZR1 with an automatic transmission.
Note: This ZR1 has received all kinds of new engineering developments that separate it from the Z06 and help provide more cooling. There are several additional radiators and intercoolers up front, five to be precise. Plus, a "Halo Hood" that pops through the regular carbon hood to accommodate the taller LT5 engine and help to extract hot under-hood air. Air ducting through the nose was also addressed to add downforce plus more efficiently direct airflow to intercoolers and brakes. The ZR1 now has a true front underwing as opposed to a flat-bottom front panel. This extra downforce is enough to counteract what was lost by the addition of the extra cooling hardware. The underwing also helps direct air to more areas that need it. All of these changes helped the engineers feel confident enough to let me try the long run on such a hot day.
I decided to run a fast race pace for 20-25 minutes, do a cool down lap, and come in. I felt that was about right in terms of what a track-day group would usually do. I did not have new tires for this run. The run laps ended up being between 1:30.4 and 1:31.7. These are very respectable, consistent, and quick lap times for a street car at Road Atlanta considering the hot conditions. Lap time drop-off is usually due to tires gaining air pressure and surface temperature. Any extra lateral tire slip later in my run was controlled easily by slowing my steering inputs and throttle application, and the ZR1 never got nervous or twitchy. I saw no warning lights and engine temps remained in the normal range throughout the run.
Road Atlanta can be hard on brakes, especially at the end of the back straight when braking downhill from 160-something mph to less than 50 mph. The Brembo brake engineer present told me they had seen brake temperatures as high as 1,400-degrees during the week, and I didn't doubt it. But I had no brake issues at all during my long run. I could tell they were hot and I did need to use a little more pressure in a couple of brake zones late in my stint, but the car still managed to keep the same brake points as when I began.
One more important point: The Chevy engineers understand very well how quickly things can go pear-shaped when you're dealing with 755 hp and 715 lb-ft of torque. Traction control and stability control have become superb these days and certainly catch many drivers' ham-fisted throttle, braking, and steering misdeeds. However, the ZR1 also has an electronic throttle delivery tuned to deliver less immediate gobs of torque during the beginnings of throttle travel. Plus, the total throttle-pedal travel feels a little longer. I think the changes work well. I was comfortably able to control my throttle inputs during corner-exit power application, managing to tickle the TC instead of slamming into it, which kept momentum going nicely.
Indeed, a place like Road Atlanta is the only appropriate venue to experience the new ZR1's heady limits. I am a big fan of vehicles that put a smile on my face and the ZR1 certainly overflows that box. The first time an owner experiences the brutal shove in the back a ZR1 can dish out, I pretty much guarantee they'll think they got a bargain. Roosevelt would be blown away.
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Specifications
|ENGINE||6.2L supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8/755 hp @ 6,300 rpm, 715 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed manual, 8-speed automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||12/20 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||179.8 x 77.4 x 48.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||2.85 sec (auto)|
|TOP SPEED||215 mph|