The Corvette may be America's sports car, but the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is designed to take on the world. With a 638 hp supercharged V8, lightweight aluminum skeleton (link goes to photo), and carbon fiber galore, the ZR1 is the most sophisticated 'Vette ever built. Chevy claims a 0-60 time of 3.4 seconds, top speed 205 MPH, quarter mile in 11.3 seconds at 131 MPH -- enough to out-gun most European supercars. But what's the ZR1 really like to drive? Read on. $105,000 base (incl. gas guzzler tax), $115,000 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 14 MPG city, 20 MPG highway.
First Glance: What a car!
What to do, what to do? There is so much neat technical stuff to tell you about the ZR1, the new king-of-the-hill Corvette. And yet all I want to do is sit here, think about driving it, and drool on my keyboard. What a car. What a car! No question, the ZR1 is the most thrilling automobile I've ever driven.
So what should I do? Should I tell you about how Chevrolet strengthened their 6.2 liter V8 and designed special low-profile packaging for the Eaton supercharger and intercooler? Or should I tell you what the acceleration in a 638 horsepower car is like -- how the speedometer climbs so fast that the numbers don't seem to have any meaning? The ZR1 piles on speed faster than the human brain -- my human brain, at least -- can process what's happening. The base Corvette goes 0-60 in about 4.3 seconds, which is ungodly fast. The ZR1 does it in three point four -- less than the time it'll take you to read this sentence. And you never have to leave first gear. What a car!
The engineers told us all sorts of fascinating stuff about the ZR1 -- how the front airdam provides effective cooling for the carbon-ceramic brakes with two simple holes -- no ductwork needed -- because the suspension arms create a low-pressure area that channels the air. Cool stuff, I thought, I have to tell my readers all about it. And then I drove it and heard the way the exhaust bellows as the engine surges past 3,000 RPM, and thought Who the hell cares? I could actually feel my brain turning to mush. What a car!
In the Driver's Seat: Nothing special, but that's OK
If I'm going to spend $100,000 on a car -- which I do every week, doesn't everybody? -- I want an interior that makes me feel special. The ZR1's interior is pretty much stock Corvette, but I'm willing to give it a pass for two reasons: First, the stock Corvette interior is pretty nice -- user-friendly, well appointed, and easy to see out of -- and two, if you want a reminder of why the ZR1 costs a over hundred grand, just nudge the accelerator. (What a car!)
The $105,000 ZR1 features lightweight seats and lacks electronic goodies like side airbags and navigation. No, this isn't cost-cutting -- it's a nod to the folks who will buy a ZR1 purely to race on the track and want maximum weight savings. (Shedding the extras drops the ZR1's 3,350 lb. curb weight by 26 lbs.) For those who plan to drive their ZR1s on public roads, the $10,000 luxury package adds a leather-lined interior, heated power-adjustable seats with memory, power telescope adjustment for the steering column, side airbags, Bose stereo with 6-disc CD changer, navigation system, and Bluetooth connectivity. Chrome wheels are also offered for an extra $2,000.
But the interior really doesn't matter, because the real magic is the way the ZR1 drives. I got a chance to drive all three Corvette models -- LS3, Z06, and ZR1 -- back to back, and that slight looseness in the steering and chassis that I complained about in my last Corvette LS3 test drive doesn't exist in the ZR1 (or, for that matter, the Z06). The ZR1 obeys your every command -- go, stop or turn -- crisply and immediately. What a car!
On the Road: Scared senseless
Chevy let me wring out the ZR1 at their Milford test facility on a track designed to bring out the worst in a car's handling -- sharp crests, turns that bank the wrong way, and all sorts of surprises seemingly intended to cause involuntary bowel release. Very scary -- and yet attacking it in the ZR1 was a bit...surreal. Not only does the ZR1's acceleration defy comprehension, but so does its cornering grip. I remember glancing at the 'Vette's G-meter and thinking Oh, so this is what a 1.2G turn feels like. No big deal... And even if you do something dumb, like yank your foot off the gas because the corner you are driving through suddenly tightens up and scares the daylights out of you -- not that I would know this from personal experience -- the ZR1 warns you with a little twitch but otherwise keeps its composure. (Many supercars would whip around, sink their teeth into your tushy, and spin out.)
Out in the real world, the ZR1 is a bit of a handful. The super-wide tires (specially designed for the ZR1 by Michelin) pull sharply to-and-fro over bumps and uneven pavement, and keeping the ZR1 on course requires a firm hand on the wheel. But the ride is surprisingly smooth -- the ZR1's magnetic-fluid shock absorbers allow near-instant changes in stiffness, so the ZR1 is able to use the softer springs from the base-model Corvette. Acceleration is almost too much for public roads -- torque output is 604 lb-ft, double that of a BMW M3, and at full throttle the ZR1 likes to break the tires loose and go sideways. It's a hell of a good time, but it's easy to get in over your head.
Journey's End: A heck of a deal -- as are all Corvettes
I think I've made it pretty clear that the ZR1 is one of the most incredible cars I've ever driven. And at $105,000 -- or $115,000 with the extra goodies -- it's a pretty good deal. What other car delivers 600+ horsepower, carbon brakes, magnetic-ride suspension, and 0-60 in under 3.5 seconds for so little money? I'll give you a hint: None.
The Porsche 911 GT3 and Audi R8 are both in the ZR1's price range. I haven't driven the 911 GT3 -- though I hear that a lot of Porsche enthusiasts buy Corvettes as track cars -- but I have spent time with the R8, and while it's nowhere near as exciting, it's also a lot less likely to kill you. The Dodge Viper and Nissan GT-R offer performance comparable to the ZR1 for less money, though the Viper is about as sophisticated as a sledgehammer, while the GT-R is as sophisticated as a Cray supercomputer.
If we're talking about good rivals, don’t forget the Corvette Z06 -- 505 hp, $73,255, and nearly as quick and agile as the ZR1. And then there's the humble base-model Corvette -- it's less than a second slower to 60 than the ZR1 and it costs less than half as much, making it one of the best sports-car bargains out there. (Plus it's available with an automatic, which the ZR1 and Z06 aren't -- but without a clutch pedal, the 'Vette isn't nearly as much fun.)
But if you must have the best of the best, then by all means, buy the ZR1. It'll out-run nearly anything on the road and it's a bargain compared to most other supercars. Just be careful. What a car! -- Aaron Gold