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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Driving the $100,000 ZR1 Corvette

Possibly the only thing more surprising than the existence of a $100,000-plus, 638-horsepower factory-built Corvette is that the car is a total pussycat.

Don't get us wrong, this 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 can kill you quite completely dead. We mean like augured-in, test-pilot kind of beyond-recognition dead. It is capable of such stunning velocity in such a short distance that if things go wrong at even a fraction of its ultimate speed, it'll tear a ragged hole in just about whatever it encounters.

This ZR1 produces 638 hp — the equivalent of the power produced by the 405-hp 1995 Corvette ZR-1 (the "King of the Hill Corvette") plus a 1984 Corvette plus a 1968 Citroën 2CV.

Or think of it this way. If you bolted three 1980s-era Corvette L83 small blocks end to end to end to produce a single V24 engine, it would still produce 23 hp fewer than the ZR1's supercharged LS9 V8. For perspective, the total power received by the earth from the sun is considerably higher at 174.0 petawatts (1015 watts) or 233,334,000,000,000 hp*.

But for all its badass credentials, its power output of a hydroelectric dam and its stunning production-car lap record at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the ZR1 doesn't really seem to want to kill you all that bad.

What do you think this is, a freakin' Dodge Viper or something? That widowmaker is right now sitting in a nearby parking lot plotting ways to turn you into freshly chopped liver — liver that it will then fry to a savory firmness right there on its exhaust-heated rocker panels.

A Friend to Widows and Orphans Everywhere
Unlike the small-scale, population-reduction experiment that is the 600-hp 2008 Dodge Viper, the ZR1 has stuff like traction control and stability control. The Viper only got antilock brakes in 2001, almost a decade after the model's introduction, for goodness' sakes.

But this is about more than traction and stability control systems. The 505-hp Corvette Z06 also has these same well-tuned systems, yet we have it on good authority that the Z06 still wants us dead. Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter euphemistically refers to this particular Z06 trait as "itching for a fight all the time." We note that "fight" is at a different location, yet on the same continuum of violence as "homicide."

Around the 'Ring Is Cozy
Most of our experience driving the Master of all Corvettes came at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. Specifically, we spent nearly the entire day perspiring as we drove around the Milford Road Course (MRC), a wicked little road course designed to trip up car and driver. It's also called the Lutzring, because "ring" sounds cool and German and because it's shaped exactly like Bob Lutz's pancreas.

Now we do not claim to have set a new lap record around the MRC, nor do we claim to have extracted in our 20 or so laps all that the ZR1 has to give, but we can say this: We did stuff both intentionally and accidentally in the supposedly fearsome ZR1 that a twitchy Z06 would have made us badly regret. The ZR1 is more forgiving than Eliot Spitzer's wife, or Kwame Kilpatrick's wife, or Bill...possibly you get the point.

Badly misjudge your entry speed to a corner — which you will do often despite the ZR1's gigantic Brembo-supplied carbon ceramic brakes — and the ZR1 can be coaxed through a corner without a requisite trip through the grass/sand trap/7-Eleven store. The ZR1's rear end slips wide (another thing you will do frequently in the ZR1) under the oppressive force of 604 pound-feet of torque, but you'd have to be driving in Herman Munster's boots to really screw up too badly. Or at least, the ZR1 will give you the opportunity to reconsider your dunderheaded ways before punishing you for them. Everything happens fast in the ZR1 but progressively and predictably so. That includes the rate at which the driver's confidence builds.

What?! I'm Going How Fast?!
"You should take a peek at the speedometer once and see just how fast you're going," we say to ourselves, possibly out loud, knowing full well that we would ignore any sign of conscience as usual. But we never could bring ourselves to tear our dilated peepers away from the straight-ahead.

The answer to the question would be some essentially meaningless variation of "fast" anyway. We never even swung our gaze low enough or focused closely enough to get a look at the ZR1's signature peephole in the hood, much less the gauges. If ever there was a car where a head-up display makes sense, the ZR1 might be it. Good thing it's standard.

We are aware of ourselves conducting the act of breathing. Goodness, just feel that. Innnn...outttt. Innnn...outt. We're aware of a certain, er, clarity in the general region of our head. Speed will do that.

After track exercises we take the ZR1 on some public roads around the proving ground sans racing helmet and notice that the big ol' Eaton supercharger makes a noticeable whine. It might not be cranked quite to the toddler-level whine of the Shelby GT500's blower, but it is unmistakably there. We didn't notice this on the track, perhaps because the helmet blocked it out. But it might also be that our eyes were open so wide that they partially blocked our ear canals.

Under any set of circumstances we sure as hell could hear the ZR1's exhaust note, which is deeper, thicker and more authoritative than the Z06's high-rpm rip. Once the butterfly valves open thanks to the two servos mounted on the business end of the exhaust, the thing just bellows. If water were sound, a Ferrari F430's exhaust would be the high-pressure stream shot from a water cannon. The ZR1 would be the bowel-rumbling gathering gloom of a tidal wave. It's a sound forceful enough that it might be able to motivate a small car all on its own.

Brakes, Tires, Suspension and Other Good Stuff
We've polled the entire car-liking population of the U.S. (our office) and exactly no one is surprised that the supercharged 6.2-liter LS9 V8 feels strong in an epic kind of way. Neither should anyone be surprised that the presence of so much aluminum and carbon fiber makes the ZR1 shockingly light at 3,324 pounds. So it stands to reason that the ZR1 should be able to blast to 60 mph from a standstill in 3.4 seconds and crank out quarter-mile times of 11.3 seconds at 131 mph, plus that it will power up to a top speed of 205 mph.

It is something of a surprise that (unlike basically all recent Corvettes) the tires don't let the car down. Typically, Corvettes run Goodyear tires. Last we tested a Z06 against a Viper, we noted that the Vette's Goodyear Eagle F1 tires perform like all-season rubber compared to the Viper's larger Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 rubber. And as it turns out, the ZR1 rolls on monstrous Michelins. "We had a shoot-out with prospective tire suppliers and Michelin just blew us away," says Juechter.

The ZR1's ridiculously wide 335/25ZR20 rear tires and tall 20-inch wheels look exactly like one of those crazy drawings that car designers make where a car appears to be riding on water mill-sized wheels with one black line drawn around the edge to suggest a tire. The front tires measure 285/30ZR19. And these Michelins are, so far as we could figure in our short time with the car, spectacular. They provide for better than 1.0g of grip on the skid pad according to Chevy's tests, and break traction so smoothly and progressively that they alone take 60 percent of the fear out of driving fast in this car.

Still, the ridiculously narrow sidewalls of 25- and 30-series tires should make the ZR1 a tailbone-shattering torture device on public roads. Credit for the ride comfort goes to the Magnetic Ride Control dampers. This second-generation, magnetically controlled electrically adjustable suspension will withstand significant track time without wilting with the heat, while they react so swiftly that they also ride well. True, they add weight. But with 638 horses, the system's additional 20 pounds are negligible.

Yes, the steering system for the 2008 Corvette has already been upgraded to improve feedback and the ZR1 incorporates the appropriate hardware, but if you're expecting Porsche GT3 steering you will be disappointed. The ZR1's steering works fine, though. Did we mention 638 hp? The clutch (an agreeable new dual-plate design) and shift lever (connected to a Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual) work fine, too. That 638 hp, it's a lot, don't you think?

Not a Peep
It is surprisingly easy to overlook the Brembo-supplied brakes with their carbon-ceramic rotors and monstrous blue calipers. Chevrolet says that 15.5-inch front and 15-inch rear rotors are the biggest fitted to any production car. Technically, the 4,300-pound, $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 has front rotors two-tenths of an inch larger — so you know the ZR1's brakes obviously are garbage in comparison.

Unlike many carbon-ceramic systems, the ZR1's brakes don't embarrass you with incessant squealing when they're cold. They're not in the least bit touchy. And according to Tom Wallace, vehicle line executive for Corvette, the rotors will last almost an entire 24-hour track test at full race speed before needing to be replaced.

Certainly we noticed only that the brakes, with six-piston front calipers and four-piston rears, lop off big hunks of speed without really making us even notice. Incidentally, the ZR1 will do 0-100-0 mph in less than 11 seconds.

Of Carbon and Plastic
Will any of the ZR1's buyers care that the interior is not exactly up to snuff for a car costing more than $100,000? They should. Chevrolet tries to class up the joint with a standard fitment of the Corvette's recently introduced leather-upholstered interior. And, should one want it, basically every option available on any Corvette is available on the ZR1 in one big luxury package for about $10,000.

But it's still a Corvette. And it uses the same switchgear and plastic that we have complained about in Corvettes only half as expensive. Only the seats are functionally bad, of course. They're simply not up to the task of keeping passengers in place under the extraordinary acceleration, braking and cornering forces. Bruises on the outsides of both of our knees attest to the need for better side bolstering. If you're going to track your ZR1, go ahead and get a proper racing seat and five-point harness.

While you're at it, get yourself some stock in a company called Plasan. That's the outfit that produces the carbon-fiber pieces for the ZR1, including the front aero splitter that juts out 4 inches from the face of the ZR1. It's especially prone to whacks, and the one on the car we drove was cracked in a couple of places.

What Price Greatness?
The 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 lists for $105,000, including destination and a $1,700 gas-guzzler charge. The luxury package adds another $10,000 and the showy chrome wheels are $2,000. Other than some additional costs for various paint colors, that's as much as a ZR1 is going to cost you. But that doesn't really matter, because it will cost you oh-so-much-more with requisite dealer markup.

Also the purchase of any ZR1 entitles the owner to a "free" driver training course at a well-known but as-yet-to-be-determined school. Perhaps this momentarily quells the heart palpitations GM's lawyers must surely be experiencing over this car.

Maybe they should drive the ZR1. It's not really diabolical. Also its limits are so high that when things do go terribly wrong, then...oh wait, forget it.

* Not an SAE-certified figure