First Drive Review: 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
This 2009 review is representative of model years 2005 to 2013.
By Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver
Just past the curve in which Bruce McLaren bought it, and right before the corner where Niki Lauda had his face burned off, we realize the truth: General Motors must still be mad about our review of the 1980 Olds Omega Brougham. The company is trying to kill us.
Back in 2004, GM rolled the last steaming clod of asphalt onto its Milford Road Course (MRC), a 2.9-mile handling circuit at the company's proving grounds an hour northwest of Detroit. The "Lutzring," as employees have dubbed it in honor of GM's meat-eating vice-chairman, Robert Lutz, plunges 135 feet from hilltop to trough and was pieced together like bathroom plumbing from some of the more treacherous corners in motorsports. The 20 elbows, kinks, and blind whoop-de-dos are crowned by the 45-degree banked "Toilet Bowl," which resembles the Nürburgring's Karussell and which has already had its guardrails replaced at least twice. Only 16 of GM's 266,000 employees are permitted to drive the MRC.
Naturally, a man-eating track you've never seen before is just the place you want to be in a 638-hp Corvette you've never driven before.
Speaking of Corvettes, our February 2008 cover story on the new supercharged ZR1 all but supplied you with blueprints to build your own. Hoping to squeeze the slavering media like ripe kumquats for more ink, GM invited us to the Lutzring for a brief half-day nibble of the $105,000 ZR1 before the full feast of testing commences this fall. Obviously, the gambit worked.
The track's nefarious reputation notwithstanding, the ZR1 is just the aluminum-frame, carbon-fiber-paneled, balsa-wood-floored Corvette Z06 with afterburners, right? Which means it will be a little vague in the steering and a bit floppy at the apex but basically fun and, above all, safe. Turn up the A/C, tune in the XM, and let the electronics make us heroes on a track where something like 265,984 people dare not tread.
Certainly, the ZR1's cockpit has the familiar Bat Cave atmosphere of the regular Corvette, except for the manifold-pressure gauge where the voltage meter normally lives. That, and the carbon-fiber hood's window, which lets you watch the engine twitch in rhythm to the gas pedal. So far, so what?
Then, while exiting the pits on our first lap, the ZR1's 6.2-liter LS9 V-8 suddenly cracked the heavens with a feral wolf call. The accelerative g's rolled into us like the breakers of a Category Five, and breathing became strangely difficult. Uh-oh.
Turn One of the Lutzring starts as a long, seemingly predictable sweeper. Then it kinks inward, then jerks straight, then suddenly cramps in again before lurching up a blind hill that death-drops the car into a ditch. After that you're tossed over another blind crest with a negative camber pitched to slide the Corvette sideways into next Christmas. Assuming the car doesn't go airborne.
In the ensuing Toilet Bowl, there were safety cones — which we scattered, ingesting some and dragging others to the next turn, which looked suspiciously like the patch that claimed Jimmy Clark. Then our first lap got uglier. There were screams.
Here's what we learned: The ZR1 is about as suitable for a Lutzring virgin as an alcohol-fueled Funny Car is for driver's ed.
One Mighty 'Vette
Exactly 170 pounds heavier than the Z06 — most recently, 3180 pounds on our scale — the ZR1, GM claims, will knock big, hairy 10ths off the 505-hp Z06's times. GM also says the ZR1 will rip to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, to 100 mph in 7.0 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 11.3 seconds at 131 mph. It'll go 205 mph and pull 1.05 g on a skidpad.
We don't doubt it. Uh-uh. No sir.
Vague? Floppy? Here, too, the ZR1 seems to stride past the Z06. To help suck up the steering flex, engineers replaced an aluminum steering-column shaft with a stiffer steel link, a change for all '09 Corvettes. There are also ZR1-specific bushing changes in the suspension, as well as a new variable-ratio steering rack that enlivens the response.
But perhaps the most credit for the ZR1's feistier helm should go to the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 run-flats. In comparative tire tests during the ZR1's development, GM engineers say they were "blown away" by the Michelins. We felt a breeze, too. The ZR1's steering still doesn't have the leanness or data-bit flow of a Porsche 911's, but placing and holding the nose where it's needed is easier and takes less guesswork and prayer. Tail twitch is more controllable, and the Brembo carbon-ceramic rotors (15.5 inches front, 15.0 rear) and monoblock calipers have the familiar, progressive bite of iron brakes without much danger of fade or shimmy.
On a pizza-pocked public road, the ZR1 rumbles more quietly on its wider tires and shows less body heaving and impact crash than the Z06. An early "Attaboy!" seems in order for the Magnetic Selective Ride Control, the system of fast-as-electrons variable shock absorbers that costs $1995 on the base Corvette, is not available on the Z06, and comes standard on ZR1s. One cool nuance: On hard launches, the computer turns rear rebound to zero to hold the back end down for better traction. Yet, flip as we might, we couldn't tell much difference between the ZR1's sport and touring settings.
The double-plate clutch is light, just an undetectable few ounces stiffer than the Z06's, GM confirms. Rollouts and upshifts happen with doughy smoothness. A long throttle pedal puts the Hulk trigger toward the back, so you can cruise lazily in the ZR1 through town returning perhaps 20 mpg. (GM boasts that the ZR1 is the thriftiest 600-hp car on the market, so back off, Greenpeace!)
All this Ferrari-stomping power and Z06-shaming refinement comes in two basic flavors, order code 1ZR for $105,000 (including the $1700 gas-guzzler levy) and the 3ZR for $10,000 more. The latter adds a Bose sound system, navigation, and a leather dash wrap. Chrome wheels ($2000), extra-cost paint ($300 to $750), and Corvette museum delivery ($490) are the only other options. GM figures it can build 1800 copies a year if the current worm-eaten market will take them.
A few years ago GM management wondered what a $100,000 Corvette would be like. You have the answer. If only they had thought up a similar trick for the Omega Brougham.
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