I was shook. I've driven a lot of racetracks in a lot of exotic cars. But lately I haven't been on track as often as I would like. And my most recent foray on a very wet circuit left me feeling unacceptably slow. Cobwebby. So a first drive of the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 at Road Atlanta was bringing on a set of nerves.
Start with Road Atlanta. It's one of those old school, hoary circuits with a few dangerous tricks still up its sleeves, with little run-off and the infamous turn under the bridge. A dicey track which I've never driven before.
Then there's the ZR1 itself. This is the newest generation of the most extreme Corvette, this time with 755 hp and 715 lb-ft of torque pushing a relatively modest 3,560 pounds. That oomph derives from a 6.2-liter, LT5 small-block V8, supercharged within an inch of its life. The ZR1 shears to 60 mph in a blip: 2.8 seconds. It managed a 215-mph top-speed run at a European oval. (The average of two runs, one with and one against the wind, left Chevy with a published top speed of 212 mph.)
Chevy engineers gleefully proclaim that the ZR1 is the fastest and loudest production Vette ever. It's also one of the priciest, starting at $120,990 and running to $140,005 on one of our testers. They also gave it that unholy rear wing, that sticks into the heavens like a middle finger, tempting jealous gods to smite it.
So as I followed a pro driver out of the pits and onto Road Atlanta, I was a bit jangly.
The ZR1 wasn't supposed to happen. GM engineers promised us that it wouldn't; instead telling the faithful to be content with the Z06. After all, that car has 650 hp and 650 lb.-ft of torque, eclipsing even the power of the C6-generation ZR1. The Z06 easily spans the distance between extreme street capability and credible racetrack tool. That leaves the Grand Sport as the Corvette best suited to a genuine legal road — the NA engine and sweet suspension means you can enjoy it at 7/10ths and probably not lose your license.
But the C7's life cycle is long and more performance from the platform was possible. The engineers are oblique as to the why's of the car — the Vette portfolio being so well covered. But reading between the lines, it was because they could. The numbers push the car well into supercar territory. But, whereas some of the new super high-po American products are good for one thing (drag racing, for instance), the ZR1 wonks clearly want and expect the ZR1 to run with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world. Without equivocations or apologies.
Before we go into the performance improvements, let's address the mid-engine elephant in the room. The development of a mid-engine Vette is such an open secret that GM's engineers can barely even pretend to laugh it off anymore. So the ZR1 exists in a curious bubble in time.
Because of extensive carbon fiber and handbuilt engine, functional production is limited to around 2,000 a year. Deliveries have begun and all cars in the current pipeline are spoken for. One assumes that GM is giving the ZR1 time to recoup its costs. But you've got to wonder what happens to sales when the mid-engine is eventually announced.
Self-cannibalization would be a shame, because the ZR1 is far more than a high-strung Z06. The entire front clip is new, including an underwing which replaces the Z06's belly pan. Executive Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, responsible for all C7 models, has long argued that every component on a car must be balanced. "You can't just add power to a car and expect it to perform better," he said. In this case, the team wanted increased downforce front and aft. The underwing offsets the effects of the two available wings. (The smaller one is ostentatious; the other gargantuan.) Configured for full downforce at terminal velocity, it gets 950 pounds of downforce.
Chevy might as well just call the $2,995 ZTK package the "tall-wing option". The all-carbon component manually adjusts up to five degrees for track duty. The front splitter also gets curious end caps that trap air and increase downforce on the nose. Juechter strongly advises against mixing the aero components (the big wing without the end caps, for instance), but acknowledges that it will surely happen.
The front tires are an inch wider to account for the extra weight on the nose, some of which comes from 13 heat exchangers. The engine is based on the LT4, but gets a huge supercharger, with 52 percent more displacement. The result is an engine 2.8 inches taller than the LT4 that protrudes from the hood. Hence the carbon-fiber hood also gets a huge hole. Open it up and stick your head and shoulders through for novel photo opps.
The car has the C7's seven-speed, rev-matching manual or, for the first time, an eight-speed auto with paddles. Brembo carbon ceramic brakes are standard. It even gets racing-derived Brembo brake pads that wear better at extreme temps. As for rubber, it comes with Michelin Super Sport tires or, with the ZTK package, Pilot Sport Cup 2s. Both have been designed specifically for the Z06, and the latter are this-close to race tires.
By my second lap around, tire temps have come in and my nerves have evaporated. I'm not sure what I expected, but the ZR1 drives like a Corvette. And I've driven a lot of them, including the last-gen ZR1. But the thing that will slap me in the face over the next couple of hours is that the new ZR1 is just as coherent as the Grand Sport, which has 295 less horsepower. The Grand Sport inherited its suspension upgrades from the C7 Z06, but Chevy massaged all its components so that even with less horsepower, it works as a brilliant whole. Overall balance starts from the contact patch (and its Michelins), and transmits through brakes, shocks, electronic doo-dads, steering column, and ultimately the driver. You can stick a tire exactly where you want it as sure as if you were using a laser sight.
There's a danger that all that balance falls the hell apart in a car with more than 700 horsepower, and somehow, the ZR1 is just as sure and just as balanced. It is just ... more. Things happen quicker because you're moving quicker, but the onslaught of speed and the insane surety of the brakes are still incredibly linear. Still analog in its feel, the car is always awaiting instruction.
There's a long series of downhill esses at Road Atlanta, and turn-in is crisp, body roll nonexistent. The Corvette snaps through the curves like a much smaller car, the power working with you and not throwing you off the line. Steering is natural and well weighted, the feedback constant. Your hands know what the front end is doing at all time, and your hips are connected to the rear.
There's a mid-speed right-hander that leads into the circuit's slowest corner. As the day progresses I carry more momentum into that right-hander every lap, coming off the brakes later and with less pressure. Incredibly, I never approach the lateral limit. Every car has a point where you just ask too much of its rubber and suspension and physics. You bash it into a corner and the whole thing goes sideways — literally.
I never got there. Perhaps if I had a few more hours, I would have. Or maybe my instinct for self preservation would have intervened first. As a rule Michelins break away gradually, but as hard as I was driving into that corner, the Cup 2s never betrayed a tire screech — or even any slip angle.
The grip and stability are boggling, a cause abetted by the very real downforce. It reminded me most of a day I once spent in a Porsche 911 Cup car, a machine that felt invincible. Driving with downforce is deeply counter-instinctual: the faster you go (up to a point) the more planted the car becomes. The ZR1 is playing in that racecar-like arena. Hell, the actual C7.R racecar has less than 500 hp.
Engineers say they have given special attention to the electronic systems working harmoniously, and this includes electronic control of the brakes, with co-development from Bosch. Braking is absolute and linear, with no wiggle. I stood on them in the equivalent of a panic stop on a two-lane road, and the result was stupefying — and hugely satisfying. The carbon ceramics aren't grabby at slow speeds either.
And it steamrolls out of corners, which does indeed remind me of exotics like the Ferrari F12 or the McLaren 720S. Playing by those benchmarks, it's far more coherent than the F12 and would happily dice up things with the 720s. Yes, true-blue supercar territory. It's the kind of power that leaps off the spec sheets and into the real world. For the same reason, it outrageously overmatches street-legal roads.
The manual gave me joy. Working up from third to fifth through one of Road Atlanta's straights gives driving the car a physicality you don't get from the auto. I opted for the rev-matching on track, leaving me one last thing about. The rev-match works superbly, and the physical point of contact means you always know what gear you're in. This wasn't true with the auto, which doesn't shift decisively enough for my taste, nor is the paddle action crisp as I'd like. Lastly, I found myself dropping my eyes to check which gear I was in.
At of the day, my connection to the car was nearly as strong as its balance on the road. But if there's a catch it is this: The ZR1 is, ultimately, a tool. A soulful one, and a fun one, but its place in the real world is limited.
The ZR1 is placid on a legal road; easy to control and easy to drive. But you always feel like you're doing it a disservice, like asking a famous chef to make a cheese sandwich. But open it up even a little and you're driving illegally. Take me to a winding road and I'd choose the Grand Sport, every time. And if you just want to go really fast and wreak havoc, it's hard to beat the Z06.
The best place for the ZR1 is definitely the track, preferably one large enough to allow it to stretch its legs, like Road Atlanta. Even better if, perchance, it was surrounded by cars twice or thrice its price. My idea of a perfect day with the ZR1 might include a private track and a few humorless supercar owners to goad. I imagine it might shake them up.
- 2019 Chevy Corvette ZR1 First Drive Review: It's lit originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 23 Apr 2018 09:01:00 EDT.