D. John Booth, Contributor
You know, there's just no way it's a coincidence. Dave Hill, Chevrolet's chief engineer for the Corvette, can wax engineering all he wants about optimum bore size, combustion efficiency and maximizing fuel economy, but the real reason the new 2006 Corvette Z06's LS7 engine displaces 7.0 liters is that it translates into exactly 427 cubic inches, a magic number in Corvette lore.
And while the new engine may not have the reputed 550 horsepower the legendary L88 had (though it was rated at a measly 430 hp to "fool" insurance companies), there's no doubt this is the very fastest Corvette ever. Let's give Chevy's official Z06 performance numbers a review, in order of absolute incredulity: 198 miles per hour, 3.7 seconds to 60 mph, 505 horsepower and 16/26 miles per gallon in the city/highway, which allows Chevrolet to claim that it's the only car with more than 400 hp to avoid the federal gas-guzzler tax.
Developed alongside the C6R racecar, the new LS7 engine's bits read like a what's-what of racecar technology. Based on the Chevy's much heralded small-block V8, the 7.0L boasts a dry-sump lubrication system, CNC-ported aluminum cylinder heads, a forged-steel crankshaft and sodium-filled (for cooling) exhaust valves.
The result of all this hot-rodding trickery, besides those 505 horses, is a whopping 470 pound-feet of torque. It also allows GM to claim a very Ferrari-like 6.2-pound-per-horsepower power-to-weight ratio.
The Z06's acceleration is also up to comparison to the finest from Maranello. Virginia's International Raceway (VIR) has a few straightaways to take advantage of the Z06's incredible turn of speed which, thanks to extensive use of magnesium and the conversion of the entire frame to aluminum (steel is used in the base coupe and convertible) is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Those aluminum and magnesium bits result in a curb weight of 3,132 pounds, 47 pounds less than the base Corvette coupe and 67 less than Ferrari's F430. That light weight also helps explain why the damn thing accelerated so hard out of VIR's pit row, and why it can compete with the best exotic sports cars in the world.
Keeping your foot in it really awakens the beast within, and the Corvette begins making all manner of Le Mans-type exhaust rumble thanks to a new valve in the muffler that basically turns the system into a 3-inch straight pipe. It's certainly a more exciting exhaust note than the "pffft" that exits most tailpipes.
And while the short-throw six-speed manual gearbox is generally slick-shifting, I did miss at least a couple of 2nd-to-3rd upshifts, not exactly the best state of affairs when you're entering a set of "S" turns at speed. On the other hand, I was abusing the shifter mightily on the track and had no such problems on the street.
VIR's 17 corners are equally divided between high- and low-speed, off- and on-camber, flat and undulating and more than a few have blind apexes. In other words, it's downright diabolical. The Z06 tames every bend on the course. The huge tires (275/35ZR18 front and 325/30ZR19 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 S/C performance run-flats) generate enough grip for a claimed astronomical 1.04g lateral-grip rating. Depending on your internal fortitude, that's either enough for some genuinely racecar-like cornering, or too much — threatening lightheadedness and/or blackouts.
Despite those huge tires, however, the steering remains light and precise. Credit the Z06's extensive weight-reduction processes, including carbon-fiber fenders and floor panels, a magnesium roof and that aforementioned aluminum spaceframe. Combined with Chevrolet's world-class traction control system, complete with an upgraded version of its vaunted "Competition Mode," the Z06 is that magical combination of competition quick and Sunday-gone-to-meeting easy to drive. Competition Mode is the best electronic "traction nanny" in the business, allowing you to steer around corners using the throttle yet preventing the consequences of overenthusiastic unleashing of those 505 horses. It's an amazing system, and it makes the new Z06 a powerful weapon for track-day duty.
While still on the object of performance, it's worth noting that this Vette finally has some brakes equal to its penchant for velocity. Up front is a pair of six-piston brake calipers, each piston with its own individual brake pad for more consistent performance and better brake feel. Even after repeated late braking from 150-plus mph into a low-speed hairpin, they showed no sign of fading. What's even more important to potential Corvette ownership, especially since Chevrolet is GM's everyman car division, is versatility and attainability. As for the former, this new breathed-on engine is actually more civilized than those that have gone before. The ride isn't as harsh as Corvettes of old and the interior, while not quite state-of-the-art, is at least modern and well executed.
As for attainability, the '06's MSRP of $65,800, while hardly cheap, is less than a half and even a third the price of many of the exotics it competes with. In fact, consider this: The 2006 Z06 is lighter than the hyperexotic Ferrari F430, is 2 miles per hour faster (198 versus 196), and is about a quarter of a second quicker to 60 miles per hour. And, of course, costs about a three-bedroom, two-bathroom-townhouse (at least in Tennessee) less than the prancing stallion from Italy.
No more excuses are needed. No "not bad for the money" backhanded compliments. The 2006 Corvette Z06 can go head-to-head with any sports car in the world.
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