Brute force, a quality we can't help but assign to any car generating 638 horsepower, is by definition anything but subtle. Yet the 2009 Chevy Corvette ZR1 manages at once to be both brutally quick and remarkably mild-mannered. Its quarter-mile acceleration is quicker than any production car we've ever tested, its chassis is benign but highly capable and its carbon-ceramic brakes are mind-bending in their effectiveness. This new Vette offers an unlikely combination of performance and real-world usability that we're proud to experience in an American car.
This combination is as rare as truth in a presidential debate. Honestly, most of the ZR1's competition (think Dodge Viper ACR) or Nissan GT-R)) is less capable and makes a much larger compromise in typical road driving. With the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 we have a machine that is engaging to drive, capable of making insane numbers on the test track and also a legitimate road car.
Insane Numbers We hit the track early in the morning with the Corvette ZR1 when the temperature is low and barometric pressure is high — an ideal combination. The corrected results (which are slightly slower than the numbers the car actually runs) are truly impressive. The 60-mph mark arrives in 3.8 seconds (3.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The quarter-mile disappears in 11.5 seconds at a staggering 128.3 mph.
The last Dodge Viper ACR we tested hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds (3.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and completed the quarter-mile in 11.6 seconds at 124.2 mph. The less-powerful Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is only marginally slower at 3.9 seconds to 60 mph (3.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and does the quarter in 11.7 seconds at 123.2 mph.
The Inside Line records continued to fall as we moved on to our handling tests. In direct contrast to the Z06, the ZR1 is stable, communicative and easy to control on its way to a 74.7-mph pass through the slalom. This is the second-fastest slalom speed we've recorded from a production car, behind only the Porsche 911 GT3 RS at 75.3 mph.
The skid pad performance is even more outrageous. There's massive stick, but the rear end refuses to step out unless you purposely make big stabs at the throttle — and then the back of the car slides predictably and controllably. The result — a 1.06g average in both directions (our standard) with a peak reading of 1.1g — is second only to the Dodge Viper ACR.
The ZR1 brakes to a halt from 60 mph in 96 feet, which ties this Chevy with the $198,875 Porsche 911 GT2. Chalk this up to Brembo carbon-ceramic brake rotors and massive fixed calipers (six-piston front, four-piston rear).
The Power By now you know all about the ZR1's all-aluminum LS9 power plant. You know that it's supercharged and intercooled and that it displaces 6.2 liters. You know that it's assembled by hand. And you know that it's rated at 638 hp and 604 pound-feet of torque.
About the only thing you don't know is what 638 hp feels like in a 3,366-pound Corvette. But we do. And it's spectacular. Spectacular like Jessica Biel in Blade: Trinity (underrated movie, actually). Spectacular like Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush. Spectacular in so many ways that any real man will find it wholly irresistible.
Certainly we did.
First, slot the six-speed transmission's shifter into gear, a task it accomplishes with exactly the right blend of precision and fluidity. Then let out the twin-disc clutch with a few thousand rpm on the tachometer. Now find a freeway on-ramp you know well and prepare yourself. Lock your eyes down the road as far as you can see and relax your head against the seat headrest with its ZR1 logo. Then wood the throttle and start grabbing gears. In less than 10 seconds you'll be traveling 120 mph. And you'll still be in 3rd gear.
The ZR1's thrust is so awesome we decided to visit Harman Motive in Torrance, California for a few runs on the company's state-of-the-art Mustang chassis dyno to see just how much power the Vette gets to the road. After three dyno runs, power peaks of 505 hp at 6,200 rpm and 494 lb-ft of torque at 4,200-4,300 rpm were recorded. That's right, it makes over 500 hp at the wheels.
But that's not the best part. Check the dyno sheet, the Vette's torque curve is shaped like a perfect dome, no dips or flat spots. And you can feel that when behind the wheel. This car makes redamndiculous power from idle to redline.
Sensitive Side Drive a ZR1 and you learn to respect its ability to warp your perception of space and time. We did, but then something funny happened — we drove off the track and into the world. You know the world. It has features like ruts and potholes, rain grooves and debris. The world is a far cry from the perfectly flat, perfectly smooth track. The world, it turns out, isn't all that different from the streets around Detroit or the rural roads around the Nürburgring where the ZR1 was developed.
This is a good thing. The more we drove, the more convinced we became that GM's engineers know a thing or two about ride control. And that their choice to use Magnetic Selective Ride Control — a technology that can adjust damping 1,000 times per second — is a good one. MSRC tames the ZR1's chassis to offer both a compliant and controlled ride and world-class handling — a compromise only Porsche has come close to matching, and then only at a much higher cost.
We weren't able to discern a significant difference between the two MSRC settings (Sport and Tour) on the highway. Both seemed to offer very good ride quality.
Brutal but Communicative Part of the ZR1's magic is its rubber, as Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires are found at all four corners. And GM has pulled no punches when applying the bigger-is-better philosophy here, as the tires measure 285/30ZR19 in front and 335/20ZR20 in the rear. The ZR1's front wheels are 10 inches wide; its rears are 12.
Accordingly, when cornering forces build, there's no shortage of dynamic information coming to you through the chassis. The lack of same has been our primary criticism of the Corvette Z06 (actually, we've found the car to be pretty unlikable). Sure, the Z06 is fast and it makes good numbers, but driving it hard always provides a thrill that feels like a flirtation with death and disaster.
Not so in the ZR1.
Three hundred and thirty-five millimeters of Michelin rubber on the road at each rear corner is almost enough to rein in 638 horses. In fact, the rubber combines with immensely tall gears to put power to the ground more effectively than we thought possible with so much power.
We say "almost" because there aren't any tires that can contain this Vette's enthusiasm for tire smoke when the throttle is used like a switch. But the ZR1 is easy to control, even when it's laying down two solid black stripes. Sideways. At 65 mph.
Noodly and Flabby Here's the thing. The ZR1 is one hell of a car. No question. It matches or beats all of its rivals in virtually every performance test. And it's comfortable. But it's also a very, very expensive car. To be precise, our test car — which has both options, the $10,000 premium equipment package and the $2,000 chrome wheels — rang up a tab of $118,520. And this is at a Chevy dealer, remember.
One problem is that the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 just doesn't feel special inside. Sure, the dash and doors are dressed up with leather, and they do look better than the standard Corvette's pieces. But the seats and steering wheel are the same pieces you'll find in a base Vette. And for nearly $120 grand that's not OK.
Even worse, those seats, all flabby and soft, are like sitting on Rosie O'Donnell's lap, which might be fun since she doesn't make 638 horsepower — at least when her mouth is shut. But it's distinctly not fun in the ZR1. Then there's the noodly-ass lever for the seatback adjustment that twists and flexes like a Twizzler every time we move the seatback. Seriously, this stuff is embarrassing in a $30,000 car and very much out of place in a car this special.
For what it's worth, our tester also leaked oil out of the gasket of its right cylinder bank and dripped it directly onto the exhaust manifold, periodically allowing the unmistakable stink of burning oil inside the cockpit. At highway velocities its steering wheel shook and shimmied like Shakira on speed. Then its left front tire pressure sensor failed. This, in turn, caused the ECU to reactivate the stability control system during testing, which was a hassle. But we're sure none of that will happen on customer cars.
So What Given the trouble we've had with other supercars, our long-term Nissan GT-R included, the above issues seem relatively minor. Plus, relative to its adversaries from Germany and Italy, there's no denying the value of the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.
The only question, then, is what to do with a 638-hp Corvette capable of annihilating its rivals with sheer brute force? We can think of one thing: How about surprising them with its mild manners?
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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