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Chevy Corvette ZR1: GM's Ferrari

Editor's Rating: star rating

Who says America can't build a supercar? You wouldn't if you drove this insanely great Vette

Up Front

The new Corvette ZR1 is already the stuff of legend. Developed as an ad hoc skunkworks project, the new Vette was born of a remark by General Motors (GM) CEO Rick Wagoner, who wondered aloud what the Corvette design team could come up with if it had a mandate to develop a $100,000 car. Code-named Blue Devil, after Wagoner's alma mater, Duke University, the ZR1 is the fastest and most powerful production car ever made by an American manufacturer. It has a 638-horsepower V8 engine and can accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.4 seconds—in first gear.

At this point, you might be wondering why financially challenged GM is pouring time and money into a limited-edition product (only 1,800 ZR1s are expected to be made in the first year) that almost certainly won't make money. The rationale is that sexy niche products like the ZR1 generate excitement about the brand. But Corvette sales are off 16.4%, at 16,824 in the first seven months of this year, and fell 21.3%, to 1,870 in July. Not to be a buzz-kill, but it seems to me that GM is in far greater need of a decent subcompact than a supercar designed to compete with Ferrari and Porsche (") at a lower price.

That said, the ZR1 is a great car for the money. It's far more than simply an upgraded version of the brutal Z06 (, 8/4/08), until now the fastest Vette ever made. The obvious difference is that the ZR1 has 133 more horses under its hood, but the new Vette is also packed with design and technology enhancements that make it more of a genuine competitor for exotic European supercars than the Z06. Among other things, the ZR1's engine is assembled by hand: Each car comes with a tag telling you the name of the person who worked on your engine.

The ZR1 carries a substantial premium over the Z06, which starts at about $73,000. The base ZR1 (if you can call it that) costs $105,000, including a gas-guzzler tax. The upscale version of the car goes for $117,000 and adds chrome wheels ($2,000), and a cabin upgrade ($10,000) that includes power-adjustable, heated and leather-trimmed seats, side airbags, navigation and Bose audio systems, a power telescoping steering column, and a leather-wrapped interior available in four colors. The option package, by the way, adds only 26 lbs to the car's weight, GM says.

The trouble is, you probably can't get a ZR1 this year for anything like that price. Only the top 10% of Chevy dealers were allocated ZR1s to sell, and the ones the dealers had are all spoken for. Some dealers posted the cars on eBay last spring at a $50,000-or-more premium.

Behind the Wheel

The ZR1's huge engine delivers 604 lb.-ft. of torque, which is an incredible amount of raw power to propel a car that only weighs 3,324 lbs. There's a little window in the hood so you don't forget the engine is there (as if anyone would). GM says the ZR1 has a better power-to-weight ratio than a Porsche 911 GT2, a Ferrari 599, and a Lamborghini LP640.

Some quick stats: The ZRI does a quarter-mile in 11.3 seconds, reaching a speed of 131 mph. With a top speed of 205 mph, it's the first production Corvette capable of topping 200 mph. But sheer speed is only one measure of its performance. It also does zero to 60 and then slams back to a dead stop again in a mere 11 seconds.

One reason the ZR1 stops so quickly is that it's equipped with enormous Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes (15 in. in back and 15.5 in. in front, which GM says is half-an-inch bigger than the ones in the Ferrari Enzo). The ZR1's brakes have about twice the pad surface of the Z06's brakes. (The calipers, visible through the wheel spokes, are painted a distinctive blue.) While the Z06 comes with Goodyears, the ZR1 has enormous tires that Michelin (MICP) designed especially for the car.

Along with a bunch of other auto reviewers, I recently drove the ZR1 at GM's proving grounds outside Detroit on a course designed to emulate the Nüat;rburgring, the famed German track. Earlier this year, GM development engineer Jim Mero ran "the Ring" in a stock ZR1 in a time of 7 minutes, 26.3 seconds, besting Nissan's (") new GT-R (, 11/19/07) by 2.6 seconds. GM's track is only 2.9 miles, but it's nonetheless a highly challenging string of curves, sharp turns, and short straightaways. There are a couple of spots where the car can easily to leave terra firma if you're accelerating as fast as you should be.

I'm by no means a qualified track driver and I could have ended up out in the grass (as some fellow journalists apparently did) if the ZR1 were less forgiving than it is. In the ZR1, you do most of the course in second and third gear. The brakes grip so powerfully that if you brake too late into a curve you can recover almost instantly. More minor adjustments can be made by easing the gas slightly. The steering system is designed to increase driver effort as cornering force increases, so you never have the feeling of losing control in a quick maneuver. In any case, the car's magnetic ride-control system is designed to provide more than one G of cornering grip, so you'd have to work at it to put the ZR1 into an uncontrolled slide.

I also took a couple of laps as a passenger with Tony Rifici, a brake development engineer who is also one of GM's best drivers, behind the wheel. He knew the track well and was able to stick to a much tighter line at far higher speeds that any of the journalists. It was a little like taking a rollercoaster ride at triple speed. The lesson I took from the experience is that if you buy a ZR1, you should budget for spending a lot of weekends at the track. You might also want to invest in motion sickness pills for your passengers.

That said, the ZR1 is at least as comfortable as the Z06 during everyday driving. Its high-capacity, dual-disc clutch seems to require less effort than the Z06's clutch. The suspension is less stiff and harsh than in most performance cars, and the magnetic ride-control system seems to do a good job of absorbing bumps and potholes. You could probably get higher than the ZR1's rated in-city mileage if you tried, because the engine has so much torque that you can put the car in fifth or sixth gear at, say, 40 mph with no engine-chugging at all.

From the outside, the ZR1 is easy to distinguish from the Z06. Among other things, it has a clear-coated, lightweight, carbon-fiber roof panel (the clear coat used to keep the panel from yellowing costs $60,000-per-gallon in its undiluted form, GM says). Designers also raised up the corners of the car's rear end, a design that helps keep it glued to the pavement at high speeds.

The ZR1's interior is functional and not especially attractive unless you go with the upgrade package. The seats, the same ones as in the Z06, are well-bolstered and hold you in place during hard driving but are not particularly comfortable on long drives. As in other Corvettes, cargo space behind the seats is voluminous.

Buy it or Bag It?

Buying an '09 ZR1 is likely to be tough, unless you're willing to pay a substantial premium. The best idea is probably to put in your order now on a 2010 and hope to get one for list price.

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