Corvette Z06: Chevy's 'Bargain Supercar'

With 505 horses, a top speed of 198 mph, and no optional automatic transmission, the Z06 is a blastbut not a car for the timid

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Raw speed, improved interior, macho good looks

The Bad: Reliability doubts, tight head- and legroom

The Bottom Line: Chevy's "bargain supercar" is no longer the fastest 'Vette ever—but it's still a marvelous machine.

Up Front

Consumer Reports magazine describes the Chevy Corvette Z06 as "a bargain supercar." It's a low-slung, road-hugging two-seater that only weighs 3,162 lb. yet has a massively powerful 7-liter, 505-horsepower cast-aluminum V8 engine under its hood—75 more horses than the regular Corvette. The Z06 can jump from 0 to 60 miles per hour in well under four seconds, which puts it the same class as a Ferrari or Lamborghini, yet it starts at a mere (and that's a relative term in this context) $72,125. The first time I drove one, back in 2005 when the Z06 first came out as a 2006 model, I found it so fast and jumpy that I could barely believe it was street legal.

Now, Corvette aficionados are abuzz with talk of General Motors' (GM) new ZR1, an even more insanely overpowered Corvette with a 6.2-liter, 620-horsepower supercharged V8. The ZR1 will carry a price tag in the $100,000 range when it comes out in late spring. So, while waiting to get my hands on a ZR1 sometime this summer, I decided to test-drive the Z06 again to see just how good it is these days.

The short take is that I love it. I found it more refined than the first Z06 I drove, with a more upscale interior and noticeably more precise steering and manual transmission. One thing hasn't changed: The Z06's huge engine generates 470 lb-ft of torque, and the car tends to fishtail when you tap the gas pedal with any degree of authority—so watch out on those sharp turns when you merge into traffic out of the local deli. Its top speed is 198 mph. And the Z06 also only comes with a six-speed manual transmission; there's no optional automatic. This is not a car for the timid.

From the outside, the Z06 has a number of design cues that distinguish it from the regular Corvette. There's an air scoop on the hood, and "Z06" badges on the carbon fiber front fenders. The rear fenders have bigger flares to accommodate the massive rear tires, and there are four huge, stainless steel exhaust pipes poking out the rear end. Inside, the distinctions are subtle. The Z06 has special sports seats, with "Z06" logos on the headrests, and there's a Z06 logo on the instrument gauge cluster.

Under the car's skin, however, just about all the mechanics have been upgraded using racing technology. The 7-liter LS7 engine in the Z06 has the same basic architecture as the V8 in the regular Corvette, but it's cast differently to accommodate the car's bigger, 4.125 cylinder bores. The connecting rods and intake valves are made of lightweight titanium. And to dispel the heat generated by the huge engine, there's an elaborate "dry sump" oiling system that's pressurized to keep oil flow constant during hard cornering.

The Z06 is rated to get 15 miles per gallon in the city and a surprisingly high 24 on the highway. That's about the same mileage as a regular Corvette with an automatic transmission (15/25), but a bit less than the regular Corvette with a stick shift (16/26). In 704 miles of mainly fast highway driving, I got 19.3 mpg in my Z06 test car.

With gasoline price jitters and recession fears rattling U.S. consumers, Corvette sales fell 17.1%, to 6,778, in the first three months of this year. That comes on top of a 7.8% decrease (to 33,685) for all of 2007. The Z06 accounts for about 20% of total Corvette sales, a GM spokeswoman says.

Behind the Wheel

Continuous improvement is a marvelous thing, and GM has been making incremental improvements in the Corvette all along. For instance, I would swear the 2008 Z06 handles much better than the 2006 model did. The shifting mechanism seems tighter and the steering more precise. When I asked the GM spokeswoman why that would be, she said the rack-and-pinion steering system has been tweaked. The system parts are machined more precisely, and the calibration of the controller has been modified.

The other big improvement in the 2008 Z06 is the optional two-tone leather interior, part of a $6,545 premium-equipment package that includes a fancy Bose sound system, a power telescoping steering wheel, and numerous other equipment upgrades. The instrument panel, seats, and door pads are all wrapped in two-tone stitched leather. It looks even better in reality than it does in photos.

The Z06 is enormously quick—the fastest production Corvette ever built (until the ZR1 comes out). Chevy says the Z06 will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, vs. 4.1 for the regular Corvette with a stick shift. However, Car and Driver magazine has clocked the Z06 in 3.4.

The new ZR1 will be heavier than the Z06 and is expected only to be a tad quicker in 0-to-60 runs. In longer tests, however, the new 'Vette is expected to be faster than the Z06, which blazes through a quarter-mile in just 11.7 seconds, reaching a speed of 125 mph, GM says.

There's no convertible version of the Z06, and it doesn't have the removable roof panels available in the regular Corvette coupe. The advantage of this fixed roof format is that it stiffens the Z06's frame, improving handling and reducing the potential for creaks and rattles during hard driving. To reduce weight and further stiffen the frame, the Z06 has an aluminum body and makes extensive use of composites. The floorboards, for instance, have a carbon-fiber shell around a balsa-wood core.

In some respects, the Z06 is quite practical for everyday driving. Unlike most sports cars, it has tons of luggage space (22.4 cu. ft.) behind the seats. It also has speed-sensitive steering that reduces the driver's effort at low speed. However, leg- and headroom are tight. I'm only 5 ft., 10 in. tall, and I have the driver's seat set back as far as it would go.

My other main concern about the Z06 is how dependable it would prove to be. Consumer Reports says the Corvette's "reliability remains well below average." The "check engine" light went on once during my week-long test drive, and twice the instrument panel flashed a warning that the engine was in danger of overheating. In each case, the light went off and stayed off after I shut the engine down and let it cool. It could have been a quirk in my test car, but it makes you wonder how touchy the dry sump oiling system is in day-to-day driving.

Buy it or Bag It?

Performance cars are a guy thing: Only 8.2% of Z06 buyers are women, according to Power Information Network (PIN). And if you're a guy who's into speed, the Corvette offers tremendous value. The Z06 sells for an average of $73,511, PIN figures—which is some 17 grand more than the average price of the regular 2008 Corvette coupe. However, according to PIN, the Dodge Viper sells for an average of $86,731 (over 10 grand more than the Z06); the Audi R8 for $135,954 (more than 62 grand more); and the Porsche 911 Turbo for $147,144 (nearly 74 grand more). And a Ferrari or Lamborghini costs far more than the Porsche. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

For most shoppers, the regular Corvette is plenty fast and powerful. It also has the advantage of coming in a convertible version and with the option of an automatic transmission. For an extra $1,195, the regular Corvette is available with a dual-mode exhaust system that raises its horsepower rating by six and gives its engine a throatier growl similar to the Z06's.

If you're dead set on owning the hottest production Corvette ever made, obviously you have to wait and check out the ZR1. However, the new 'Vette will cost 25 or 30 grand more than the Z06 and double the price of a regular Corvette coupe. That's a lot of cash for incremental gains in performance.

Click through our slide show to see more of the 2008 Chevrolet Corvette Z06.

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