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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

2009 Corvette zr1 First Drive

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The 2009 Corvette ZR1 is the best car ever made. It redefines what performance cars are capable of, not by its numbers (the 0-to-60 in 3.3 seconds and a 205 MPH top speed figures are no longer noteworthy north of $100,000), but by how it makes those numbers so accessible. Simply put, the ZR1's most remarkable achievement is how easy and unintimidating the chassis makes exploiting the car's 638 HP. The only problem is I'm not good enough a driver to fully do so.

While based on the standard car's LS3 V8, the ZR1's LS9 makes its power with the aid of a Roots-type supercharger whose intercooler cover is visible through the tacky Lexan hood window. With 638 HP and 604 lb-ft of torque, its speed should come as no surprise, but its character will. Equipped with a dual-mode exhaust, there's little hint of its performance at low speed, the RPMs dipping if you pull away on light throttle. Up to 2,500 RPM (about all you need on the road -- it delivers 320 lb-ft at 1,000 RPM), it feels like something that belongs in a big German luxury car. It's torquey, quiet and, combined with the ZR1's 3,364 lb curb weight, it makes driving effortless.

It's when you begin to climb into higher RPMs at larger throttle openings that the LS9's performance reveals itself in its absurd volume. A second exhaust valve opens, taking the engine note from refined to apocalyptic. The all-consuming sound focuses your attention on nothing but the road in front of you. But it lacks any aural indication of its supercharger. For reasons that escape us, the Corvette engineers went through elaborate steps to eliminate the whine, even doubling the number of teeth on the lobe drive gears to move their sound beyond the human ear's range of perception. Tap into the loud zone and everything in front starts to come at you very fast. 300 HP arrives at just 3,000 RPM before peaking at 6,500, leaving 100 RPM before the redline. The close-ratio gearbox (unique to the ZR1) means shifts come fast, but the wide spread of power and torque means you can leave it in third for pretty much anything above 30 MPH.

Like the engine, that gearbox does little to hint at the ZR1's ultimate performance. A twin-disc clutch leads to easy pedal throw, while a precise gate makes finding gears simple. This isn't a fire-breathing monster, but instead a car anyone could drive competently -- even for long distances (it's comfortable) or at high speeds (its limits are so high that you need to try very hard to find them).