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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

First Drive: 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

By Shaun Bailey • Photos by Marc Urbano
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This is not a happy day for other exotic-car owners. The $103,000 super Vette, the ZR1, is out. Its 638 horsepower was unleashed on a select group of journalists at GM's Milford proving grounds near Detroit for a controlled drive. A testament to the ZR1's civility and balance is the fact that no one crashed, although a few orange cones were sacrificed to Jake. Who's Jake, you ask? He's the evil-eyed skull mascot for Badboy Vettes that's emblazoned on the C6.R racer and has made his first appearance on a production Corvette, worn proudly on the ZR1's intake ducting.

Rather than see journalists jeopardize their driver's licenses by letting Jake out onto the street, GM had us drive their new baby around what is commonly referred to as the Lutz ring — a technical track whose corners simulate those from great circuits the world over. The focus is testing driveability. Most notable is the bowl-turn that simulates the Nürburgring's famous carousel.

For our limited drive, we were kept off the bowl and our speeds were hampered by a mid-course cone chicane. Even so, our top speed was well above 100 mph and nearly the entire track could be done in 3rd gear. With the massive twist of 604 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it behooved us to avoid dropping to 2nd gear, except for the slowest of corners.

As expected, the supercharged LS9 superbly blends the Z06's raucous LS7 with the smoothness of the modern LS3. At idle there is only a hushed V-8 warble, yet get to 3000 rpm with intent and a pleasant snarl emanates. Knowing that there is an extra 133 horsepower on tap, beyond the already terror-instilling Z06's 505, I worked my way up to applying full throttle. Surprisingly, the ZR1 is far superior to the Z06 in driveability, refinement and speed.

Everything we gripe about in the Z06 — aside from the unsupportive seats — has been remedied. The twitchy rear end is gone, thanks to Magnetic Ride Control that allows for softer springs and heavier anti-roll bars. At times on the track I'd think, If I were in a Z06, I'd never go flat over this rise, but in the ZR1 the confidence and road-holding abilities are there.

Surely, the custom-made run-flat Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires have something to do with the car's confidence-inspiring grip, but really it's a combination of all the things the Corvette Team has done, like losing 22 pounds of unsprung mass. Unfortunately this savings didn't make up for the additional 182 lb. on board as the ZR1 weighs 3325 lb., 160 lb. more than the Z06.

Even with the extra weight, the carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes with the new Bosch brake controls are fantastic. Not as light feeling as the Z06 pedal, the ZR1's takes a heavy linear pressure, but rewards with consistency and repeatability. A new non-linear steering rack gives improved response that necessitates fewer steering inputs, but doesn't result in a heavy or quick off-center feel. Bending the car through the corners is easy and doesn't induce a lot of sweat. At the limit in steady-state flat cornering, the ZR1 exhibits light understeer; surprisingly, it doesn't step the rear end out easily under quick transitions or overly aggressive throttle inputs.

This is likely due to the intelligent damping system of the Magnetic Ride Control and smooth torque delivery. The MRC system is transparent, but adapts to driving situations. For example, drag launches are recognized and the system optimally sets the rear dampers to full soft. There is no launch control — yet. With two nominal settings of Touring and Sport being manually selectable, the driver can adjust ride harshness, making the trip to the track more livable than in a Z06.

There's something ridiculous about a street car that can do 66 mph in 1st gear and has a tight-ratio 6-speed that allows for a top speed in excess of 200 mph. Who can afford the gasoline or the speeding tickets? However, it must be noted that for "social responsibility," said Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, there is an electronic limiter set for 210 mph. Yet if one disabled the limiter and managed to turn up the boost beyond 10.5 psi, the ZR1 runs out of gear at 215 mph. It's only a matter of time before a tuned ZR1 breaks that barrier.

So, if you own a Viper, Ferrari, Porsche or other supercar that typically picks on the Corvette, let this be a warning — as it might have a little Jake lurking under the hood.