The intimidation factor starts a few days earlier. Seeing a cyber gray ZR1 outside the Corvette Racing team's hauler at the American Le Mans Series finale in Laguna Seca, and noting that, despite its subtle color, it's attracted more attention than the racecars in the awning next door. Understandable: the electric-blue "1" on the fender badge, and the clear canopy over the hood bulge is going to draw in sports car fans and experts. I can't walk around it because I'm in the way of a bunch of cameras. So it's going to be that sort of car then. Duly noted.
On Saturday evening, in the final seconds of the ALMS race, Jan Magnussen's bright yellow GT2 'Vette gets squeezed into the pit wall by the Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister, before pivoting around the front of the 911 and hitting the wall on the far side of the pit straight. It's a big impact, to which the car bears up well and, over my lifetime of watching racing, I've seen far worse. But the circumstances lend a whole new dimension to what I've just seen. I'm not superstitious, but hope this incident isn't a portent of my forthcoming week with a similar car.
I'm fairly satisfied with my driving skills, simply because I know when I'm skirting the fringes of my talent and don't stray beyond. Not in the last decade, at least. But still, I've never driven any Corvette before, nor have I driven a car with more than 500hp. Now I'm going to get the deluxe combo of the plastic legend with a 6.2-liter (376cu.in.) supercharged V8 with 638hp. Oh, and on the day of its arrival, it's raining. And it's bright red. And the license plate is missing from the rear. Oh, jeez, I'd stand less chance of getting pulled over if I leaned out the window flicking the bird at every cop I pass. This is going to be one memorable week….
But at least, at last, I'll be in a Corvette. My interest in the brand was reawakened back in 2005. I had gradually come to like the fourth generation car, as its styling evolved between 1984 and 1996, and the ZR1 version of that model was a car worthy of a poster on any teenager's wall. But by the time I passed my driving test, it was 10 years old, the C5 replacement was on its way, and when that car emerged, I was crestfallen. It had gotten a bad and sudden attack of middle-age spread, as though it was just trying to appeal to the longtime Corvette drivers who were hooked on the name and would simply want the latest model.
The C6 changed all that. Suddenly the Corvette was lean and mean again, a car to evoke almost as much drooling as the dramatic '63-'67 second generation, a car that could appeal to a whole new generation of buyers, a car to change the image. How many cars become shorter and narrower from one generation to the next? With all that fat trimmed off, the Corvette is once more a sensational shape. The ZR1's styling additions enhance that still further.
My belief is that its looks are half the reason for the positive reactions it gets in our week with the car. But I also guess it's hard to be negative about a car that cracks 200mph and ducks below three-and-a-half seconds to 60mph, yet costs just $102,450. Even
"spec'd up" to this “3ZR” status – including sat-nav, seven-speaker Bose stereo, power-adjustable steering wheel, seat upgrades and extra leather, among other things – it works out at $115k. For the similarly performing Porsche 911 GT2, you'll pay an extra $80,000, although admittedly the 911 Turbo is a mere $20k more than the 'Vette. Go Italian, and you'll pay more than double (Ferrari F430 or Lamborghini Gallardo). Power per buck, the ZR1 is the performance bargain of the decade.
Much of that savings is made in the interior of the Corvette, which is OK and certainly screwed together well by the good folk at GM's Bowling Green, Ky. plant, and it's made to be familiar to the regular 'Vette owner. In other words, it ain't no Ferrari…or even BMW M6. But then again, it is instinctive, it's functional and, if I haven't mentioned it already, this car has 638hp.
That fact could silence the braggers at the bar, just as the sound of the car is enough to shut down the street racers at the stoplights. If you think the ZR1 sounds fearsome at idle or low revs, when the car is vibro-massaging your back, it becomes maniacal at 4000rpm. The grip from those rear Michelin Pilot 2s (P335/25ZR20) actually does a great job of biting into proper blacktop asphalt, although it does struggle to find traction on the cheap tan stuff. Not planting the throttle until you reach 40mph helps, but with traction control turned off, you should still be prepared to catch the tail end. Turning off the traction control, of course, leaves you the option of turning the Michelins into pulp from a standstill, but if you think it will help prevent you from bogging down at clutch take-up, there's no point. Once you've learned where the left pedal's biting point is, it's hard to get your launch wrong, with the superchargers offering a fairly linear power delivery.
However, once those tires are gripping, the acceleration is so explosive through the gears, you want to have one hand on the gearshift at all times, so urgent is the need for up-changes. If you find yourself at the local drag strip, it's hard to envision getting beaten by anything that isn't a racecar. Take it to its 6500rpm red line, and the ZR1 will hit 66mph in first, 93 in second, and 124 in third. According to Road & Track magazine, you'll just have grabbed fourth as you shoot past the quarter-mile post in 11.4sec.