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.Obviously, it's important that you get the gear changes right, but that's a simple task. The 6-speeder is a 'box that begs to be used, and has a short throw, a close gate and slick movement. The clutch is fairly heavy, but not tiresomely so and is easy to feather or feed in gradually. A three-hour traffic jam, never getting beyond 15mph, doesn't cause me to wish I had an auto.
Occasionally, however, I do wish I was in a car that was as cool to use as it looks. While aspects such as all-around visibility, seat comfort (GM's best, in my opinion), luggage space, clutch-weight, tractability and docility in traffic all make you realize that this is a supercar for the 21st century, the heat soak from the transmission tunnel makes you think of dramatic 1970s machines that were all about show, go…and impracticality. Seriously, there is no need for the heated seats that come as part of the 3ZR package; your right leg and hip is going to cook on a long journey.
Time to get distracted by using this car as Chevy intended and hit the bends. The driving experience is as sensational as you'd expect from a car of this power that weighs a mere 3324lbs, especially given a 'Vette's low c of g, wide track and the absurd amount of lateral grip offered by its Michelin rubberwear. It's hard not to be intrigued by the g-meter that features in the wonderfully useful heads-up display, and it's not hard to believe the 1.1g that R&T recorded on its skidpan.
However, long before you reach that level of side-load, you're propping yourself against either the door or that thoroughly warming trans-tunnel, because there isn't enough seat bolstering for the narrower of body frame. This is a real bummer because it goes against the message of almost every other part of the car. This is not a car aimed at drivers of regular Corvettes who wish to upgrade: they (in general) use their machines as harder-edged grand tourers. The ZR1, is a sports car that responds like a racecar.
For that reason, despite those seriously large P285/30ZR19s, the steering is alive with “don't sneeze or you'll change lanes”-precision, and by modern-car standards, its feedback is excellent. The Magnetic Ride Control (which is adjustable but is damn hard, even in “Touring” mode) automatically alters the damping of the shocks, but you still feel every imperfection on the road. That gives the driver a fair bit of work to do on uneven cambered or mottled road surfaces, the steering wheel twitching around in your hands but unlike many cars with a similar tendency to follow road contours, it doesn't get worse under braking. Maybe that's because the ZR1's body control is as sensational longitudinally as it is laterally: despite its ludicrous acceleration and stopping power, the car neither squats nor dives.
The brakes are awesome carbon-ceramic Brembos that seem never to tire, however hard you work them and, if you lack experience with these, it's hard to train yourself not to lengthen your braking zones after repeated hard stops. One thing you emphatically don't want to do is add extra steering lock to use understeer to scrub off excess speed. On a public road when the surface is dry, you won't be traveling at a speed where the front grip will give out even slightly. You'll just hurtle around the corner faster than intended. It's a mind-warping machine. Unless you've lost your senses or care nothing for your driver's license, you won't reach the limits of this car on the road. The only limit is the driver's imagination.
Familiarity helps, of course, but over the course of a week, the intimidation factor disappears. I even started to think of the ZR1 as practical: pulling into a parking lot, the tendency of the steering caster to try and send it into full lock when past a certain turn angle and its impractically low front splitter are about the only things to bear in mind when taking a trip to the supermarket.
But it's not the practicality of the ZR1 that will win you over. It's the many and major plus points and the few and minor negatives that make it impossible not to be impressed. Day to day, I drive a car worth about 10 percent of this 'Vette, yet after just a week, I return the keys in the belief that I've now driven not just the performance car bargain, but the automotive bargain of the era. It's an unbelievably and unforgettably awesome car.