The numbers game is not normally of much interest in a test such as this compared with, say, going for a thrash across a deserted Welsh landscape and feeling the hairs on the back of your neck go rigid with pure excitement. But in this particular instance it's worth pausing, albeit for the briefest of moments, to absorb a few key figures. Think of it as a way of enlightening the mind and focusing one's attention before the main event. After all, it's not every day, every week or even every year that we get to compare two cars that have a collective 1303hp and can between them reach 417mph.
The closer you look at the statistics of the mighty Corvette ZR1 and Lamborghini Murciélago LP670-4 SV, the more breathtaking they become. Apart from their respective curb weights, both of which are impressively lithe considering how vast these cars appear in the metal (Lambo 3615 lbs, Corvette 3,369 lbs), almost every other number you look at is comically, ridiculously huge.
Power? Lambo 663hp, Corvette 640hp. Torque? Lambo 487lb ft at 6500rpm, Corvette 603lb ft at 3800rpm. Cubic capacity? Lambo 6496cc, Corvette 6162cc. Rear tire sizes? Lambo 335/30 ZR18, Corvette 325/25 ZR20.
And then there's the really important stuff such as their combined cycle fuel economy figures (Lambo 13.7mpg, Corvette 18.8mpg). Although having said that, you'll probably be a teeny bit more interested to know that the Lambo has 404hp per ton while the Corvette has 419hp per ton. Because that's the only real figure that gives you any kind of insight as to how violently, how insanely rapid the Corvette feels, even when it's lined up beside a monster like the Murciélago SV.
When General Motors first unveiled the original Harley Earl-designed Corvette way back in 1953, then as now, it was a straightforward, simple kind of sports car. And of course it became an instant classic. Since then the formula has remained almost identical, even though there have been six different generations over the years: big, powerful V8 engine in the nose, two seats only, a decent amount of luggage space and rear-wheel drive.
But in the ZR1 the recipe, unchanged in fundamental terms, is rather spicier than normal. Think of it as the extra-spicy version of a dish that's already pretty pokey and you might begin to understand how far Corvette has pushed things with this car. And yet still it's rear-wheel drive, despite the fact that its supercharged 6.2-liter V8 boasts enough power to illuminate a small town beneath that long, low hood. Which, by the way, is made from carbon fiber, much like quite a lot of the ZR1.
The hood itself features a questionable polycarbonate power bulge, through which you can see the engine bay. But you can forgive the ZR1 the odd misappropriation of taste because it's probably the best-value supercar in the world right now.
At $110-grand, the ZR1 may seem somewhat overpriced in Corvette terms, but beside the $450k Lambo, with which it can very much compete in terms of pure performance, it seems like the bargain of the century.
But then, the Murciélago SV is one of those rare cars that manages to transcend all standard notions of value. As the ultimate version of one of the ultimate cars, it almost doesn't matter that it costs four times the price of the Corvette. Well, not quite.
What's not in doubt is how committed a machine this is from Lamborghini in its technical make-up. Sant'Agata's engineers have thrown every trick in the book at this car to make it as lean and as mean as possible – from carbon fiber body panels to a new, yet more powerful version of the firm's venerable but still magnificent V12 engine.
As intimated, the SV has been on an unusually strict weight regime and, more than any other factor, this defines the SV dynamically above and beyond the regular Murciélago LP640. It may have a few more horsepower, but you notice the lack of weight more than you do the extra grunt in everything and anything the SV does.
More than any other car you'd care to recall, including the ZR1, the Murciélago SV makes you acutely aware of your intentions before you climb aboard. You look at the Lamborghini and think, “Am I really and honestly up to this? Am I ready to open one of those scissor doors and take the controls of this insane machine? Is there any possibility that I might lose a limb over the next few hours? And what on earth might happen if I actually got it wrong in this car? How big would the accident be, and how long would it go on for?”
It's not just the SV's size that intimidates, either. It's the details: the huge new rear wing, the diamond-shaped glass engine cover that appears to run all along the spine of the car and make it look like some kind of prehistoric alien, the new front splitter – so sharp and so protrusive you fear for your ankles if you venture anywhere near the front end. The whole thing just looks scary.
In reality, though, the Lambo isn't quite the monster you expect it to be. For starters, the gearbox works smoothly and the clutch take-up is automated, so there's no fear of stalling the thing. The ride is smooth, if a little noisy, and the accelerator is conventionally weighted, meaning you don't deliver great bursts of unwanted grunt by accident.
The steering is fairly light, very direct, extremely precise and, best of all, apparently free from kickback over rough surfaces. After wandering along a reasonably well surfaced A-road for a few miles, you begin to think that it almost feels civilized.
Then you put your foot down and all of that goes straight out of the window. Because when it hits 5500rpm the SV goes into another dimension. In truth, it goes berserk, and from there to the red line takes seemingly about the same amount of time as one heartbeat, possibly two.
That's when the hairs on your neck stand to attention, and when you start to ask yourself, “Do I change up a gear and keep this madness going, keep accelerating towards the horizon, towards uncharted territory? Or do I back off and calm down, seeing as how the speedometer needle is already in a rather ridiculous position?”
It depends on many things: whether you have any sort of a conscience, how much you value your driving license, how clear that far horizon looks, and whether you've noticed that there's a Corvette ZR1 still nailed to your rear bumper.
That's one of the more shocking experiences you'll ever have in a Murcielago SV, in fact: accelerating as hard as the car will go out of a tight second-gear corner, changing up to third, being almost deafened by the exhaust, feeling your kidneys being gently crushed into the seat, and then seeing a Corvette catching you up in the rear-view mirror.
Then again, the ZR1 is no ordinary Corvette. Climb inside and slide down into the bucket seat and the driving position feels normal enough; the view down that long hood makes it seem as if you're sitting right over the rear axle. But the moment you fire it up and pull away, the ZR1 feels different, feels more serious, more grown up – even compared with the Z06.
From its hugely improved ride quality to its more resolved steering and its tauter body control, the ZR1 feels sorted in a way that no other Corvette has ever managed. But it's not until you put your foot down and hold it there for a few seconds that the true difference between a ZR1 and every other Corvette becomes apparent.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the supercharger, the throttle response is instant. And very, very strong. The car snaps forwards at the merest whiff of full throttle, yet somehow it doesn't break traction, as long as you're out of first gear and it's dry. And then at around 4000rpm something wonderful and magnificent and quite extraordinary happens.
The valves that had been keeping the exhaust note merely loud in a regular Corvette kind of way suddenly open up and the ZR1 emits a beautiful, hard-edged, trumpet-like rasp that signals the onset of an even more potent wave of acceleration. And only then do you appreciate how fast the ZR1 really is. Only then do you believe that it has more power per ton than the Lambo and that, if anything, it's a tiny bit faster than the SV in a straight line.
The most surprising thing of all about the ZR1, though, is that it can handle what's under the hood. Its chassis may be conventional in design and powered only by the rear wheels but, in the dry at least, it provides the ZR1 driver with a very solid, well resolved platform with which to have an awful lot of fun.
What it delivers is a real slice of genuine giant-felling performance with the chassis and steering to back it up. Which makes it one of the highest-achieving underdogs we've come across in a very long time.
It's not better than the Murciélago SV per se; it would be ridiculous to make a judgment as simplistic as that about cars as complex as this. But in some ways the ZR1 is more of a winner than the Lambo, because it provides the bigger surprise. Not that you'd be anything other than very happy indeed with either of them tucked up in your garage – assuming you've got the guts and the bank account to match.
Words: Steve Sutcliffe/Autocar
Photos: Stan Papior/Autocar