2009 Corvette ZR1 fills the need for speed

By Steven Cole Smith | Orlando Sentinel
August 20, 2008

If Chevrolet executives are feeling a bit schizophrenic, there's good reason.

In this corner, the company is working feverishly on the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in, gas-electric hybrid car that should be able to travel 40 miles on electric power alone before the gas-sipping engine kicks in.

And in this corner: The Volt's polar opposite the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, the fastest, most powerful mass-market car ever from an American manufacturer.

Is there room in the marketplace for both?

"I think so," said Harlan Charles, Corvette product manager. With production of the $105,000 ZR1 just getting under way, the entire annual supply of 1,800 is expected to be snapped up within weeks.

We were among the first to get behind the wheel of the ZR1, and it's easy to see the appeal. Its performance mirrors some of the most exotic cars in the world, such as the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, at roughly one-third the price. Both cars have in excess of 600 horsepower and both boast a top speed of 205 mph, but the Ferrari starts at $202,000 more than the ZR1.

"We set out to build the ultimate Corvette," Charles said, "not just on the race track, but as an all-around car. We wanted to build the best sports car you could buy, regardless of the price."

Unless you think that the Ferrari mystique is worth in excess of $200,000, Charles and his crew may well have succeeded.

How did they do it?

The ZR1's engine though at 6.2 liters, the same size as the 430-horsepower V-8 in the regular Corvette has a supercharger, which is a fan-like device that forces air and fuel into the engine under pressure. Many of the internal bits and pieces in the ZR1's engine are beefed up to handle the extra 208 horsepower.

The upgraded six-speed manual transmission ( General Motors doesn't make an automatic tough enough to handle this engine) is attached to a racing-style clutch, feeding power to a strengthened rear axle.

Stopping the ZR1 are enormous Brembo brand disc brakes made from carbon and ceramic materials that should last the life of the car replacing them would likely cost at least $10,000.

Inside, the ZR1, even with the optional luxury package, isn't much different from a regular Corvette. Outside, though, there are plenty of differences: The roof is made from carbon fiber, a strong, astoundingly light material typically found only in exotics and race cars.

The clutch feel is exceptionally light, and the ride is surprisingly smooth on all but the roughest roads.

Steering is precise, brake feel is linear and consistent. The ZR1 has the full roster of safety equipment, including an electronic stability control system that can be turned off .

Chevrolet engineers are proud of the ZR1's fuel mileage, which is EPA-rated at 14 mpg in the city, 20 mpg on the highway, compared with 16/26 for the 430-horsepower base Corvette, and 15/24 for the 505-horsepower Z06 model, previously the fastest Corvette you could buy.

There's little doubt that a conservation-minded contingent of the public would have preferred that General Motors invest the money it spent on the ZR1 in greener vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt. But the company clearly thinks there's a market for an American-built supercar.

A Corvette engineer, wearing a ZR1 shirt that said "Life begins at 200 mph," summed up the appeal: "We kicked Ferrari's rear at less than half the price. What's not to like?"

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at csmith@orlandosentinel.com, or through his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/gasgauge.



2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Engine: 6.2-liter supercharged V-8

Horsepower: 638

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Top speed: 205 mph

Fuel mileage: EPA-rated 14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway, premium gasoline

Base price: $105,000, including shipping and a $1,700 federal "gas-guzzler" tax

Price with every option offered: $117,750