Exotic Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is at pinnacle of engineering and style

BY MARK PHELAN FREE PRESS COLUMNIST November 6, 2008

Sometimes you know you're in the presence of something special.

Thousands of people felt the thrill as Justin Verlander closed in on a no-hitter for the Tigers in 2007. Four years earlier, I was among a handful listening as a kid named Josh Ritter unslung his guitar and played his song "Kathleen" under an oak tree in a park near Austin, Texas. In both cases, anyone present knew they would remember the moment.

A few thousand owners will get the same tingle -- this is the real deal -- when they start the 638-horsepower V8 under the carbon-fiber hood of the new Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.

In days of economic unease and unpredictable gas prices, a supercharged V8 supercar may not be your idea of the right car for the times, but there's no denying the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is a triumph.

The fastest, most powerful and most expensive car in the Corvette's celebrated history is even better than I expected.

Better in nearly every way: More comfortable, prettier, easier to drive and endlessly, unfathomably more powerful.

The 2009 ZR1 has the style and performance of cars that can cost two or three times as much and bear legendary badges like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Chevrolet plans to build about 1,750 ZR1s annually, making the car a match for those exotics in rarity as well as speed and looks.

Prices for the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 start at $102,450, excluding gas-guzzler tax. I tested a ZR1 that stickered at $114,150. All prices exclude destination charges.

That is, of course, a stunning amount of money for a Chevrolet. The ZR1 may be a bargain compared with $200,000-plus cars like the Ferrari F430 Scuderia or Lamborghini Gallardo, but the economy is down. Critics will say what Chevrolet really needs is an affordable 45-m.p.g. compact, not a 205-m.p.h. supercar.

Chevrolet does need a great compact car, of course, but this is not an either-or proposition. General Motors' biggest and most important brand can and should have both. You can pillory them for underachieving in some segments, but anyone who appreciates great engineering and design must also celebrate a triumph like the ZR1.

The Corvette ZR1 matters not just because it's a work of art, but because it shows that GM can build a magnificent car when it focuses on the job. There's also the fact that GM makes money on every Corvette it sells, an achievement not to be sneezed at these days.

Expect greatness from Chevrolet's next small car, because the ZR1 proves that GM has greatness within it.

The ZR1's heart is a rumbling supercharged 6.2-liter V8 mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The engine produces 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque to create a well of power that seems as endless as the pull of gravity.

The manual transmission is light and easy to operate. There's no automatic. That used to be acceptable, even expected, in supercars, but transmission technology has improved vastly. The high-tech ZR1 would have been a good place for GM to showcase its first dual-clutch gearbox. We can hope one of those smooth and efficient transmissions is in the works for the Corvette soon.

Chevrolet upgraded virtually every mechanical system to handle the ZR1's power. Changes include carbon-ceramic brakes from Brembo -- just like Ferrari, only the ZR1's brakes are bigger -- high-performance tires Michelin developed specifically for the ZR1, and strong but light carbon-fiber body panels for the roof, hood and front fenders.

The hood features a clear polycarbonate window to show the cover of the Eaton supercharger that boosts the V8's power and torque to stratospheric levels.

Despite being tuned to the max and then some, the engine is easy to drive. Throttle response is fast and smooth, and the V8's broad torque curve provides plenty of power at low engine r.p.m.

The ZR1 matches that power with pretty good fuel economy. With EPA ratings of 14 m.p.g. in the city and 20 m.p.g. on the highway, it falls prey to the federal gas-guzzler tax. It's a miser compared with the Ferrari F430, rated at 11 m.p.g. city and 16 m.p.g. highway, the Audi R8's rating of 12 m.p.g. city/19 m.p.g. highway and the Lamborghini Gallardo's 12 m.p.g. city/20 m.p.g. highway. The 530-horsepower Porsche GT2 sets the pace with EPA ratings of 16 m.p.g. in the city and 23 m.p.g. on the highway.

The ZR1's adjustable magnetic-ride suspension absorbs bumps well and clings to the road in its standard setting. The stiffer setting is really stiff, best suited to driving on a racetrack.

The ZR1's interior is roomy and comfortable, with plenty of cargo space in the rear. The contrasting black and brick-red leather and trim in the car I tested looked and felt elegant and upscale.

Some interior features you should take for granted for a lot less than $104,000 were missing or optional, however.

The steering column has two different controls for tilt and telescope, power telescope is an option, and the range of adjustment is limited.

Heated seats and memory for seats and mirrors are optional, as are side-impact air bags.

The current Corvette body style is the best-looking since the 1963 Stingray, to my mind. Its wide stance and shorter overall length provide more appealing proportions -- not to mention easier parking -- than the infinite-hood look of the last few Corvettes.

The ZR1 builds on that strong design with vented and widened front fenders to accommodate the sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, a raised hood to showcase the exposed supercharger and a full-width body color rear spoiler.

The sum of those parts is a rare and special car, the ultimate expression of the style and performance that have always distinguished America's greatest sports car.

Contact MARK PHELAN at phelan@freepress.com or 313-222-6731.