2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 review: Classic MOTOR

CORVETTE is coming. But it’s not just any Corvette. It’s the Corvette – the all-conquering ZR1. Stand back.

This review was first published in MOTOR magazine November 2008.

Its claimed 0-100km/h time of 3.5sec means it will potentially out-accelerate the Porsche 911 Turbo, it has a better power-to-weight figure than the lightweight 911 GT2’s formidable 271kW-per-tonne, and it’s said to have lapped the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7:26.4sec – quicker than any performance car.

There’s more. On in its way to a 330km/h top-end, it’ll reach 200km/h in just 10.3 seconds and hit 300km/h in 32.6. Even more impressively, it’ll launch from a standstill to 300km/h and back to zero in just 39.6 seconds. Phew. We’re on the ‘Lutzring’, in the heart of the GM proving grounds near Milford, a suburb of Detroit.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1.jpgOfficially, the track is called The Milford Road Course, but it was initiated by GM vice chairman Bob Lutz who suggested combining several famous corners from international race circuits with a set of constant radii bends for tyre, g-force and oil-pressure testing. To add a bit of extra spice, the track’s designers threw in a handful of suicide crests, a couple of dramatic camber changes, all in a variety of different widths.

It’s a challenging loop that takes time to learn, and it’s not any easier in a seriously fast car like the ZR1. Today, GM demands that the ESP is to remain active at all times, but that’s not an issue. After all, the Corvette has a loose tail no matter how many chips you employ to sedate it.

In competitive mode, it easily induces slides long and lurid enough to make the bravest passenger reach for the sickbag. Climbing aboard the brashest and rawest Corvette ever while wearing a mandatory helmet, the cabin feels a little cramped, bringing on a feeling a bit like watching a fish tank after half a case of the local Sam Adams brew.

I had to tilt the brainbox to the right for minimum distortion and maximum visibility as the Lutzring is driven clockwise. The squishy seats aren’t much chop either. Too soft in the cushion and too contourless around the shoulders, they create the desire for a proper body harness rather than the limp inertia-reel seatbelt the ZR1 is fitted with.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-bonnet.jpgI lay on 3500rpm, lift the left foot and the twin-plate clutch instantly bites as the smell of Michelin rubber fills the air. When you push the V8 to its 7000rpm redline, first gear stretches all the way to 111km/h, so that no shift manoeuvre can tarnish its heroic 0-100km/h acceleration figure.

Out of the imaginary pit lane, it dives down the start-finish straight, flat-out in second, heading for Turn One and its blind apex. I brake too early, losing valuable momentum on the approach to the late turn-in point. I feather the throttle and the ZR1’s nose gyrates to the right.

Press on and the rear end will want to arc away from the intended flight path, but the ZR1 instantly creates a friendship of connectivity, joining inputs with response. It’s a progressive, intuitive and fluent companion. Over the next brow we have lift-off, and then the tarmac swings left into Bob’s version of the famous Nürburgring corner called the Karussell.

Third gear at last and out onto a short straight, heading for a long right-hander where lesser engines might struggle for oil pressure. Theoretically, the back straight is good for over 200km/h, but today the three-lane playground is dotted with two second-gear chicanes.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-badge.jpgThe ZR1 approaches the first kink with a deep dive, zig-zagging through the gate, and exits with the tail running a touch wide, only to decelerate again hard for the second obstacle. This is 10-tenths stuff, and together we’re in total command – the car, the electronics and the driver.

Even the unwary will likely be saved by the grip built into the lowered chassis and by the chip-controlled ESP lasso which catches every wriggle before it turns into a spin. Even on the rollercoaster section, where the edged field of vision changes from asphalt grey to sky blue then back to asphalt grey, the Corvette goes through the motions with confidence-inspiring balance and stability.

Most of the Lutzring is typical third-gear stuff, but there’s an uphill right-hander where the ZR1 touches the top of fourth. And the ’Vette is in its element everywhere. Second and third gear are the flavours of the day due to the combination of an aggressively staggered transmission and a high-revving engine.

Thanks to the amazingly prompt and linear throttle response, you can set up the car for every corner like it’s a Latin dancing partner. In total synchronicity and with perfect timing, one step flows smoothly into the next.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-rear.jpgWhat helps a lot is the ideal weight distribution which splits the 1508kg of aluminium-intensive kerb weight at a 51-percent front and 49-percent rear ratio between the axles. This balance is largely due to the six-speed Tremec transaxle, creating balance by moving the gearbox mass to between the two driven rear wheels shod with fat custom-engineered 335/25ZR20 Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres.

Team Corvette would have loved to offer the ZR1 with an optional automatic or dual-clutch set-up, but there are no such gearboxes in the GM pool that can cope with the massive low-end torque dished up by the supercharged V8.

The 6.2-litre small-block LS9 V8 features heavy-duty lightweight components and an intercooled sixth-generation, on-demand 15,000rpm Eaton supercharger, which is idled at part-throttle to save fuel. Combined, it makes a stunning 476kW and 819Nm of torque.

It shines through the bonnet’s polycarbonate ‘spyglass’ and as soon as you sink the loud pedal, two-thirds or more, all hell breaks loose, even sonically. Above 160km/h, the rocketship acceleration is accompanied by near-deafening engine noise fighting for authority over substantial wind and tyre roar.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-engine.jpgAnd the heat generated by the engine extends quite quickly to the thinly insulated transmission tunnel that will fry thighs faster than Colonel Sanders ever could. Corvette’s new chief engineer, Tom Wallace, equipped the ZR1 with the biggest and fattest brakes Brembo had on its shelves.

A whopping 20kg lighter than a comparable steel set, the 394mm cross-drilled composite rotors are straddled by devil-blue six-piston monobloc calipers up front, with 380mm rotors and four-piston calipers in the rear. They deliver a silent performance irrespective of stress and temperature, only a faint trace of brake dust, longer pad life, and the discs are claimed to outlive the vehicle.

They’re also easily modulated, and have a progressive action with constant pedal travel and an immunity to fade. After one hour on the Lutzring, racing lines and braking points memorised, it’s time to open up the throttle and to let the car fly, but it pays to bear in mind that the grip level changes abruptly from magnetic to greasy when the ZR1 drifts too wide.

Although the Corvette can’t really stretch its legs in this microcosm, it is awe-inspiring to feel the responsive engine torque, to experience its elastic power-band shrink the distance between bends, and to relish the willingness to rev as it zooms in on one apex after the other.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-exhaust.jpgThe six-speed’s gating feels a bit like reaching into a sackful of antlers, but somehow I always find the right gears, though maintaining the torque feed takes a little longer through the diagonal gate shifts.

Quite unexpectedly, the ZR1 chassis is more compliant and obliging than the less-forgiving black-or-white tuning chosen for the Z06. Magnetic Ride does a fine job taming compression and rebound, no matter whether they work in Touring or Sport mode. Softer composite transverse leaf springs and anti-roll bars as thick as rattlesnakes take care of less-busy body control and ride frequencies.

The ZR1 is by no means soft, but it has – like the Ferrari F430 Scuderia – discovered the virtues of compliance. There is, in other words, less of the bad stuff: less body-roll, reduced yaw, almost no brake dive, less acceleration squat, fewer vibrations on bumpy ground, and no more nervousness in the steering’s straight-ahead position.

The springs are still taut and the damper calibration ranges from firm to very firm, but the harshness that’s inherent in the Z06 has all but disappeared. It delivers enhanced controllability and superior stability, which are must-haves in a rear-wheel drive sports car capable of top speeds of more than 300km/h.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-front-bonnet.jpgRevised aerodynamics further enhance the ability to track with precision and sure-footedness at extreme velocities. The drag coefficient is a below-par 0.36 and the ’Vette’s frontal area is, of course, not exactly compact. Front and rear downforce has increased by over 30 percent, “by adding skirts, deflectors, aprons and little spoilers,” says senior project engineer Tadge Juechter.

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“And we’ve also reinforced the composite panels with aluminium structures to help stop them from distorting at very high speeds.” Together with bigger wheels – 19-inch up front, 20-inch in the back, in a sort of show-chrome finish – larger tyres and mildly modified suspension elements, the ground-effect bodywork contributes to the superglue roadholding that was an instrumental factor in the car’s claimed record lap around that other ’Ring.

Aided by the favourable weight distribution and the low centre of gravity, the Supervette musters a maximum lateral force of 1.05g. ‘Life begins at 200mph’ is the message conveyed by the polo shirts of Team ZR1, but the mighty impressive top speed tells only part of the story.

2009-Chevrolet-Corvette-ZR1-tailights.jpgAt least as mind-boggling are grip and traction at take-off, the intense mid-range acceleration and the awesome in-gear grunt that boosts you past 240km/h in fourth and storms through the 280km/h band in fifth. When they face the latest supercar from GM, neither the Ferrari F599 nor the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 or the Porsche 911 GT2 stand a chance.

The Viper can’t produce enough venom to neutralise the arch-enemy from the other end of Motown, either. Even potent exotics such as the Mercedes-McLaren SLR, the Aston Martin DBS or the Pagani Zonda better vacate the fast lane when the ZR1 appears in the rear-view mirror.

Just about the only sportscar that thoroughly eclipses the ultimate Corvette is the Bugatti Veyron ... at about 10 times the price of this bargain coupe from Detroit. And, after pushing GM’s fastest-ever car to its limits, we give it back with a huge smile that won´t go away before Christmas, at the earliest.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 specs:
Body: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Drive: rear wheels
Engine: 90-degree V8, OHV, 16v, SC
Power: 476kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 819Nm @ 3800rpm
Kerb Weight: 1508kg
0-100km/h: 3.5sec (claimed)
Top Speed: 330km/h (claimed)
Price: $400,000 (estimated)

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