THIS IS NOT THE BEST TIME TO THINK ABOUT HENRY DAVID THOREAU. The speedometer of the preproduction 2019 Corvette ZR1 I’m driving is sweeping past the 140 mark on NCM Motorsports Park West’s relatively short back straight, its 755-hp supercharged V8 bellowing a straight-pipe sonata. Ahead is Turn 5, which requires an entry at over 100 mph and a pair of steady hands in the moments that follow. I should be pondering the brake zone, turn-in, available grip, the nontrivial crosswind that is shaking the ZR1’s big chassis-mounted wing like a frustrated Labrador—pretty much anything but the tax-dodging naturalist from Massachusetts now consuming my back brain.
It must be that Stingray badge. Each C7-generation Corvette sports a distinctive plaque on its center console, just ahead of the shifter. It can be customized with the owner’s name or the VIN or a notation that the car was delivered at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, down the street from NCM. The Z06 plaque reminds drivers of the 650 hp at their disposal; the Corvette Grand Sport’s features a chromed plan view of its namesake.
Production ZR1 Corvettes will likewise have a handsome model-specific plaque, but this particular car was intended for testing—what Alex MacDonald, the engineer and driver who serves as Chevrolet’s vehicle-performance manager, calls “certification.” It’s wrapped with camera-confusing camouflage to discourage spy photography. There is no exterior badging. And while the instrument panel has the correct ZR1 logo between the fuel and boost gauges, the center-console plaque proclaims merely that it is a Corvette Stingray. In the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau wrote, “If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.” Surely he would have approved of the way the ZR1 was required to prove its mettle before it could wear the medal.
There’s also a little bit of truth-in-labeling going on here. The 1990 ZR1 was defined by its outrageously expensive heart, a 32-valve V-8 designed in conjunction with Lotus and built by Mercury Marine. The next ZR1 was the first factory-supercharged Vette in history, and its muscular body featured a carbon-fiber hood and roof.
This third take on the ZR1 formula starts with that head line-grabbing horsepower number but quickly descends to a description of diminutive differences. The front wheels mount the same-size tire as the Z06 but are themselves a half inch wider, providing better shoulder support for more predictable steering at high g-levels. The suspension is the same as what you get on the Z07-package Z06, but the damping and spring rates have been retuned. Let Barrett-Jackson auctioneers of the distant future be warned: This will be the easiest ZR1 to fake after the fact.
Which is not to say that the competition should be anything but terrified. The ZR1, like Isaac Newton, stands on the shoulders of giants. The plain-Jane C7 Corvette is probably the finest American sports car in history, while the Z06 is a 650-hp guided missile that can trouble the mirrors of million-dollar hybrid hypercars. So MacDonald and his crew didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They just had to give it additional power and polish.
On paper, the LT5 engine in the ZR1 differs little from the supercharged LT4 developed for the Z06. The crankshaft is stronger. Eaton supplies the 2.7-liter blower, which is 52 percent larger than the one atop the LT4. It features a wide variety of incremental improvements, including a more efficient electronic bypass valve and the ability to flow a much higher volume of intercooler fluid.
The Z06 has become infamous in the Corvette owners’ community for being fussy at high ambient temperatures. Questioned on this subject, MacDonald is relatively unrepentant. “We always used 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit] as the target for cooling performance. . . . The Z06 passed all the tests at 30 degrees.” For the ZR1, however, his team raised the bar, choosing a higher target that he declines to specify. He does note that the ZR1 was tested at Willow Springs International Raceway in temperatures over 100 Fahrenheit with no difficulty.
Toward that end, there are five extra radiators in the hungry-looking front fascia, with intercoolers stacked ahead of the radiators in the outbound positions. That extra attention to cooling is why the ZR1 looks the way it does. “Our target for overall downforce and drag was similar to the Z06,” MacDonald notes. “But when you’re pulling in all that extra air for cooling, you have to make up for the negative effect on the aerodynamics.” The front under-wing extends all the way back to the wheel wells in traditional race-car fashion and giveth the downforce the radiators taketh away. The wing in back balances the nose.
There are two aero configurations. Choosing the $2995 ZTK Track Performance package replaces the low-mount wing with an adjustable high-mount version and adds jetliner-style winglets on both sides of the front splitter. So equipped, the ZR1 cannot meet European pedestrian-safety standards, but that’s okay; the engine-mounted air extractor that pokes through the hood is enough to disqualify this Vette all by itself.
MacDonald is quick to clarify that the ZTK-spec aero does not play in the same league as the Extreme Aero package on the now-discontinued Dodge Viper ACR. “We have plenty of downforce, but this is not meant to be a full-on ‘aero car,’ ” he says. Chevrolet’s customer data indicates that most prospective ZR1 customers don’t want a wing at all, unlike Viper ACR buyers, who almost universally opted for the Extreme package and probably would have ordered the wing from the F-16 Viper had it been had it been available. “There are a lot of people who want the power but don’t want a wing,” MacDonald says. “The reason we offer a low wing on the ZR1 is because that’s closer to what the customers want.”
Another thing customers want: an automatic transmission. So the ZR1 has one, for the first time, with eight ratios. Both it and the seven-speed manual are direct mechanical carryovers from the Z06. “We haven’t done A-to-B testing,” MacDonal says, “but the automatic is likely faster, because we have torque reduction to protect the first three gears in the manual. Shifts are very fast–we leave the torque converter locked and use the same kind of predictive algorithm found in dual-clutch [automatics] to prepare the next likely shift.” Given the popularity of the automatic on the Z06 and the general disappearance of manual transmissions from modern supercars, was there discussion about making the automatic the sole choice? “We would not have done this car without a manual option,” MacDonald answers.
ZR1 buyers will pay more gas-guzzler tax than Z06 owners who choose an automatic. According to MacDonald, the EPA surveys buyers on which of the Corvette’s drive mode they use most often. “They all say that they use Track mode, even the very few people actually use Track mode on the street–for obvious reasons. So we have to include Track mode in our fuel-economy calculations. We decided to eat the penalty so we could calibrate the transmission the way we wanted.” In Tour mode, the ZR1 delivers slightly worse fuel economy then the Z06, primarily because the LT5 doesn’t use the LT4’s cylinder-deactivation feature.
The automatic will surely be very good, but I’m thankful our test car is equipped with the seven-speed manual. Shift effort is astoundingly low. If you tested it back-to-back with a 1998 C5 Corvette, you’d assume that the older car had 755 hp and the new one needed to cope with only 345. Maneuvering around the paddock at NCM, the ZR1 is compact-car easy to operate. The only obvious sign of its furious purpose is a bit of thump and skip in the front end when you crank the steering all the way to the stop for parking. This behavior is present in lesser Corvettes, but it is exacerbated here by the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that are part of the ZTK package.
In pit lane, MacDonald explains the traction-control system. The smartest thing to do is turn the console-mounted mode knob to the “Tr” setting and leave it like that. Doing so will let you go very fast while still protecting your $122,000--options investment with the active handling stability-control system.
That’s what I’d like to do, but MacDonald is having none of it. “Press the stability-control button twice. . . . That’s been a constant behavior of the system since 1998; our owners are used to that,” he says. The instrument panel then shows a choice of five traction-control and handling modes. I start with Sport 1, the middle mode. It dials back the stability control safety net and adds fairly aggressive spark-ignition traction control. Time to head out.
My God, the power. There are other vehicles that accelerate like this ZR1—a Kawasaki ZX-14R, the McLaren 720S, the B-58 Hustler—but a Z06 isn’t one of them. More impressive, it has traded that car’s traditional blown V-8 breathlessness for a robust, rev-happy powerband that closely mimics the standard C7’s naturally aspirated behavior but delivers more than half again the shove.
MacDonald frequently mentions throttle response, citing the E36-generation BMW M3 as a target. It’s tough to get a big, boosted pushrod V-8 to act like a free-breathing 24-valve straight-six, but Chevrolet may have managed. Some credit goes to the flexibility provided by an additional port-injection system, which operates in conjunction with the existing direct-injection setup.
Racing legend Mark Donohue once said that you didn’t have enough power until you could spin the wheels from the exit of one turn to the entry of the next. The ZR1 doesn’t feel far of. Every corner exit is accompanied by two or three seconds of traction-control stutter-step. The system won’t save you from your own stupidity—on a whim, I floored the throttle around a hairpin and was promptly rewarded with a half-gainer. It’s just meant to help you get around the track in a tidier fashion.
We’re running NCM in the same configuration we use for our Performance Car of the Year test. However, two days of rain have washed the typical layer of rubber off the pavement, leaving a slick, “green” track. Even so, my third lap places the 3600-pound Chevrolet firmly among the fastest cars in PCOTY history. One of the first things I learn is that while the ZR1 may not be as heat-sensitive as its stablemate, it still thrives on cool air. The drop in straightline pull between the 48-degree morning and the 62-degree afternoon is noticeable in the data, if not from behind the wheel. Both MacDonald and I take a couple of five-lap sessions, pitting for tire-pressure checks and the occasional set of new rubber.
His team ran this car on track for 24 hours without a single mechanical failure, but this level of power and grip is not for the fiscally faint of heart. A tank of gas disappears every 26 minutes. Tires should be replaced every half hour or so. Front brake pads last just long enough to get through Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti double album. Not that a Lamborghini Huracán Performante does much better—but a stock C7 Z51 will run on track for eight hours with nothing other than a couple of fill-ups and a few brake bleedings. Consider yourself warned.
We decide to break for the day and return for better weather the next. Early the following afternoon, I set traction control to Sport 1, turn on the built-in lap timer, and confirm what the Corvette team had demonstrated at Virginia International Raceway a few months prior: This is almost certainly the fastest street-stock car money can buy. It lacks the high-speed grip of a Viper ACR or the Performante, but it would easily match them in the sub-100-mph corners and effortlessly drop them in a straight line. Handling balance is acceptably neutral; play stupid throttle-lift games midcorner and you’ll win stupid snap-oversteer prizes, but treat the ZR1 with respect and you will never be scared by it. The traction control is not up to the finely grained standard set by Mercedes-AMG with the GT R, yet it is more than adequate to make time around a track. If you like driving a Miata on a road course, you will like this. It’s that good.
Chevrolet’s popular Performance Data Recorder (PDR) has been significantly upgraded for 2019. MacDonald and I load our data on his laptop and compare everything from brake pressure to individual-corner suspension travel. I know the track better; he knows the car better. But in just five minutes, we figure out how to combine lines to set the fastest lap. Most pro race teams don’t have this kind of data.
PDR isn’t exclusive to the ZR1. In this respect, like so many others, it is just an ordinary Corvette. MacDonald notes that they had to “certify” the car to the same standards as a base, non-Z51 Stingray, including a test in which the 755-hp, big-wing track monster had to ford 12 inches of water at about 5 mph.
“At times, it was a hassle to certify it,” MacDonald says, “and you kind of envy the exotic-brand engineers who don’t have to do this stuff . . . but it makes for a better product in the end. It’s a real car. You can use it like a real car. And our customers expect that. It’s part of the Corvette brand.”
Therein lies the greatness of the ZR1. It’s not the power, which will eventually be exceeded by a competitor. It’s not the balance and pace on track, although both are exemplary. Rather, it is the fundamental Corvetteness of it. Any C7 owner could trade up to a ZR1 tomorrow and suffer no penalties besides the obvious financial ones. You lose nothing. It is simply a Corvette with more: more power, more pace, more capability. There is nothing radical about it, because nothing radical was required. It is simply the fastest possible variant of the finest American car ever built. And that reminds me of another Thoreau quote, particularly as it applies to MacDonald and his team: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Base Price: $122,095
As tested: $142,980 (3zr, ztk)
Engine: Pushrod 16-valve 6.2-liter supercharged V-8
Peak Output: 755 hp @ 6300 rpm; 715 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission:7-speed manual, rwd
L x W x H: 176.9 x 77.4 x 48.6 in
Weight: 3600 lb
0–60 mph: 3.0 sec (est)
Top Speed: 208 mph (est)
On sale: Now