I knew it was going to be scary; I really did. I have a reasonable enough amount of track time in the already absurd, 650-horsepower Corvette Z06, that I knew, with reasonable certainty, that whatever the 2018 Corvette ZR1 could do around Road Atlanta, my driving ability would not be enough to keep up. The numbers, as they tend to be with Corvettes, were shocking: Seven hundred fifty five horsepower, seven hundred fifteen torques, two hundred fourteen miles per hour, and a nearly GT3-spec aero package, starting at $120,000. What I did not understand was the extent to which I’d be right, and how the 2019 Corvette ZR1 would completely warp my senses of what a fast car feels like.
The fastest, most powerful, and (yes) loudest Corvette ever built is, shamelessly, the opposite end of a pendulum swung into motion by the pileup of complaints by owners and journalists when warm track days led to limping “trackday special” Corvette Z06s. As it turned out, the Z06’s undersized, undercooled and overspun 1.74L Eaton supercharger couldn’t take the heat and got out of the kitchen on a pretty regular basis. One of the Corvette’s best calling cards, the lowest cowl height in the business, came into direct conflict with the needs of forced induction: packaging. Ask anyone who’s ever gone F/I in a ‘Vette – getting the larger radiator, intercooler, bigger airbox, supercharger itself, plumbing, etc, to fit under the hood of a standard Corvette is near impossible. You just can’t flow enough air in or out to deal with the heat.
This led, at first, to the glorious Grand Sport, still one of our favorite Corvettes, which combines the naturally-aspirated LT1 engine from the standard car with the Z06’s bodywork and chassis improvements, resulting in a wonderfully balanced, fun, and playful road and track machine. It also led to several tuners, most prominently Callaway Cars, developing new supercharger packages which utilize Eaton’s larger 2.3L supercharger, which, under less stress than the stock unit, can make an effortless, and terrifying, 775-horsepower with fewer cooling issues, as I experienced in their Aerowagen test unit – to date probably the most unhinged lunatic of a sports car I’ve experienced in the last 12 months. It does need to be said that in order to fit the larger blower, Callaway had to cut a hole in the hood, something you couldn’t possibly expect GM to do in 2017. Or could you? Put a pin in that. Also note I did not test the Aerowagen on a track, only on the roads, so I make no statement about that kit’s performance on the track.
Not willing to let Callaway and other tuners lay claim to cleaning GM’s house for them, GM performance attempted, successfully, to sell the ZR1 up the river. Though Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter says it wasn’t always easy pitching an even faster Corvette to GM’s notorious bean counters, the final car has very little compromise – most notably the Aero package means the ZR1 can’t be sold in Europe, and also eschews (thankfully) the silly skip-shift feature and cylinder deactivation, so customers have to eat the gas guzzler tax on this one.
But everything else, all the performance upgrades, have worked even better than GM’s engineering team ever could have imagined. So, let’s begin with the ZR1, the fastest, most powerful, loudest, and most comically ridiculous Corvette ever made.
The heart of the beast is a monstrous, supercharged, handbuilt 6.2L V8 called the LT5, Corvette historians will note the name is shared with the C4 ZR1’s “Speedboat” four-cam V8. GM had the LT5 and its hulking 2.65L blower on a stand next to the current Z06’s LT4 in the media room. The engine is 50 percent bigger, physically, than the LT4. It is absolutely absurd, and you cannot believe it fits under a Corvette’s hood. Well, it most certainly doesn’t. And the ZR1 doesn’t even have a hood; it’s more of a Carbon Fiber apron, which sort of surrounds the lower half of the engine. When raised, clamshell-style, Siegfried and Roy could jump tigers through the hole. I, a fat human, would easily fit through this hole. The LT5 has two fuel systems: Direct and Port Injection, because the DI system can’t flow enough fuel to match the giant blower’s airflow. In fact, while the electronically decoupling supercharger disconnects itself when cruising or idling, full throttle at redline requires 110 horsepower just to run the blower. Juechter says, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the ZR1 is capable of returning 25 mpg on a highway cruise, where the blower requires only one horsepower to spin.
I first heard the LT5 through the walls of Road Atlanta’s brick-lined classroom. The pulsating exhaust rattled fillings as cars were backed into position against the outer walls. The LT5 is the loudest idling stock engine I have ever heard, eclipsing the previous champion Jaguar F-Type SVR. It has a carry to it; a glorious bass note that, while lacking the tonal quality of a GT3 or Ford’s GT350R, isn’t just a hint at what happens when you mash the go pedal, it’s a warning. Lee Ermey explaining how Private Pyle’s day is about to go. In fact, you really don’t even have to start the thing to get that vibe. It looks like it wants to eat your face just standing still.
The entire front clip of the ZR1, everything in front of the base of the windshield, is new. It uses more carbon fiber than any car in GM’s history: the roof, fenders, rear quarter panels, hood, engine cover, front splitter, wing, and hatch are all made completely of the stuff, and the interior features plenty of it as well.
There are two different downforce packages to choose from, standard low and optional high. For $3,000, you get a taller rear wing, on adjustable stanchions. The wing can be flattened for daily use or lower drag, and angled for high-grip. You also get Michelin Cup2 Tires, whereas the standard package gets a fixed, lower wing and Pilot Super Sport Tires. Both kits get the incredibly trick ‘underwing’ which is from the C7.R and replaces the traditional splitter. It’s actually an upside-down wing section which creates real downforce to balance out the rear wing. The high downforce kit adds vertical canards to the outer edges of the underwing, looking particularly mean. This kit was developed on a moving, rolling road wind tunnel, which simulates both straight and yaw conditions, for a truly functional package.
But even more important than getting the ZR1 to stick, was getting it to hold up to trackday conditions without shitting the bed. The goal was to have full power for full sessions at 100 degrees Fahrenheit ambient temperature – quite the task. In order to make it happen, the powertrain requires the placement of 13 heat exchangers (you may recall the Bugatti Veyron famously had ten). The new front end flows 41 percent more air than the Z06, engineers even went so far as to hollow out sections of the front metal bumper itself so air can get through. Although conditions at Road Atlanta for our test were a somewhat brisk 55 degrees Fahrenheit, I can report that all the ZR1’s on hand ran a dozen five-lap sessions throughout the day without any issues, and I ran an additional five-laps on my own in the automatic without any noticeable heat issues. As a benefit, the 755-horsepower figure, according to Juechter, is a worst-case number. Meaning in most conditions, such as our cool morning in Atlanta, the LT5 will make markedly more power than advertised.
The ZR1’s magnetic ride control suspension system and electronic differential, as well as the steering system and wonderfully effective Performance Traction Management system carry over largely unchanged from the Z06, though tweaked to meet GM’s durability standards for the higher power output levels. What does change in the chassis department is the fifteen-inch Brembo Carbon-Ceramic brakes. The six-piston front and four-piston rear monoblock calipers carry over from lesser Corvettes (Ceramics are a standalone option on Grand Sport and Z06 now), but the ZR1 gets a unique pad and rotor combination derived from racing, identical in size but with a new compound to handle the higher speeds and higher temperatures that come from an extra 100 horsepower over the Z06 on every straightaway.
So that’s what the ZR1 is, now let me tell you what it can do, in the hands of a GM Performance driver: 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, quarter mile in 10.1 seconds at 134 mph, standing mile at 190 mph with the wing removed, top speed 214 mph with the low downforce package, and from 214 mph, it can come to a dead stop in 8.17 seconds. It ran, in completely stock trim, at full clip for 24 hours straight at Virginia International Raceway, stopping only to change fuel and tires, and in the process (middle of the run) accidentally set a production car lap record, 1.37 seconds quicker than the Ford GT did at the same track barely a week before.
(Sidebar: I spent some time recently with the Ford GT. Considering the sacrifices made to get something to go as fast as that car goes, the fact that this car, with its four-golf bag trunk and fat-guy interior is faster, is insane.)
On top of all that, with the ZR1 in ‘Tour’ mode, it is actually quieter than the Z06! I spent about three seconds in Tour mode. I noted its quietness with a satisfactory “huh!” then hit the button for R. Lee Ermey mode again.
It was by sheer luck that, when divided into two groups, I pulled the street drive first. It was 38 degrees ambient temperature at 9 am, and I wanted no part of an icy set of Cup2’s on a nearly icy Road Atlanta. Too bad for the crew from the Middle East that had to go first on track. As if to reinforce how correct I was in my fears, the universe handed me an embarrassing 20-degree fishtail as I pulled out of the parking lot at maybe 10 percent throttle.
(Interesting sidebar: Michelin offers a snow tire for the ZR1. GM’s engineers on hand were particularly proud of the fact that nearly all the final development of the ZR1 was done in Michigan, in winter, on snow tires. All reported the ZR1 to be hilarious fun in the snow, and apparently zero cars needed rescuing in over 100,000 miles of winter driving. The ZR1 can, according to GM, ford 12 inches of standing water. But that doesn’t mean you can do any of this on Cup2’s. Be honest about your usage, and don’t cheap out on tires because with 750 HP it could mean your life. I offered the engineers the challenge of seeking the production car lap record on snow tires at the ‘Ring).
On the road, and with warm tires, the ZR1 is as easy to drive as any Corvette. You could, I swear, teach your kid to drive stick in one. The power is so linear and the throttle control is so good, that despite the insane power and insane torque number, it’s very easy to “just use a bit less,” the car will not jump out at you. Considering the power figure, the clutch is light and easy, and considering the racing-derived brakes, they offer nice modulation for everyday driving and aren’t overly grabby or squeaky. What those brakes are is mind-bogglingly effective; certainly more effective than any cup holder General Motors has ever used. Also, I’m sorry about the dashboard in the Ceramic White, Manual Transmission ZR1. That was my coffee.
The ride, more than anything, impressed me on the road drive. The ZR1 is a car that, front approach angles aside, I could live with every day. The interior is standard Corvette fare; the sport seats are supportive and comfortable, the carbon fiber work looks nice, Chevy’s infotainment system is straightforward and easy to use, and the trunk is as big as ever, although the rear wing stanchions are fixed, meaning the wing doesn’t raise with the trunk – all luggage has to go over or around the wing. Not a dealbreaker, but something to consider if you really do plan to load golf bags in there regularly.
On the street, anywhere but Florida, Nevada, or Texas, you can’t go flat. It’s just too fast. Entire neighborhoods are gone in an instant. If you go to make a legal pass on a two-lane, a squirt of the throttle in fourth could find you doing 130 in a 55 before you even realized what happened. The LT5 is a nuclear reactor of an engine; far too ridiculous to exist. We’re so desensitized to numbers now that 750 is like, “only 47 more than a Hellcat,” but in a Corvette, this may as well be one of those World War I cars with the 28-Liter airplane engines and a chain drive, and the driver hanging on for dear life. It’s absolutely mental. At full throttle, it shoots an 800-degree blue flame out of all four exhaust pipes. And not just on shifts or overrun – all the time.
Road Atlanta is an undulating, unforgiving 2.6-mile road course in the Georgia woods. It’s legendary. It’s in every racing video game worth playing. I’ve been fortunate enough to race there in real life alongside my Road & Track co-workers, and to test five or six cars there over the years.
The ZR1 changes the shape of Road Atlanta. I ran ten laps in a 7-speed manual-equipped car, and then ten laps in the automatic. Frankly, I’m a pretty decent driver, but the ZR1 is so fast I found myself uncomfortable taking my hand off the wheel to shift the manual in a few places. Though the transmission is all-but identical in operation to lesser Corvettes, the intensity of the ZR1’s acceleration, braking, and grip gave me a sense of really wanting to keep both hands on the wheel, and also have one less thing to do, a feeling I most certainly did not have lapping an on-hand , which was just about right.
While the upside of this arrangement is that the eight-speed auto is faster in every measurable area, acceleration and lap times, as well as offering the comfort of both hands on the wheel, the downside is that not only is manual shifting mode, (“Tap-shifting,” according to GM’s terminology) awfully sluggish, but its also inconsistent, sometimes choosing to “bang and bog” on the rev limiter like last-gen AMG Benzes, and other times, to upshift on its own, before redline and without an upshift being called upon from the paddle or lever.
(Sidebar: you can see this happen a bunch of times if you watch my video, including seeing me get very frustrated with it at the end)
To make matters worse, General Motors has zero interest in improving the experience of manually shifting the automatic gearbox, which they all but said out loud by repeatedly answering my criticisms of these systems with “Just let it shift on its own, it’s better than you are,” and missing a) the entire point of driving sports cars for any reason besides racing, and b) the entire thing that makes Porsche’s PDK and other dual-clutch gearboxes better than their lazy auto – the engagement with the user.
The expected gearbox disappointments aside, the ZR1 is capable of going faster than I am capable of driving. Fortunately, the Performance Traction Management system is very good at managing the rear end for you, allowing progressive amounts of slip from “hell no” to “almost a drift” without reining in the fun or bogging the engine too much. You get an audible change in exhaust tone when the system is working, which is great feedback for trying a new approach next time. If you can run clean without the system interfering too much, it’s a good indicator of being smooth.
Every time you lay into the throttle though, it feels like the thing wants to jump out of its own tires. It rears up on its haunches, the front end gets a bit light, and the sustained tidal wave of torque hurtles you down the straightaways so fast that the entire course feels almost like a kart track. One full throttle squeeze through the esses, for maybe a half a second, necessitates full brakes to make it up turn five. I saw 132 mph on the short mid-straight in the back. Last year, I lapped a modified Porsche 991 Turbo S and ran out of bravery across the kink at 151 mph. In the ZR1, I chickened out at 155. Supposedly GM’s engineers have seen 165 across the kink, but I’ll leave those kind of heroics for PCOTY and not a regional press launch. It would probably take me all day of training with a ZR1 to get near the limit.
But oh. My god. Is it a good time. Yes, performance and racing are serious business, but the ZR1 is like a clown car – so hilarious and ridiculous you can’t help but cackle every single time you get out of it. The engine is so tall you can barely see out of the windshield, and the spoiler is so tall that you can’t load the back, and the engine is almost comically huge in the car, it will intimidate anyone who sees it. It’s the kind of car with so much power it had the fastest lap ever around Milford in its first lap ever on the track, and yet, the learning curve is very steep – I’ve had lots of runs around Road Atlanta, probably two hundred laps total, but it still took me a lot longer than normal to feel anything like real comfort lapping the ZR1, despite the intense exhilaration of that much power.
As usual, for the segment, there is nothing like it. From the 1990 ZR1 that ran with 911 Turbo’s and Testarossa’s for $61,000, to the C6 ZR1 that I took to the Mojave Mile and ran 177 mph for $110,000 with no prep work whatsoever, to the new one, which handily embarrassed the $450,000, “we’ll sue you if you sell it” Ford GT by accident, for $140,000 (as tested), the ZR1 is everything you want out of the ultimate Corvette to compete with the world, at a price nobody can compete with, though at perhaps a lower quality of interior and finish than more expensive competition. For better or worse, it’s a Corvette. But it is, without question, the fastest, loudest, craziest, most capable Corvette ever made, which puts it right in the running for fastest road cars of all time. Hu’Murrica, hell yeah.