The ZR1 is the ultimate Corvette, as reflected in its 638 horsepower and $103,970 base price. When you consider its ability to take on any other high-performance car in the world, the ZR1's day-to-day livability is truly impressive. I spent a couple days driving the 2009 — which many consider a "supercar" — as a commuter/shopper/social-lifer car, which is always an enlightening exercise in a car designed to go very, very fast. We're conditioned to expect more tradeoffs — if not flat-out punishment — from sports cars than any other vehicle type, starting with ride quality but including noise, cramped quarters, difficulty getting in and out, limited cargo space, poor gas mileage and astronomical insurance rates. In my experience, though, the ZR1 never got that memo. Though it's more than just another Vette (see them compared here), you might not get that impression when driving it around town.
To truly appreciate what I experienced, you must check out my earlier ZR1 track-test report in our blog, KickingTires. (You won't appreciate Dr. Jekyll if you don't first experience Mr. Hyde.)
Ride Quality: Like a Rock?
For perspective on how times have changed: I lost a filling or two in a brand-new 1984 Corvette — first of the C4 generation — and it was a "plain" version, not a track-optimized Z06 or ZR1 model (which the C4 generation later added). To put it mildly, the 1984 didn't have the Magnetic Selective Ride Control adaptive suspension of today's ZR1. Actually, I'm not convinced it had a suspension system at all. (There's no telling how tall I'd be now if I hadn't taken that ride 25 years ago.) The payoff, though, was handling like I'd never experienced — and like no American car had ever provided before. It came at a price, but that's just how sports cars were back then — and in most of the years since.
Fast-forward to 2009 and a less-resilient guy who can't quite believe the ZR1 is the same car that, on a track in Michigan, taught him what it feels like to have a 200-pound head. The ZR1 rides more comfortably than it has a right to, thanks mainly to the Selective Ride, which is offered on the regular Vette but not the Z06, in the interest of weight reduction. Now, it doesn't ride like a luxury car. It doesn't ride as smoothly as a sensibly priced sedan, either. You will feel imperfections in the road surface, but it's not like your dental work's in jeopardy. On a smooth highway, it's downright pleasant. Interstate travel isn't out of the question. I wouldn't choose the ZR1 if I had a back injury, but I can't imagine it would give anybody one. I began to think the ZR1 was a car I could take anywhere. I was wrong.
All superheroes have their weaknesses. Superman has kryptonite, Spiderman has Mary Jane and the Tick has television execs who don't know a gem when they see it. As for the Corvette supercar? It has speed bumps. Yes, the big, bad, 638-hp monster of Germany's famed Nurburgring racetrack can be felled by a little bump in the road. The chin spoiler, or "splitter," which is designed to keep the front end from going aeronautical, skates just a few inches above the ground. To be clear, this isn't just a plastic piece under the front bumper that might or might not clear a curb or parking block. It's a protruding, comparatively inflexible — and very expensive — carbon-fiber lower lip that's a design element as well as a functional one. It will not clear a curb or a parking block. You can work around this with exceptional care and by backing into spaces in parking lots, but speed bumps are truly touch-and-go, which makes forays into uncharted routes a nerve-wracking experience.
Imagine pulling onto an access road followed closely by other cars before spotting generous speed bumps ahead. Imagine trying to back out of such a situation. Imagine doing so in a car other drivers are predisposed to disdain, such as a Corvette painted Atomic Orange Metallic. Imagine the kind of rage you'd be met with. You can't. I promise.
As if out of nowhere, villainous manhole covers emerged from mid-construction asphalt roads. After just a couple of hot days in a record-cool Chicago summer, pavement saw me coming and buckled on the spot. Suddenly our hero and its dashing chin were staring down all variety of superfoes. I cringe to think of how efficiently this thing would spatula some roadkill onto the hood.
I took to aiming the big wheels toward disruptions, figuring that would be better than catching one on the chin spoiler. I know I praised the car's suspension earlier, but this practice got old pretty fast.
Though sports cars have improved in recent years, they do tend to be louder than average, mainly due to powerful engines and exhaust systems designed to, well, let it all out. The Corvette Z06 and ZR1 have this one licked, too. Computer-controlled diverter valves in the mufflers, whose vacuum actuators are visible atop the tailpipes, keep the exhaust quiet until the right combination of rpm and load prompts them to bypass some of the mufflers' chambers for reduced back-pressure and a terrific V-8 growl. When plodding along, the ZR1 is no louder than the muscle cars in our recent Cars.comparison. When you pass 3,000 rpm with urgency, however, pedestrians take cover.
Fans of "The Blues Brothers," "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" have seen car chases on Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive — an underground street just blocks away from Cars.com headquarters (which is next to the building that appeared as Gotham City Hall). If you get the opportunity before you die, get your hands on a ZR1, slide on down to Lower Wacker, roll the windows down and keep the gearbox in 1st or 2nd gear until you pass 3,000 rpm. The Batmobile would blush.
Because of their loud drivetrains and minimal noise treatment, which would add weight, sports cars tend to be loud on the inside, too. Here the ZR1 also isn't bad, for its type. The engine is hardly turning over in normal cruising, but you do hear exhaust and some whirring from the transaxle, which is behind the cabin. Not bad doesn't mean good, of course. If you're one to talk on the cell while driving, you might find it hard to hear the caller. On the downside, you can barely hear the supercharger, even under heavy acceleration. The charger — the latest from Eaton — has four lobes per rotor, which are more aggressively twisted than the previous generation's three lobes. The result is higher efficiency and lower noise, a GM engineer stated proudly to me. "What did you do that for?!" I replied. I love a good supercharger moan.
Room to Breathe
As sports coupes go, the ZR1 is reasonably large inside, with more legroom than the Audi R8, Bentley Continental GT, Jaguar XKR, Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Porsche 911, Nissan GT-R and Dodge Viper. The Lamborghini Gallardo, Nissan GT-R and Ferrari F430 have more legroom, but the Italian cars don't compare in headroom. The ZR1 sits low to the ground, for sure, but it's higher than the Italian supercars, and its relatively large doors aid entry and exit.
Cabin storage is nothing to get excited about — you could fit a CD case in the space under the center armrest, maybe two — but the cargo room certainly is. We fit two golf bags in the hatch and there was clearly room for two more. (We wisely took them back out again and went for a drive instead.) At 22.4 cubic feet, the Vette's cargo volume blows away every competitor I can think of. The Gallardo, R8 and 911 come in under 4 cubic feet, the Nissan under 9, and all the others mentioned fall between that and 15 cubic feet. Once again, if you're considering interstate travel, the ZR1's accommodations look inviting.
Much More Gas, Much Less Often
Thanks to advancements in turbocharging, supercharging, electronic drivetrain management and other technology, mileage has improved among sports cars. But, really, no amount of magic is going to give you 638 hp. It takes gas. Lots and lots of gas. As a consequence, the ZR1 gets an EPA-estimated 14/20 mpg, on premium fuel, and a $1,700 guzzler tax. This isn't good mileage, especially for a Corvette, which achieves 16/26 and 15/24 mpg in the base and Z06 versions, respectively. For perspective, remember the chiropractor's dream Vette from 1984? It was rated 13/20 by today's methods. (This reflects the whole auto market's evolution: more power, same mileage.)
For more perspective, this is a special car, and one that will sell in small volumes. If millions of people have been satisfied to get a combined 16 mpg in an SUV that could have tackled an off-road trail but never did, I suspect others will be happy with the same mileage in a car that can do zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 205 mph, even if it never does.
A True Supercar
After I drove the ZR1 last year, I questioned if it was a supercar in the traditional sense. Yes, it has the chops on the track, but most supercars are their own model — the Audi R8, for example, despite its lesser capabilities. The same is true of the Ferrari and Lamborghini supercars. When you see them, you know they're something special. My objection was that the ZR1 — no matter how Chevy has tweaked it — will be perceived as "just a Corvette." I've been proved wrong. When I got home with the ZR1, I was trapped in my driveway by neighbors, including a few I didn't know I had. More than an hour later, after many guided tours and a quick ride for a neighbor kid, I got into my house where, after dark, I pondered donning black clothes and face paint just to take out the garbage unaccosted. I give a lot of credit to the stunning orange paint, but there's no doubt that the modified body and carbon-fiber body kit caught people's eyes, too.
The ZR1 isn't quite an exotic, but it deserves its supercar title. It does what its competitors can do for less money, and it gives you the same feeling. My favorite superhero is Iron Man. When you think about it, Superman is a space alien, Spiderman is just a freak and — with all due respect to the Justice League and the good work they do, many of their members likewise are mutants and victims of science projects gone awry. Iron Man is a normal guy who wraps himself in a powerful high-tech machine and blasts around at blistering speeds. No wonder I love the ZR1 ... and have always hated speed bumps.
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Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Joe Wiesenfelder||Cars.com National||August 20, 2009|
|Cars.com Staff||Cars.com National||April 29, 2008|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||September 6, 2009|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||February 12, 2009|
|Dan Neil||Los Angeles Times||October 16, 2008|
|Scott Burgess||The Detroit Newspapers||August 20, 2008|
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