Review: 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

  • The ZR1’s 20-spoke alloy wheels — 19-inch diameter in front and 20 in the rear — and its carbon-fiber front splitter and rocker panels set it apart in the Corvette family. - 0
  • The small, body-wide rear lip spoiler adds a crisp touch to the rear profile, while the dual vents in the front fenders pay homage to the classic 1963 Sting Ray. - 1
  • This rear view of a naked ZR1 aluminum chassis shows the huge 335/25ZR20 Michelin Pilot Sport 2 run-flat tires, rear-mounted 6-speed manual gearbox and variable quad exhaust. - 2
  • The ZR1’s carbon-ceramic brakes look as if they had been carved out of stone. They will never fade, coat wheels with dust or need replacement in street use. - 3
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A stunning blend of handling, refinement and controlled fury.

The 2009 Corvette ZR1 is a flagship sports car that can match or outrun exotics worth several times its $103,000 base sticker, and yet proves smoother and more refined than any other Corvette in normal street driving. Powered by a spectacularly supercharged 638-horsepower version of the legendary Chevrolet small-block V8, and replete with leading-edge performance components, the ZR1 is definitely the new King-of-the-Hill Corvette. 

Model Lineup
Ordering a new ZR1 is simple: You can only add a luxury package ($10,000) and chrome wheels ($2,000) to the well-equipped 1LZ base trim. The luxury package adds heated, 6-way power-adjustable sport seats with perforated leather and memory function. Leather gets wrapped over the dashboard, door panels and center console in a two-tone design. Also included in the lux-pack are seat-mounted side-impact airbags; power telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel; DVD-based navigation; a Bose premium 7-speaker stereo system; Bluetooth connectivity; a cargo cover and net. The total sticker, gas guzzler tax included, is $117,000.

The ZR1’s chassis combines hydroformed aluminum beams with aluminum and magnesium structural components over a balsa-wood/carbon-fiber composite floor, much like the Corvette Z06. It has several more composite and carbon-fiber body panels than its sibling, though, including wider carbon-fiber front fenders with dual air vents that are a cool nod to the 1963 Sting Ray. The roof panel, front fascia splitter and thin moldings for the rocker panel are all in exposed carbon-fiber weave with a special GM-developed non-yellowing clear-coat expected to protect them for the life of the vehicle.

Spoiled in the braking department, the ZR1 arrives with standard Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes. The drilled discs are 15.5 inches in diameter in front and 15 inches in the rear, their blue calipers carrying six and four pistons, respectively. Designed to last the life of the vehicle (on the street), the new binders reduce unsprung weight by 11 pounds at each wheel — a boon to ride and handling. Unlike some other carbon-ceramic brakes, they don’t need to be warmed up, don’t squeal and won’t cover the 20-spoke alloy wheels with brake dust, thanks to organic-compound pads that contain no metal.

The ZR1 weighs 3,324 pounds: 182 more than a Z06 but 505 pounds less than a Nissan GT-R. All body changes were made primarily to optimize aerodynamic efficiency and high-speed stability. Lift was reduced by 39 percent at the front and 29 percent at the rear, with only a six percent penalty to the drag coefficient. Other tweaks help channel cool air to the engine intake, four radiators and brakes.

Under the Hood
The ZR1’s carbon-fiber hood sits barely an inch higher than that of the Z06, in spite of a 6.2-liter V8 engine that packs a supercharger and an intercooler atop its aluminum block between aluminum cylinder heads. The clear polycarbonate window in the center, through which the LS9 engine’s intercooler cover shines, is a showstopper. The team was shooting for 100 horsepower per liter but over-delivered, with the final SAE-certified figures landing at 638 horsepower and 604 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm — 90 percent of which is available from 2600 to 5000 rpm. At 2000 rpm the LS9 is already belting out 500 lb-ft of torque.

To reliably handle such power, the LS9 engine benefits from upgrades such as titanium rods and intake valves, and a forged-steel crankshaft. Each engine is built by hand in the Wixom, Michigan, plant by a single technician who signs it once done. The LS9 is mated to an adapted version of the Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual gearbox. A new twin-disc clutch does an amazing job of keeping the ZR1 easy to drive while remaining capable of handling its brutal torque. Performance numbers? GM quotes a 0-60 time of 3.4 seconds, achieved in the steep first gear. The quarter-mile mark subsequently whisks by in 11.3 seconds at 131 mph, on the way to a top speed of 205 mph in sixth gear.

Inner Space
The Corvette Group is proud of the leather-wrapped interior that comes with the luxury package. The cars we drove at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds and on nearby roads all had it. The instrument panel is quasi-identical to the Z06’s save for a 220-mph speedometer and a boost gauge, and the same data is also shown on the head-up display. The six classic white-on-black gauges are impeccably clear and legible.

The perforated-leather sport seats included with the luxury package are comfy and offer easy ingress and egress. They provide better lateral support than Corvette Z06 seats for the upper body, but keen drivers would probably jump at the option of a deeper-sculpted or better-bolstered cushion for any serious track work. That said, if the ZR1 has a weak point it is the still rather banal look and feel of its cabin, in spite of the team’s latest efforts. Everything is functional, well put together and the optional package adds liberal surfaces of stitched leather trim. But the whole simply does not look or feel as rich or exclusive as this brilliant sports car deserves.

On the Road (and Track)
The target of the ZR1 was to achieve better handling than the Z06 with the ride characteristics of the base trim. They nailed it. In spite of running on extremely low-profile, run-flat Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires (size 285/30ZR19 in front and 335/25ZR20 in the rear) the ZR1 rode amazingly well on a varied selection of roads. Compared to 2009 versions of the Z51 and Z06 coupes driven on the same loop (complete with the Corvette’s excellent new variable-ratio steering), the ZR1 unquestionably was the smoothest riding, quietest and most serene of the trio in all respects.

At the core of the ZR1’s impressive ride are standard Magnetic Selective Ride Control shocks. Now in their second generation, these Delphi-developed units also work wonders on the Audi R8. The ZR1 surprisingly rides on slightly softer springs but carries larger-diameter antiroll bars than the Z06.

Our laps around a partly coned-off version of GM’s twisty and treacherous 2.9-mile development track were enlightening. The engine’s relentless push and glorious sound at full throttle are the overwhelming initial impressions. The LS9 has a higher-pitched wail than you would expect from a big-bore V8, and sounds as if it is revving higher than its actual 6600 rpm limit. You then discover the enormous grip and progressive nature of the ZR1-exclusive Michelin PS2 tires.

Two full-bore laps as a passenger with development engineer Tony Rifici demonstrated how much grip there is at the front. Back at the wheel, once the front tires were fully loaded in medium or fast corners, the ZR1 would pivot gracefully and the amplitude of four-wheel drifts were easily modulated with the accelerator.

The stability and traction control system offers four settings that can help drivers safely pick up speed as they learn a new track and get acquainted with the ZR1’s responses. The system steps in if inputs are abrupt or if the car gets too much boot mid-corner. Our only beef was with the shifter, which produced the occasional hitch when shifting from 2nd to 3rd — the lever is a tad on the stiff side for fast driving or track work.

Right for You?
The Corvette has long been touted as a true bargain for its exceptional price/performance equation. In light of this, the new ZR1 is an outright steal if you can find and secure one of the 2,000 cars that are scheduled for production in 2009. Chevrolet even (wisely) throws in an advanced driving course. With all this, the ZR1 becomes (for the moment) the ultimate max performance all-rounder.

A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.

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