While the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 became General Motors’ number one point of pride when it was introduced with great fanfare in late summer 2008 as a 2009 model, having a $100,000-plus near-exotic sports car in the lineup suddenly be-came irrelevant once the stock market crashed, the economy dive-bombed and the automaker headed toward bankruptcy. Any brand-marketing cache associated with the car’s debut quickly evaporated. Not that the company has had any trouble selling its limited allotment of ZR1s to well-heeled and die-hard enthusiasts, mind you.
That’s because the ZR1 is the best ‘Vette ever in terms of all the things that count, namely acceleration and handling, and it can run with bona fide exotic sports cars from the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini for far less money, though it carries an MSRP that’s more than twice that of a base Corvette.
For starters, the ZR1is based around a hand-built LS9 6.2-liter supercharged small-block V8 engine. This power plant produces a rocket-like 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque, which still gives the ZR1 the edge over the 550-horsepower Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 in the domestic power wars. Chevy claims the car can reach 60 mph in just 3.4 seconds and hit 100 mph in a flat 7.0 ticks. With a blatantly illegal top speed of 205 mph, the ZR-1 was obviously conceived to enable both personal and corporate bragging rights.
By comparison, the next-quickest ‘Vette, the Z06, packs a 505-horsepower 7.0- liter V8 and can tally 60 mph, according to the automaker, in 3.7 seconds. This means Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 buyers will pay around $35,000 for what amounts to an extremely subtle 0.3-second increase in velocity. For those keeping score, the ZR1 costs over $56,000 more than the standard 6.2-liter V8 Corvette, which runs from 0-to-60 mph almost a full tick slower at 4.3 seconds.
So aside from a faster engine, what’s the difference between the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 and its less costly siblings? The ZR1 is built on the same lightweight aluminum-intensive chassis as the Z06 and rides on a similar suspension, but it comes with specific tuning for slightly quicker handling. To that end, the standard Magnetic Selective Ride Control features an ultra-stiff track-level suspension setting that’s engineered exclusively for cornering, but with little concern for ride comfort in the real world. Fortunately, other selectable suspension modes are able to better handle pavement blemishes without dislodging one’s dental work.
An upgraded six-speed close-ratio manual transmission features a high-capacity dual-disc clutch that’s designed to minimize pedal effort while shifting gears. As with the Z06, no automatic gearbox is offered. Upgraded brakes include Brembo carbon-ceramic rotors, and the car rides on wider Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires with 19-inch 20-spoke wheels up front and 20-inch wheels and tires at the rear.
For model-year 2012, ZR-1 buyers can upgrade the car via an optional High Performance Package that includes black Cup-style wheels with Michelin PS Cup tires.
Though it makes extensive use of lightweight carbon-fiber body panels throughout its exterior, aside from the badges there’s not a lot going on visually to differentiate the ZR1 from a base Corvette. It does feature slightly wider front fenders than the rest of the line, with a full-width rear spoiler and a polycarbonate window added to the hood over the engine’s intercooler that lets gawkers see where the owner’s money is going. Inside, there’s a specific gauge cluster and a challenge-inducing 220-mph speedometer.
Unfortunately, while most models priced in the six-figure range tend to come with a full array of amenities, several have been purposefully left out of the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, ostensibly as a weight-saving measure. Buyers looking for items like power heated leather seats, garage-door opener, a Bose premium audio array, GPS navigation system and a Bluetooth hands-free cell-phone interface will have to specify a $10,000 option package; chrome wheels are also optional.
owever, this may actually be more of a profit-taking measure, as adding all the available options increases the vehicle’s weight by just 26 pounds, according to a Chevrolet spokesperson we polled, and has no net effect on the ZR1’s 0-to-60 time.
Chevrolet allows purchasers of the ZR1 (also the Z06) to personally help assemble their cars’ engines at General Motors’ Performance Build Center in Wixom, Mich., albeit under the supervision of and support from skilled technicians. When the engine is assembled, a personalized nameplate is added to the engine next to the builder’s name. It is then sent to the Corvette assembly plant for installation in the customer’s car. While you’d typically get a discount for putting in your own labor to partially assemble something you’re buying, the Engine Build Experience, as it’s called, is a $5,800 option, with hotel accommodations and travel arrangements extra.
Whether or not the ZR1’s added performance and/or status are indeed worth its inflated MSRP is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. To be fair, Mercedes-Benz charges over $96,000 more for the supercharged V12-powered SL65 AMG roadster than it does the standard V8-powered SL550 version, with a performance increase that can hardly be considered worth the cost, at least on a purely practical level. And it could be argued that more Ferraris and Lamborghinis are sold each year more as status symbols than for their useable performance.
Of course practicality has little relevance with regard to cars that cost more than the price of a condominium and can accelerate several times faster than the law allows. Even in a healthy economy, few buyers can afford a car like this and fewer yet are be able to fully appreciate its performance. For better or worse, the ZR1 exists predominantly as a dream car. Your dreams, however, may vary.
Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Quick Facts
Engine: 6.2 Liter V8 Supercharged
Horsepower: 638 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 604 @ 3,800 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 14/20
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Overall Length: 176.2 in
Height: 48.7 in
Curb Weight: 3,333 lbs
Did You Know?
The original Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1was sold from 1990 through 1995, and was essentially an option package (coded “ZR-1,” of course) that was added to the base car. Like the current version it nearly doubled the vehicle’s price, then adding over $27,000 to what was otherwise a $32,000 MSRP. The car’s aluminum-block V8 engine was built by Mercury Marine – it saw duty on the water as well as the road – and generated 375 hp. This was sufficient for a 4.9-second 0-60 mph sprint and a 180 mph top speed. Its output was increased to 405 horses for 1993. Over its life span, 6,939 first-generation ZR-1s were built.