[On the occasion of this year's Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, we're catching up on the Detroit muscle we've driven in the past year. First up, the Corvette Z06.] It's a tricky day for the Corvette Z06. In its short life, Chevrolet's flagship Vette has topped more best-of lists than Arcade Fire, and won enough esteem to neutralize, or at least distract from, the inadequacies plaguing Chevy's '07 car line. But the Z06 is approaching a crossroads, and fast. Papa bowtie has already sent the lowliest of C6 Vettes to boot camp, and it's returned with Parris Island abs. And there's even greater mechanical violence in Detroit yet to be born.
Chevrolet's new LS3 V8, which powers the base 2008 Corvette, stacks three dozen horses atop the previous year's 400. That'll bring the entry point to 436 hp, should one choose the optional exhaust package — and I certainly think one should. For historical context, that's 31 more than the last-gen Corvette Z06 got in 2004. Horsepower wars, indeed.
Topping the expanding Corvette line will be the SS model, expected by early next decade. Spied more frequently than Sasquatch, Carlos the Jackal and Britney's redneck hoo-ha combined, the "blue devil," as the prototype's been known, will be blown to the tune of 700 horsepower, or so the legend goes. Chevrolet's squeeze play means the Z06 might soon be its second banana. But what fine little banana it remains.
Little in the physical world, save a perfectly ripened Georgia peach or a first, frenzied roll in the hay, compares with putting foot to floor at 75 mph and watching numbers on the Z06's heads-up screen compound like the national debt clock. Perhaps base-jumping off Thomas Jefferson's Mount Rushmore schnoz might send a stouter charge through the adrenals, but the combination of that agreeable rumble from the engine room, the spectacular dash-top arithmetics and the sight of an overzealous RX-8 vanishing in the rear-view mirror releases more endorphins than a month at Six Flags.
There's also the matter of gas mileage. You've probably heard stories of how, glogging along in top gear, the 7.0-liter LS7's rev count drops to roughly the number of Starbucks outlets along the New Jersey Turnpike. That translates to a fantastical highway-mileage number - something like 26 mpg. Acts of hoonage at higher revs can easily reduce that figure by half, as we noted on a recent test drive, but in the age of the $54 fill-up, posting such a quantity on the sticker adds incalculable cachet.
Of course, the Z06 is not a perfect road car. For one thing, there's the firm suspension, which makes for crisp handling on smooth tarmac. Arrive too hot at a decreasing-radius off-ramp bend riddled with expansion joints or a mafia-approved paving job, however, and you could easily skip sideways into the hedgerows, or worse.
What's more, the Z06 has a fairly nasty, inherent craving to reverse its direction. This was once proved in flamboyant fashion by a guy with a wind-tunnel-tested haircut, who figured I - in a loaner Jag XKR - was being provocative at a stoplight (I was just enjoying the engine music). He loaded for elephant and fired a blast of torque that turned him about-face in the middle of a four-lane thoroughfare. (Psst, buddy; the traction control button is on the right.) The promise of a mid-engined Corvette has already churned through the rumor mill, and emerged debunked. That's not to say engineers haven't considered it, though to follow through would be to deviate awfully far from Harley Earl's script.
The Z06 was surely a watershed moment for Chevrolet. But we, and other worrywarts like us, fret the company will overact the part. A 700-horsepower Corvette with carbon-fiber implants and software running the show could be a world beater, but just as easily could be the exact moment things went too far, got too inelegant, breached the tipping point of excess. Let's hope Chevrolet doesn't neglect the car that got them here, and assigns it a long-term project of fine-tuning.