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2009 Corvette ZR1: First Drive

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The 2009 Corvette ZR1 is the best car ever made. It redefines what performance cars are capable of, not by its numbers (the 0-to-60 in 3.3 seconds and a 205 MPH top speed figures are no longer noteworthy north of $100,000), but by how it makes those numbers so accessible. Simply put, the ZR1's most remarkable achievement is how easy and unintimidating the chassis makes exploiting the car's 638 HP. The only problem is I'm not good enough a driver to fully do so. Halfway through a day's lapping, halfway around the Lutz Ring and full throttle at the top of third gear is bringing me and a red ZR1 into a 180-degree corner way too fast, while the blind crest just before it - taken at maximum power and maximum cornering - has us way off line too. In any other supercar, especially one as hairy as a Viper or as rear-engined as a 911, this would be a serious moment, probably resulting in one of my notorious off-track excursions. But today I can just haul on the brakes all the way through turn-in and up to the apex and then get back on the power - hard. The result: sweaty palms instead of trashed carbon fiber body work.
The first thing you need to do with the ZR1 is throw out any preconceived notions you have about it. Isn't it just a more extreme Z06 with 131 more horsepower or an answer to a question no one asked? No. It's a comprehensively re-engineered vehicle that shares little in feel with either the standard Corvette or the Z06, outperforming both on the track, obviously, but also, surprisingly, on the road. How? A remarkably civilized yet awesomely powerful engine; an easy-to-use gearbox; compliant-yet-capable suspension; and a chassis that simply overachieves at any task you give it. While based on the standard car's LS3 V8, the ZR1's LS9 makes its power with the aid of a Roots-type supercharger whose intercooler cover is visible through the tacky Lexan hood window. With 638 HP and 604 lb-ft of torque, its speed should come as no surprise, but its character will. Equipped with a dual-mode exhaust, there's little hint of its performance at low speed, the RPMs dipping if you pull away on light throttle. Up to 2,500 RPM (about all you need on the road — it delivers 320 lb-ft at 1,000 RPM), it feels like something that belongs in a big German luxury car. It's torquey, quiet and, combined with the ZR1's 3,364 lb curb weight, it makes driving effortless.
It's when you begin to climb into higher RPMs at larger throttle openings that the LS9's performance reveals itself in its absurd volume. A second exhaust valve opens, taking the engine note from refined to apocalyptic. The all-consuming sound focuses your attention on nothing but the road in front of you. But it lacks any aural indication of its supercharger. For reasons that escape us, the Corvette engineers went through elaborate steps to eliminate the whine, even doubling the number of teeth on the lobe drive gears to move their sound beyond the human ear's range of perception. Tap into the loud zone and everything in front starts to come at you very fast. 300 HP arrives at just 3,000 RPM before peaking at 6,500, leaving 100 RPM before the redline. The close-ratio gearbox (unique to the ZR1) means shifts come fast, but the wide spread of power and torque means you can leave it in third for pretty much anything above 30 MPH.
Like the engine, that gearbox does little to hint at the ZR1's ultimate performance. A twin-disc clutch leads to easy pedal throw, while a precise gate makes finding gears simple. This isn't a fire-breathing monster, but instead a car anyone could drive competently — even for long distances (it's comfortable) or at high speeds (its limits are so high that you need to try very hard to find them).
In fact, the only thing detracting from the ZR1's grand touring credentials is the interior. The only options on the $103,300 car are an awful set of chrome wheels and the 3ZR upgraded interior package, which succeeds in moving the interior from cheap and nasty into luxurious bass boat territory with more embroidered ZR1 and Corvette logos than my fragile mind could comprehend. We have a hard time accepting the 'value' excuse; for this kind of money we'd no longer like to feel like a Jeff Foxworthy punchline. An automatic transmission is, thankfully, not an option. The ZR1's road ability is boosted by the two-mode magnetic damping. Select "Touring" on the center-mounted ride-control knob, and, while it can't hide that the ZR1 wears 335/25-20s on the rear, it rides comfortably enough to make you forget you're driving something capable of lapping the Nurburgring in 7:26.4. The damping adjusts itself near-instantaneously to maintain grip on rough surfaces. You won't feel this happen, but you will notice how unflustered the ZR1 is no matter how crappy Michigan roads may be.
The real magic of the ZR1 isn't that it's capable of any of the above, though. It's that it will make you forget all of its intimidating performance figures and fancy technology the second you take a corner at speed. Despite all the headline numbers, this car isn't about power, it's about handling.
Built on the same aluminum-intensive chassis with fancy magnesium bits as the Z06, the ZR1 uses independent suspension all-round, but here it arrives with bespoke tuning capable of coping with the 1.05 lateral Gs the purpose-made Michelins make possible.
Conventional wisdom states that a front engine, rear-wheel drive car capable of these numbers should be incredibly difficult to drive, with a significant predisposition toward slamming into immovable objects, backward. In fact, before driving the car, Ray and I discussed whether or not the ZR1 was set to become the cheapest way to kill an inexperienced driver quickly, but that's simply not the case. It's so competent a car that it makes the 638 HP feel unremarkable. Two people went off-course the day I was at the track, but both did so because they got intimidated by the sheer speed at which they were traveling. Had they simply looked where they wanted to go, instead of off into the grass, the Corvette ZR1 would have made it around the corner - the same nasty off-camber, downhill one both times - much faster than they were actually traveling.

This is only my second track day since getting the cast off and I'm still not back to full health. And, I hate to admit it, but I'm a little more cautious than I used to be. The Lutz Ring is also an incredibly intimidating track. Jim Mero, the guy with the 'Ring record, described it as the best possible preparation for his attempt as it packs all the German track's challenges into a space not two miles long. That includes the lack of run-off — guardrails line the track's fastest corner and you need to get within a couple inches of them to be really fast. But two laps into my first session and I'm ringing the car out in second and third gear. No matter the speed or the amount of ill-advised braking, it turns in and holds a line without drama and accelerates out under full throttle without stepping wide. In fact, it rapidly becomes apparent that, without intentionally trying to do so, I'm incapable of making the ZR1 misbehave. Even topping out the suspension over the track's two jumps then slamming hard on the massive ceramic brakes just as the car regains traction fails to make it lose composure. Just like the two guys who went off, I'm unable to reprogram my brain enough to accept the ZR1's ludicrous speed. This is the first car I can say this about in a long, long time - the ZR1 is too fast for me.
That's not to say I can't enjoy it. This isn't a PlayStation game. The ZR1 is a rear-wheel drive car that needs significant driver input in order to make it around a track or down the road quickly. It's that involvement, not just ultimate speed, that is its reward. Even if it provides you with better tools to do so than anyone else, the Corvette ZR1 still challenges you to try and exploit its performance; it's the level of that challenge and the level of involvement required to meet it that makes the ZR1 truly special. Photography: Alex Conley Editor's Note of Thanks: Thank you Sun-Sentinel for not knowing what midnight means!