By Keith Griffin
Look no further than the Corvette ZR1 for proof that the United States can produce an exotic supercar that beats--even blows away--the foreign competition. There's simply no finer sports car with an American badge rolling off the assembly line today than this über-Corvette.
The ZR1 packs a wallop under its carbon-fiber hood. Its raised, polycarbonate window offers a view of the intercooler (or, as I like to call it, "the mighty magic maker") that powers an LS9 supercharged V8 rated at 638 horsepower and 604 lb.-ft. of torque.
This is a beautiful engine that does its job effortlessly. Granted, it has way more power than can ever be used on American highways (or European, Asian, or Australian roadways). Few drivers are even capable of achieving its top speed of 220 m.p.h. on a track or abandoned airstrip. With a 0-60 time of 3.4 seconds, the ZR1 eats up on ramps and makes passing a mere flick of your foot on the accelerator.
There is an element of this car that absolutely trumps its power--as difficult as that may be to believe. And that would be its handling. Over the years, some magnificent sports cars that demonstrate amazing handling have graced my driveway. Topping the list would be the Acura NSX that devoured corners and the Audi R8 that was a close second.
In third place is the ZR1. As my co-pilot commented on a spirited romp through curvy back roads in New England, "We're moving and the car isn't." In other words, the ZR1 seemed to be keeping a straight line while we were moved right and left as we twisted our way through zigzag curves.
That strong handling comes courtesy of the standard Magnetic Selective Ride Control that is tuned specifically for the ZR1.
The independent front and rear suspensions have nearly instantaneous damping adjustments that deliver cornering grip of more than 1g. The heads-up display shows your g-force as you pull through corners--and makes you want to keep pushing that number higher.
I've exceeded the 1g number on a different Corvette on the infield track at Pocono Raceway. I only wonder what I could have done with the ZR1. Alas, Mother Nature literally rained on my parade during a track day in September.
Even with great handling, you occasionally need to mash the brakes--and the ZR1 does not lack for stopping power. It features Brembo carbon-ceramic brake rotors made of a carbon-fiber-reinforced ceramic silicon carbide material. Chevrolet says they are "found on only a few exotics and more expensive super cars," somehow overlooking the fact that the ZR1 is an exotic car. Yes, Americans can make exotic cars.
The rotors measure a whopping 15.5 inches up front and 15 inches in the rear. My beloved Mazda5 has 11.8-inch rotors and weighs 90 pounds more than the ZR1's 3,333 pounds. Those large brakes deliver world-best stopping power.
According to a 2009 Car and Driver review, the ZR1 went from 70 m.p.h. to 0 in 142 feet, "the shortest stopping distance we've ever recorded for a production car."
Of course, this all comes at a premium price. The ZR1 has an MSRP of $109,800. The model loaned to me by Chevrolet for an abbreviated stay cost $124,345 after tacking on such options as $2,000 chrome aluminum wheels, the $1,300 gas guzzler tax, and a $10,000 premium equipment group (including leather seats and interior).
Some might think that's a lot of money for a Corvette--but it's not a lot for a high-performance sports car.
Great braking, great power, great handling, and a great price tag. All signs point to this being a track car and not a daily driver. Yet it is. One of my days with the car involved a road trip for a business meeting in New York City. Yes, I drove this car into Manhattan and survived. (Valets treat this car amazingly well and park it front and center.)
The ZR1 offers a comfortable ride, thanks to the magnetic ride control that allows for a cruise setting of sorts. The seats are well bolstered, and the power-adjusting front seats deliver support in all the right places. I experienced no driver fatigue after a few hundred miles behind the wheel, even with a little driving in torrential rain thrown in for good measure.
The ZR1 does get slapped with the aforementioned gas guzzler tax, which surprises me a little. Even with some spirited driving, my overall fuel economy was about 17.5 m.p.g. The ZR1 runs on premium fuel, but that's not going to discourage anybody with the funds and desire from buying this car.
So, what does one do when locked out of a Corvette ZR1? Ignore AAA's suggestion to push the OnStar button to unlock it. As I had to point out to the friendly rep, the button was inside the locked car.
I had absent-mindedly left it in the cup holder when I hopped out of the ZR1 at a rest stop along Connecticut's scenic Merritt Parkway. The heavy door swung shut, and the telltale beep-beep of the car door made me shudder as I realized the keys were locked inside (something I never thought possible).
After realizing her initial faulty advice, the helpful AAA rep got me OnStar's number, where I explained my dilemma to another friendly rep.
Okay, she said, all you have to do is give me the account number.
Don't know it.
How about the phone number associated with the account?
It's not my car. It's a press car.
Okay... read me the VIN.
After scrambling for a flashlight, I read the VIN and explain why I am trying to get into a $126,000 sports car I do not own.
[Short wait as the OnStar rep consults her supervisor.]
Okay, she says, all I need to know is the hometown of the owner.
Momentary panic sets in. Do I say Detroit, the obvious choice? Is it registered in Warren, Michigan, where GM has other facilities?
Like a contestant with no lifelines going for $25,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, I squeak out the word "Detroit?"
The doors are unlocked, and I'm back on my way.
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 176.2 inches
Width: 75.9 inches
Height: 48.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,333 pounds
Engine: LS9 supercharged 6.2L V8
Torque: 604 lb.-ft.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 14/20
Base price: $109,800
As-tested price: $124,345
Also consider: (a comparative vehicle) Audi RS8, Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari 599