Riding 755 Horses Through California In A ZR1, The Ultimate Front-Engine Corvette
Photography by Alex Sobran
Very specific context is required to call a vehicle practical when it has 755 supercharged horsepower and a rear wing capable of providing 950 pounds of frictional assistance to semi-slick tires that look like they’ve come from the functional end of a steamroller. It’s not typical for manufacturers to include production vehicles that can perform like the Corvette C7 ZR1 in their lineup, and the ones that do typically charge twice the price. But it’s only because of and amongst these expensive mid-engine monocoque lumps from Europe that a 200-mile-per-hour GM product can emerge as a pragmatic choice.
There’s a distinct girl next door allure to a sports car that can outpace a Huracan and share a service center with a Tahoe, and despite this Corvette’s list of low lap times, general potency on paper, and price point ($120,000 for two-passenger transportation is not cheap in absolute terms), it still fits comfortably into the real world as something feasible and attainable that won’t complain about being told to commute five days a week. It sponges away potholes remarkably well for a car that can also change direction like a kitten and spin its tires in third gear, and it’s one of the best material symbols of the American Dream.
I got to experience this final, ludicrously superlative version of the front-engined Corvette for a weekend made up of a few hundred miles of downtown crawls and mountain fantasy roads. To say I’m lucky is obvious, so let’s talk about what it felt like.
I’m sure the ZR1 is a riot to be had on a circuit, but sharking through highway guppies and sauntering up to every stoplight like Clint Eastwood suggests it’s at least as entertaining in these civilian scenarios, scenarios that it handles without the stressed bit-champing suggested by its spec sheet. There is no abruptness from the throttle nor a need to drive to the supermarket on tiptoes, and there’s altogether nothing overly macho to compensate for when you set modes to “Touring” and steer the thing around lawfully. And though the drama is absent, the best aspect of a driving a fast car slow has been preserved and is constantly present: that feeling of reining in a decimator, holding a beast’s leash, carrying a really big stick.
Minding your manners with the awareness of what the uncorked ZR1 can do, you still get the feeling that the car is egging you on, urgently whispering “Do it!” every time you find an empty stretch of pavement. Some cars feel stunted when you don’t oblige, and the fact that this multitool can do the 0-60 sprint in under three seconds while perfectly content to cruise around suburbia with its exhaust silenced and its seats air-conditioned goes a long way in describing its appeal. It’s like the country club offering you a membership to stop doing donuts on the green.
Getting clear of neighborhoods and black and white cars with red and blue lights, you’ll marvel at the ability to misbehave in the ZR1. Even with traction control on, you can still get the back to swing, and with it off it’s hard to act mature at all. The 6.2L LT5’s thrust is delivered in yawps and gobs, the 16-valve pushrod architecture of the small-block V8 proving that the idea of history isn’t interchangeable with antiquity with every lesser sports car that you reel in. It delivers 715ft-lbs of torque at 4400rpm, 755hp at 6300rpm, but to give a sense of how powerful this engine is in numbers that are closer to everyday driving, the guts of the supercharger displace 2650cc and require 110hp to operate the four lobes properly. I don’t think I’ve ever driven a street car that’s made 60-120 feel so much like 0-60.
During one of the countless but somehow necessary tests of acceleration conducted over the course of the weekend, I made a conscious effort to pay attention to how hard it pulled in second versus third and then fourth gear, and by the time I was done the thought had been pushed out the back of my head by the same violent rearward shove that was delivered after each shift. Changing gears was just a temporary loss of signal.
In a straight line the ZR1 is pure surge, a railgun projectile with a warranty. It’s a ‘Vette from the big and bad variety that can convert pump gas into unalloyed pace, so of course it will be fast in a straight line, but to be a world-beater the chassis can’t be reduced to the role of engine cart. In summary, this car will slice up any mountain road wide enough to hold it.
In our example optioned with the ZTK package (which adds an aggressive front aero kit and the tall rear wing along with Michelin Cup 2 tires), you can legitimately make the strange case that a Corvette exists that’s more fun to take around a corner than down an onramp. The metallic Sebring Orange bodywork is augmented by massive planks of carbon fiber that simultaneously evoke and scoff at what it means to be a boy racer, with wing profiles that suggest the car will stick like a red wine stain.
The carbon ceramic brakes will toss you and any other unbelted interior objects into the windshield if you stand on the pedal, and if the extreme fore and aft g-forces aren’t doing enough to rearrange your organs, the sticky Michelins and magnetorheological (apparently that’s a word) dampers holding up the aluminum chassis will let you feel over 1.1gs of lateral acceleration too.
With its replacement moving the V8 into the middle, the C7 generation will mark the end of a very long line of front-engined Corvettes, while the ultimate ZR1 version goes a long way in making the evolution of America’s sports car seem unnecessary.