By Chris Haak
Having driven several hundred new and used cars during my 17 years with a driver’s license, and especially in recent years as I’m afforded the opportunity to sample cars and trucks from all corners of the automotive market, I’ve become a bit jaded, particularly in terms of what I feel is enough power for me to call it “enough.” My own 304-horsepower Cadillac CTS sedan feels quick at times, but its slow-witted six-speed automatic and lack of low-end torque compared to V8s often makes it feel a bit flat-footed. I’ve gotten to the point that almost any car – even those with 400-plus horsepower V8s – feels to me as if it could be just a little faster.
So as it happened, at a recent media event, I was standing near a parking area containing several Chevrolet models – a Cruze LTZ (which I had the chance to drive for the first time), a Camaro SS, and a few other random cars. The folks loitering nearby were atwitter with talk that a pre-production Chevy Volt would be arriving within moments. “Cool,” I thought; I’d love to get some seat time in Chevy’s media darling.
Almost at the instant that thought entered my mind, a red ZR-1 entered the parking space not more than a dozen feet away from where I was loitering. Suddenly, the notion of driving a car that is a technical force was immediately overridden by my immediate need to drive a car that is just a brute force. I looked around: no line to drive the just-arrived ZR1. I found a babysitterminder from GM (a great guy named Dave – and no, I don’t blame them for having chaperons with the ZR1), slid into the insufficiently-bolstered driver’s seat (and didn’t even need to adjust its position), buckled my seatbelt, pushed the start button, and we were off. What’s this Volt thing you guys are talking about?
I began by releasing the clutch slowly. Nothing happened. I let it out a little more. Still, nothing happened. Finally, I find the clutch’s engagement point, and I ease the King of the Hill out of its parking spot. The clutch required much more effort than I expected it to (and certainly far less than a Viper’s clutch), thanks to its dual-disc design.
At about 45 miles per hour with the windows closed, the beast’s soundtrack was tame. It was easy to carry on a conversation at normal speaking volumes, with no wind noise, exhaust noise, or supercharger whine to interrupt what you’re saying. After a few minutes conversing at more sedate speeds, I turned onto the highway, straightened the car out, and stomped on the accelerator.
Immediately, I was thrown back into my seat with a force I have never before experienced (at least to that degree) from an automobile. I learned to drive in a 125-horsepower 1987 Pontiac Grand Am, and having 5.1 ’87 Grand Ams worth of power in a car that weighs just a little more than the little Pontiac did back in 1991 is nothing short of a revelation. I’m talking about acceleration that could seemingly reverse the earth’s rotation, Superman style.
So, now I know what enough acceleration feels like. Want to leap into a hole in traffic? No problem. Going slower than the prevailing speed as you enter a highway? No problem, you’ll catch up in less than an instant.
The ZR1 is not just about acceleration, however. There’s also the pizza-sized Brembo brakes, which seem to be very much up to the task of bringing the fun to a halt. Or better yet, participating in the fun by allowing last-minute full-brake application and giving immediate response to driver inputs on the middle pedal. The ride is far more composed than you’d expect, given the car’s enormous performance capabilities.
With prevailing temperatures in the sixties on the day I drove the ZR1, conditions were almost perfect for producing maximum horsepower from the big, blown V8, and the sticky Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s (285/30 ZR19s in the front and giant 335/25ZR20s in the rear) have an enormous amount of traction. Replacements cost $1,926 for a set of four at Tire Rack, in case you’re wondering, and based on their level of grip, I’d be surprised if they last 10,000 miles. [N.B. - their treadwear rating, however, is a respectable 220] But bursts of acceleration from the 638-horsepower, 620 lb-ft supercharged V8 were still controlled detonations, with the tires holding onto the road better than I would have expected.
With so much torque on tap, there’s really no need to downshift, ever, because even in fourth gear, the ZR1 just pulls like a locomotive. Drop it down to second at around 50 miles per hour, though, and it accelerates like nothing I’ve ever driven. The base Corvette is a fast car, and this thing is just nuts.
I’ve driven a few Cadillac CTS-Vs over the years, and while those are quick cars with extremely high capabilities (far beyond my own ability to exploit them, incidentally), their weaker version of the supercharged 6.2 liter V8 (producing “just” 556 horsepower), coupled with the heavier car, makes the CTS-V feel significantly slower, as if it still needs a little more power. The ZR1 left me with no such sensation. There’s an instantaneous reaction to inputs that is nearly impossible to describe with enough superlatives.
Sadly, inside the ZR1, there’s little there to make you feel special. The seats have “ZR1″ embroidered on their headrests, and there’s a boost gauge in the instrument cluster. The speedometer will indicate speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, and the sill plates also say “ZR1.” That’s about it, aside from the fact that the view through the windshield gives you a peek of the au naturel carbon fiber on the underside of the hood. It’s nearly unforgivable that the Cadillac CTS can be purchased with Recaro seats, but there is no such choice available in the Corvette’s order book. When the C7 comes out in a few years, I anticipate that the seats – a frequent source of criticism levied against the Corvette – will be addressed and improved, but it’s possible the reason for no change is that a different seat design would require another series of crash tests, which would be a tough pill to swallow on a low-production car nearing the end of its life cycle.
The 4LT-grade interior (such a romantic name, isn’t it?) includes a leather-wrapped dashboard and door panel uppers, and does a bit to improve the ZR1′s perceived interior quality. The radio and navigation system are a few generations behind the class leaders, and secondary controls are decidedly non-premium in their feel and operation. In particular, I’m not fond of the carpeting creeping very high up the sides of the center tunnel, which really kills any kind of luxury vibe this $100,000-plus car might want to emit.
Positives for the interior include a remarkable amount of easily-accessible cargo space in the rear hatch, reasonably good visibility (though you sit very low to the ground, and have to stare across a very long expanse of hood real estate when driving), and very easy-to-read, attractive instrumentation.
Look, we all know that this car is not about impressing people who are inclined to buy a 911 Turbo or 458 Italia. It’s about raw, unadulterated horsepower, immense stopping power, and other-worldly levels of grip, all wrapped in a package that undercuts similarly-performing cars by tens of thousands of dollars (if not hundreds of thousands of dollars). And by that metric, the ZR1 is nothing short of a home run. Long live the King of the Hill.