It was some 40 years ago that factory performance died. Big-blocks with 454 cubes made 245 net horsepower, Corvettes would come in California with 165-horse 305s, and the thinking then was never again would real muscle cars be found new in showrooms.
As it turns out, the situation was only temporary. Around 1983, the rumblings of V-8 performance were again starting to be heard. Chevy came out with the 305 H.O. Camaro, Ford with the 302 H.O. Mustang, and the '84 Vette had a "whopping" 205 ponies and could run an honest 140 mph in high gear.
By the end of the '80s, the Tuned Port Corvettes could run high 13s in the quarter and top out at over 150 mph. The '90s saw the introduction of the LT1-powered fourth-gen Camaros, and when the LS1 V8 appeared in '97 all bets were off. Chevy itself advertised the C6 Corvette as having a top-speed of 186 mph--this would have been considered heresy in the dark days of the '70s, when smog and fuel economy regulations took control of the auto industry.
Today, you can go into a showroom and order a 580hp ZL1 Camaro or if you are really bucks-up, a 638hp supercharged Corvette ZR1. Roll these numbers around: The bone-stock car you see here made 553 SAE corrected rear-wheel horsepower on our company Dynojet in Tampa--nearly double that of the 427 COPO Camaro we tested about a year prior (288).
Happy days are, indeed, here again.
On our Proform wireless scales, the sinister-appearing ZR1 tipped the scales at a petite 3,220 pounds with just over half a tank of fuel. Is it any wonder that it ran 11.41 at over 126 mph at the track? Frankly, extracting maximum elapsed time was a lot more difficult than we expected, but more on that later. Where this car blew us away was its open road performance. Unlike most exotic supercars, it was as docile around town as an Impala rental. The dual-disc clutch was econobox-light, yet never flinched after about 30 dragstrip passes courtesy of three different drivers. The ZR1 retains all the virtues and vices of every Corvette, including a comfortable ride, excellent outward visibility in all directions, a huge cargo hold, and perhaps the least supportive seats ever bolted into a high-performance automobile. In normal driving, you could hold a conversation at regular voice levels.
It took us almost three years to convince Chevy to lend us a supercharged ZR1. These are fearsome machines and not recommended for those short on talent and long on courage. But our week finally came and once we had it we managed two dragstrip flings, an afternoon on a road course, and (of course) laid black stripes from here to Gainesville and back.
Stomp on the throttle, however, and all hell breaks loose. Like a Tri-Power big-block of old on skinny bias-plies, you damn sure better be pointed straight when you floor it. Despite all that rubber out back, the LS9 powerplant wants to annihilate the race-ready tires in First, Second, and Third. Once you have traction, the supercharged 6.2-liter engine will take you as fast and you've got the guts to go. It just never stops pulling. Trust us, it accelerates as hard at 160 as most performance cars do at 60.
Our test vehicle had a base price of $111,525 and three option packages that brought the sticker to $128,970 (plus $975 destination). The Premium Equipment Group accounted for a robust 10 grand that (leather-wrapped interior, nine-speaker Bose music system, adjustable (heated) sport bucket seats, nav, and power telescoping steering wheel (among other things). The Centennial appearance package tacks on $4,950, and then there's the quizzically named ZR1 Performance Package for $1,495. Yes, in a similar vein to the ZO6 with the ZO7 option, you can buy a ZR1 ZR1. For the extra dough, you get a short-throw shifter, revised close-ratio gears in the trans, the ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup DOT-legal road race tires, Cup-style wheels in black, plus a black (rather than body color) spoiler.
Last time we ever mention Corvette seats: The new-for-'12 chairs offer more side bolstering up top than before, but the seat bottoms remain woefully flat. After five minutes of the road course, my left knee was black and blue from banging into the speaker and door. The hardest part of driving this car fast is staying situated. At least they are comfortable for long distances.
On the other hand, with the new tires, the ZR1 pulls so much lateral g that my internal organs tried to escape through my sides in every corner. On the 300-foot skidpad at Gainesville Raceway in Florida, we pulled an average of 1.15g (1.21 counter-clockwise, 1.09 clockwse).
Putting this car on the 1.27-mile road course there was an exercise in overkill. We ran the entire course in Second gear. Thanks to the gearing, we could run the ZR1 to 92 mph down all the long straights, but it would hit the rev-limiter just before we had to brake. Had we been at a place like Watkins Glen or Virginia International Raceway, there's no telling how fast we could have gone. As it is, we turned laps at almost a minute flat (1.00.23), which is by a long shot the quickest we've ever turned a tire at the place. For perspective, that's 1.74 seconds a lap quicker than a ZO6/ZO7 last year.
At the strip, the ZR1 was a confounding beast. After a good burnout, we'd dump the clutch at 4,300 rpm and the engine would bog. Same procedure at 4,400 and it would spin wildly. The key was carefully swapping feet--clutch slowly out, throttle slowly in. But there was more to it than that. The short-throw shifter, while wonderful on the road course and street, was a huge disappointment at the strip. Multiple gears were missed, even when the shifter appeared to be in gear. Can only imagine what that looked like inside the trans.
We drove home from Gainesville with a best run of 11.526 at 128.66, but a 60-foot of only 2.146. Determined to do better, we hot-footed it down to Bradenton Motorsports Park the following evening for their Thursday night test and tune. While the density altitude was 800-feet worse than the night before, having about 50 cars put rubber down helped a bunch. With a 2.031 60-ft, the ZR1 went 11.419 at 126.63 (best). We feel with drag radials and a computer tune, this will be a 10-second ride. As it is, it’s still the top Chevy stocker of all time.
Yes, $129,000 is a lot of money, but not more than is sunk into many of the Tri-Fives we see at Super Chevy Shows. Our advice? If you can afford one, get it. If not, buy the crate engine and stick it in your Bow Tie classic. You won't be disappointed. In fact, we think it'd be even more fun in an old Chevy than this Vette.