All hail the King! The new-for-'09 ZR1-now sans hyphen-will beginshowing up at dealers in late summer or early fall of this year. Only2,000 of these new, 200-mph super-Vettes will be built in the firstyear, significantly fewer than the 3,049 "original" ZR-1s constructed in1990. Back then, most dealers sold their initial ZR-1s for well over thesticker price. We anticipate that a similar situation will plague thenew car. Witness January's Barrett-Jackson event, in which the firstproduction ZR1 sold for one million dollars.
Sales of the original ZR-1 decreased each year until production ceasedin 1995. Will we see the same trend with the new edition? We don't thinkso, since today's Corvette is offered at four closely spaced pricepoints-coupe, convertible, Z06, and ZR1-giving buyers plenty of choiceand a clearer model hierarchy to ascend as their fortunes increase. The'90-'95 Vette, by contrast, was only offered in three versions, and theprice gap separating the base car and the similar-looking ZR-1 wasimmense.
Instead of taking the easy route and rehashing the same, old,GM-supplied press photos, we decided to visit the '08 DetroitInternational Motor Show and witness the public debut of the new ZR1 inperson. The car displayed in Detroit was one of only two show-readyprototypes in existence. It was finished in stylish Cyber Gray, one oftwo new colors for '09. (Blade Silver is the other.) This shade blendedespecially well the ZR1's clearcoated carbon-fiber roof, front spoiler,and rocker panels. The see-through Lexan hood, meanwhile, enabledshowgoers to read the "LS9 Supercharged" script adorning the enginecover.
The ZR1 creators were all in attendance, including Tom Wallace, vehicleline executive; Tadge Juechter, chief engineer, Corvette and XLR; JimDanahy, chief engineer, C6 Corvette Programs; Sam Winegarden, GMpowertrain engineering; and Tom Peters and Kirk Bennion of GM design.The team brought along a bare version of the ZR1 chassis, which uses thesame all-aluminum frame structure as the Z06.
Mounted into this frame is the 620hp LS9 engine. The LS9's output isgreatly enhanced with a new, twin-screw, four-lobe supercharger fromEaton. According to Winegarden, several changes were made to the LS3block to accommodate the increased power of the supercharger.
"One of the areas that came up weak on our structural analysis of theLS3 was its bulkhead strength," he said. "So we made the bulkheadsstronger, which helped engine durability. This also allowed us to makebigger openings, or 'windows,' from bulkhead to bulkhead in the block.The bigger windows allowed us to manage the airflow from bay to bay,which helped make more power. It's not often we can make the enginestronger and more powerful at the same time."
Like its block, the LS9's cylinder heads incorporate high-tech touchesinto existing technology. According to Winegarden, the heads are similarto those found on the LS3 and LS7, with the exception of the materialsand the heat-treatment process. "This is because of the increasedpressure in this engine, which made us go to an upgraded material. Thegeometry, port size, etc., are essentially the same. The valves aretitanium, much like the LS7, and the rods are also titanium. It's veryimportant at these power/lift dynamic levels that we have this extrastrength."
The LS7's dry-sump oiling system was modified as well. "We put a secondlittle tank on the side, so in high-g maneuvers we do not uncover thepickup tube in the main tank," Winegarden explained. "As Tadge makesthis vehicle more capable, he does confront us with more oil-handlingchallenges. This extra tank allows the ZR1 to use all of its power in ahard corner.
"One of the requirements that comes from the Corvette team is theability to run 24 hours on a race course. We first did this with the C5Z06 program. Tadge and his team took the ZR1 to the track, and itsuccessfully passed the 24-hour test."
Asked about the decision to revive the car's familiar moniker, Juechterexplained, "We played around with a lot of different names. We wanted torespect the heritage of the car. If you look at the original ZR-1, ithad the best of everything-ride control, the most-powerful engine, andall of the bells and whistles we could offer. So, when we looked back atour heritage, the closest spiritual ancestor to our new car was theZR-1.
"Just like [with] the Z06-the closest spiritual ancestor to that car wasthe original '63 Z06, which was a lean, track-oriented,light-as-possible, raceoriented car. But if you had brought out a Z06 in1973, people would have wondered why, because the original car was adisaster commercially. People seem to have the same view about this newcar. However, if you go back and read the original [ZR-1's] pressreviews, they were over the top. We think this new car will get the samerave reviews, which will help enhance the whole Corvette brand."
Our interview concluded, we thanked Juechter and moved out of the way asthe ZR1 was driven to another location on the show floor. The exhaustwas noticeably louder than the Z06's, and no supercharger whistle wasevident. We'll have to wait until later in the year for a testdrive, butgiven the awed expressions on the faces of onlookers as it rumbled away,it was clear that the new Corvette flagship had already entered thepublic consciousness as a genuine exotic.
For now, it's safe to say that the '09 ZR1 is a worthy successor to theoriginal-and more than deserving of the unofficial honorific "King ofthe Hill."