Does anything scream “PULL ME OVER” more than a bright yellow two-door sports car with a wing bigger than a dinner table mounted on the back and a 755 horsepower V8 with a supercharger that is seemingly trying to rip through the hood of the car? I don’t think anything can compete.
Enter the 2019 Corvette C7 ZR1. It’s more MURICA than anyone asked for, and that’s why I like it. The ridiculousness of this steroid-induced mid-life crisis machine might not be the reason you fall for it, and it really shouldn’t be. The ZR1 has so much to offer and it shouldn’t be looked at as just another Corvette.
This car is the pinnacle of what GM engineers could put together within reason. The car is more forgiving than you would expect in many ways.
The ride quality is livable, which is what should be expected at this point from a car with electromagnetic shocks. The car is also forgiving to those with a lead foot. Traction control and stability control are a bit invasive; but let’s be honest, they absolutely should be. The tires want to break loose even in 3rd gear at wide-open throttle, and the car lets you know when it needs more grip by cutting power rather than trying to send you into a wall. There’s so much torque available at any rpm that you can get yourself into a drift at just about any moment when in track mode with the nannies turned off.
The absurd looks of the car begin with the big carbon-fiber splitter in front of the car and end with the ZTK track package rear wing that GM says produces 950 pounds of downforce.
Between the aerodynamic parts lies a massive supercharger that literally comes out of the hood, blocking the vision of the driver. To prevent limp-mode inducing heat soaking found when tracking Z06s, the ZR1 incorporates a substantially larger intercooler that grew so big that GM could not fit the hood over it without significantly compromising forward visibility. To solve this problem, GM used a carbon fiber cover for the supercharger and cut the hood out to fit around the exposed supercharger itself.
The Eaton supercharger on the LT5 engine is larger and more advanced than the blower that comes on the LT4 engines, which can be found in the Z06, Camaro ZL1, and Cadillac CTS-V. It has 52% more capacity than the 1.7L supercharger that comes mounted on the LT4. The differences don’t end there, though. GM uses 13 heat exchangers to keep the LT5 from heat soaking, which was a big problem for Z06 owners.
The LT5 also features a dry sump oil system and dual injection to keep this thirsty girl running.
The C7 ZR1 is impressive, but it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. The ZR1 has an Achilles heel, and it’s quite obvious to anyone who drives the car. The problem is the 8-speed automatic slush box. Even for someone who isn’t a hardcore manual gearbox purist, it is bad. Actually, it’s painful. The good news is that there is a 7-speed manual transmission available in the ZR1. Unfortunately this doesn’t solve the problem completely.
GM should be ashamed that the same 8-speed that was bad in the base C7, Z51, and Z06 made it into the king of Corvettes.
Sure, it can be argued that lap times take precedent over enjoyable driving qualities when considering a purpose built track machine. It can also be argued that we are lucky the manual was even offered in the ZR1 being that the C8 is automatic only. Neither of those arguments excuses the fact that just about every other sports car uses DCT or at least a well-tuned traditional automatic. GM could have done better. It’s that simple.
The heritage of the ZR1 goes back to the C3 generation of Corvette and has always been the performance-focused package that we have come to know. Shortcomings of the autotragic 8-speed aside, this is a true ZR1 to the core. Modern Corvettes are not known for their pleasure-inducing drive, but rather for their predictability and reliability. A perfect 50/50 weight distribution, brakes that can send your eyes through their sockets, and an engine that can take a consistent 755 horsepower beating make it hard to ask for anything more when considering the price tag.
On the street, the ZR1 doesn’t feel any slower or even less planted than a 991 GT2RS. In fact, the ‘vette feels slightly easier to drive because of the weight distribution. I have limited seat time in Porsche 911s, so maybe that skews my confidence in them. But by the numbers, my confidence in the ZR1 makes sense. I would love to drive both cars back to back on a track, but there is no point in that because I don’t think anyone is honestly cross-shopping these cars anyway.
Cars like the GT2RS, Huracan Performante, and McLaren 600LT are like butterfly knives while the ZR1 is more of a machete. All of these cars can cut through a road in a hurry, but some are flashy and others are big and brutish. The interesting thing about the C7 ZR1 is that you can tell that the machete has outgrown its sheath, and now the blade smiths at GM seem to have developed something to compete with the more tactical stuff. Time will tell just how sharp the next iteration of king Corvette is.
Counterpoint by Billy Johnson
Around a racetrack, the C7 ZR1 is one of the fastest front-engine production cars of all time. However, let’s face it, cars of these abilities are so fast that it really doesn’t matter what you’re driving through the canyons, you’ll likely go to jail at speeds well below their limits. You really need to be on a racetrack to feel the ZR1’s true character. But is the ZR1 better than the Z06 on the street?
I would say so. The extra 105hp and 65lb-ft of torque is noticeable when your right foot gets heavy. The torque delivery is very similar to the Z06, but turned up a couple notches. While the off idle torque is immense and great for daily driving and for passing normal traffic on a 2-lane road without downshifting. However, the drop-off in torque in the last 1,500rpm takes away some character in the LT5 (and LT4) vs an engine with a torque curve that’s flat to redline which gives never-ending sensation of thrust. But the shriek of the exhaust might just make up for it as the aural experience is fantastic.
This particular car had the 8-speed automatic, which was a big letdown. While I’m familiar with the limitations of the technology in this older transmission, and the 10-speed not being able to handle the torque of the ZR1, the upshifts took 2-3 seconds from grabbing the paddle to executing the shift in track mode, in anything below half-throttle.
Full throttle upshifts have a slow blended upshift which is seamless in power delivery and quite fine. I just wish it shifted like that regardless of the drive mode or throttle position. Downshifts were inconsistent from either reasonably responsive to seconds of delay.
If you’re getting a ZR1 and want to have actually drive it, opt for the manual.
Our test car had a unique issue, one that I’ve not experienced in ZR1s or Z06s in the past, even when tracked. The E-differential was acting up and was super inconsistent. Leading to random snaps from the rear end mid-corner to not locking at all. Making a left-hand tun through an intersection with a moderate amount of throttle spun the inside tire and caused the revs to quickly slam into redline in a puff of smoke and a single, dark burnout mark from one tire. This issue was intermittent and happened a few times during the drive, also affecting the consistency of the car.
When the diff worked, it was fairly-well programmed, just like the Z06. E-diffs are awesome enabling technologies that can make a car do impressive things. I have not experienced an issue like this in any Corvette I’ve driven so I wouldn’t imply that this is a common problem, but a problem for this particular car nonetheless.
While looks are subjective, I’ve been fond of the C7’s proportions and angles. The ZO6 and ZR1 just keep raising the bar of intensity in a well-executed and purposeful way. From behind the wheel the huge hood makes you feel somewhat like you’re driving a cowl-induction ProMod drag car. But at speed it somehow disappears as a distraction.
C7s have great weight distributions with the engine behind the front wheel centerline and a transaxle out back to balance the car. The ZR1 is no different. Packed with a lot of downforce to calm the super responsive and twitchy character of the chassis, it’s slightly more composed in the canyons. Due to the sharp response and ease of rotation, I’m surprised more people don’t crash these cars (Z06 & ZR1). I highly recommend not turning off driver aids on the street. Ever.
The overall ride quality was quite livable for a frequently driven sports car. Especially for something as hard core and capable as the ZR1. Is it more enjoyable on the street than a Z06? A little, but mostly from the added power. Beyond that, if you like the aggressive aero, want the bragging rights, plan on tracking it, and have the means, get one.
At the end of the day, even base models of sports cars and pony cars are more capable than 99% of their owners. As a car guy, get what you can afford and what you like; there’s plenty to choose from. It’s a great time to be a car enthusiast.
Primary Author’s Biography
Michael Gallardo found interest in cars at around 6 years old. Going to the drag strip to watch NHRA races and riding in his Dad’s VW Beetle were the earliest memories that he can credit his passion to. A year after high school, Michael bought his first car, a 1986 Porsche 944. Ever since then, he has been switching it up and trying to experience all of the cars that he possibly can. Interests include watching Formula 1, going to the shooting range, collecting watches, trying new places to eat, and an occasional round of golf.