• May 11th 2009 at 11:57AM
  • 63
2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 – Click above for high-res image gallery

Torque is good. More torque is better. And when you have more than 600 lb-ft of the stuff at your disposal with just a tip of your right toe, life is fantastic. Now, if it would just stop raining, things would be perfect. Such is life with the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.

As the old saying goes, "Timing is everything", and as General Motors approached its 100th birthday last September, it introduced the two most powerful production cars it had ever created, the Cadillac CTS-V and the ZR1. Unfortunately, just as GM reached the pinnacle of high performance cars, the world economy imploded. The global financial bubble got pierced from multiple sides and sales of cars at every price and performance level vaporized. Fortunately for us, GM is still hanging in there and Chevrolet let us have a few days of quality time with a ZR1 while the opportunity still exists. We went to Hell and back in the ZR1 and lived to tell the tale after the jump.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc

For the hard working people at GM's facilities around the world, it may feel like being in hell with no way out. But there is an escape route for the fortunate few. It's the ZR1. If every GM employee could just go and spend a day in the most powerful of all Corvettes, all their worries might just melt away – if only for a moment. In January of last year, we told you all about the goodies that make a ZR1 special, especially its heart, the LS9. The car once known as the "Blue Devil" begins with the aluminum and magnesium chassis that underpins the Z06 and then follows the Colin Chapman philosophy of "adding lightness" to compensate for the increased mass of the supercharged 6.2-liter V8.

While GM allowed us the use of a Crystal Red Metallic ZR1 for our California photoshoot, we actually spent the week in a striking Atomic Orange Metallic model with an interior finished in the black and grey leather of Chevy's premium equipment package (don't forget to check out the bonus gallery of our Michigan test model). In spite of the outlandish paint color, the ZR1 drew remarkably little attention from on-lookers. Compared to some of the other cars we've driven around town, almost no one gave the ZR1 a second glance. The one exception was the poor valet at a nearby parking garage who recognized what it was as we pulled into our parking space. He seemed heartbroken at not being given the opportunity to drive it.

The problem – if you want to call it that – is that Corvettes in general are pretty common place after more than half-century of production, and unless you look closely, most non-gear-heads wouldn't realize the ZR1 is anything special. At a distance, the carbon fiber roof just looks black and there have been enough variants of the side vents over time that this incarnation isn't entirely noticeable. It's hard to think of any Corvette as a Q-ship, but among the masses, this one almost qualifies. That's not such bad thing, as it lets the driver enjoy the beast in relative privacy.

In an interesting little quirk of timing, fellow Autoblogger, Chris Paukert who lives nearby, procured an Audi R8 last minute and hatched the plan that took us to Hell. For those who don't live around these parts and know of Hell only from some 2,000-year-old book, there is actually a little hamlet northwest of Ann Arbor that goes by that very name. What better place for an orange Vette and a black R8 to come face to face? We'll come back to that meeting in a bit, but first, let's look at life with a ZR1.

Have we mentioned that torque is good? Among more pedestrian Corvettes, the majority are sold with automatic transmissions. Given the aversion most Americans have to manipulating a third pedal, there are surely those who lament the absence of the two pedal option in the ZR1. While we don't have much sympathy around these parts, fortunately, slush-box lovers need not fret. If you've ever had the opportunity to drive an electric car with a single-speed gearbox, you'd be familiar with the phenomenon of a flat torque curve that go from zero rpm and continues to pull and pull into the stratosphere. The LS9 is as close to that sensation as you can get with an internal combustion engine and the ZR1's torque output is so prodigious it can be launched from a dead stop in fourth gear without straining or stalling.

From there, the ZR1 accelerates smoothly well into triple digit speeds without ever touching the gear lever. You still need to use the clutch to get moving, but from there you can just accelerate without really thinking about it. During our time with the car, the Society of Automotive Engineers held their annual gathering in Detroit and we drove to the event a couple of times. The ZR1 is an insanely fast supercar as we experienced during our first drive last summer. However, as we discovered, it's also utterly usable as a daily driver. We encountered plenty of rush hour stop-and-go traffic on those trips into Detroit. Once upon a time, driving a car with performance anywhere close to the ZR1 would have left the driver with a sore leg from pumping that clutch pedal. The LS9 is backed up by a dual plate clutch that provides enough frictional force to withstand the punishment while requiring a much lower effort to disengage. In fact, the ZR1's clutch is markedly lighter and easier to modulate than the unit in the less powerful Z06.

While the ZR1 loves the open road, the beauty is it can be operated anywhere without punishing the driver. The powertrain isn't the only element of the ZR1 that makes it easy to drive. The most significant change to the suspension from lesser models is the adoption of Delphi's magnetic ride damping system. The MR dampers are filled with a hydraulic fluid containing tiny iron particles. By controlling an electric current passing through the fluid, the viscosity – and thus the damping rate – can be continuously varied. The ZR1 is more softly sprung than the Z06, but the MR dampers allow it to corner almost roll-free with a surprisingly comfortable ride. Even going into pot hole-riddled Detroit, the ZR1 didn't bounce around like a C4 Vette would – or a Z06, for that matter.

As wonderful as the mechanical bits of the ZR1 are, if there is one thing people have been less than enthralled with, it is the interior. The C6 Corvette isn't terrible, but compared to Paukert's R8 or virtually any other $100k car, it does feel cheap, even with the premium leather interior. The layout is fine, but much of the switch-gear and controls are carried straight over from lesser Chevrolets, some from a eons ago. Anyone who drove a cruise control-equipped GM car in the 1980s will feel right at home with the turn-signal/cruise stalk in the 2009 'Vette. Similarly, one glance at the steering wheel screams Malibu. These, however, are passable sins. There is one major functional problem with the ZR1 interior that screams out for correction.

Any car that go 200+ mph and pull 1g on the skid-pad should really have an outstanding pair of seats. The CTS-V is available with an optional set of Recaros that steadfastly hold the driver in front of the steering wheel. Even the crude and rude Dodge Viper has a fabulous set of thrones. So why does the ZR1 have to make do with seats that don't even belong in a base Corvette? Please, GM, at least offer the Recaros as an option. There are, however, aspects of being in the ZR1 that far surpass competitors, visibility being chief among those. Aside from the low roof necessitating a forward lean to see some traffic lights, visibility in all other directions is excellent, especially over the shoulders. The R8 definitely loses here.

Aside from the somewhat flimsy seats, manipulating a ZR1 down the freeway, in traffic, on a twisty road or on the track is pure pleasure. The steering feel is excellent, with perfect weighting and feedback that clearly communicates what's happening at the tire/road interface. If a car is going to have over 600 hp, it definitely needs some serious braking power. Again, the ZR1 comes through. Thanks to 15.5-inch diameter Brembo carbon ceramic brakes with six-piston mono-block calipers, the ZR1 dissipates kinetic energy as quickly and consistently as anything on the road today. The remarkably stiff brakes mean there is no slop or sponginess in the pedal and the reaction is beautifully linear.

Before putting the Brembos to work, you need to get the car moving. Sitting still, the LS9 engine emits just enough lumpiness to feel like a heartbeat, letting you know that the ZR1 is alive and well. The tach needle, however, sits completely steady at about 600 rpm, never wavering or surging like a carbureted '60s big block would. Let the clutch pedal out with a light touch on the throttle and the car pulls away as smoothly as a Malibu. Put your right foot down, though, and all hell breaks loose. At lower speeds and light throttle, the exhaust has a pleasant rumble that lets you know this is a classic American V8, but it's not so loud as to alert the authorities or make the commute to work in the morning too annoying.

As the speedometer passes about 40 mph with the gas pedal more than halfway through its travel, the ZR1 suddenly transforms into a reasonable facsimile of a C6R GT1 race car. The thundering bass tones emanating from the exhaust are pure supercar symphony. Rowing through the six-speed gearbox is a pleasure with its reasonably precise gates and short throws. The optional heads-up display allows you to keep your eyes on the road, especially important given the rate at which this machine can consume it. The rush of acceleration available at any speed in almost any gear is absolutely mind-boggling and the supercharged engine never complains or balks at a command. It pushes on through whatever imaginary barrier stops lesser vehicles.

Even when the weather gets less-than-perfect, the ZR1 looks out for the driver. Unlike Dodge's minimalist Viper, which only grudgingly includes ABS, the 'Vette includes full electronic stability control. As a proper car of this caliber should, the system can be reduced in intrusiveness or disabled altogether for those who prefer to have full control. The reality is that even in its default mode, this system has been calibrated as it should for a performance car. The Stabilitrak never feels like an overprotective nanny and a stab of the throttle can easily get the rear end sliding out. When intervention does occur, it nudges the axle back in line rather than jerking it around.

The new ZR1 is truly a daily driver supercar, at least for most days. Even with proper snow tires, it would be extremely unwise to attempt driving a ZR1 in the winter. The ride is comfortable enough, however, that even driving it in Michigan is tolerable, while the grip is sufficient to drive through corners at speeds that would easily get you thrown behind bars. Even the interior – while not up to the standards of Audi or Ferrari – is livable enough as long as the seats get replaced by something better. As for fuel consumption, let's just say that the ZR1 consumes premium refined petroleum – a lot of it. But with an engine like the LS9, does it really matter how much gas gets burned? At a starting price of $102,450 and out-the-door tariff of $115,300, this car truly is a bargain amongst its performance peers, which is an exceedingly small group. Cars like the ZR1, CTS-V and Volt are perfect examples of why we should hope GM emerges from its current financial malaise. GM will need to get more than its product sorted for the company to be pointed on the road out of Armageddon, but when they finally do, it's clear that the automaker already has the perfect chariot for the ride out of hell.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc

Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Max Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      What I gathered from this review is that I should buy an R8 and not a ZR1.
      That being said, I am waiting for the new Grand Sport.
      That is worth the money, the ZR1 is not.
      In the real world where I live, you cannot drive over 70 mph, much less 200 mph so the ZR1 is effectively useless.
        • 6 Years Ago
        In the real world, where the rest of us live, you put something like this on a track every so often to make use of that power. Why would you spend all that money and then not have some fun with the car?
      • 6 Years Ago
      I will agree 100% with the seats comment... I have an 08 Z06, and the seats are pretty damn bad.

      • 6 Years Ago
      I know it's tempting to throw the S-word into any review of a fast car, but the ZR1 is not a supercar. It's a great car, but a supercar is more than just fast.

      Simply put, if you can drive down the street and not turn heads, it isn't a supercar.
        • 6 Years Ago
        i had a c5 and turned heads,im sure this would too. i consider this a super car and im sure a lot of other people do too.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Just personal differences in semantics. What you're referring to by "supercar," I call an "exotic." To me, a supercar is defined by its performance, whereas an exotic is defined by its price, rarity, and styling.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I totally agree the Diablo is a supercar. It's a good performer, and unusual looker, and even if you think you can afford it, you may be wrong due to the incidentals.

        The ZR1 is a powerful Corvette. It looks like an ordinary car.
        • 6 Years Ago
        The question is, does it perform as a supercar should ? The answer is clearly yes.

        It is irrelevant about the interior. Ever dirve a Diablo ? I have. It was a supercar in its day and visiblity was TERRIBLE, the clutch was very heavy and it was generally unpleasant to drive. But it performed as a supercar. Therefore is was a supercar.

        The ZR-1 is a supercar. End of story.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Yeah, in my personal lexicon, what you are describing is an "exotic." To me, the ZR1 is a non-exotic supercar.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'll never understand the complaints about interiors. I mean, when you're going 0-60 in the 3-second range, passing 200 mph, and pulling over 1 g on the skidpad, are you really going to concern yourself with the old buttons and the hard plastic that makes up the dash? I understand the seat complaint (just riding in my cousin's base C6, I felt like the seats were a little underqualified to hold me in place during a fast turn), but as long as there's something somewhat soft for my elbows to rest on, I couldn't care less about what the rest of the interior looks or feels like.
        • 6 Years Ago
        When you're expected to drop over $100k on a ride, you notice those kinds of things... especially the seats. Honda has been putting Recaros in Integras, Civics and Accords since the early to mid 90s. ANY Corvette has significantly better performance... there's no excuse for GM to be putting crap seats in it's sports car. If they put good seats in the luxury oriented CTS-V, they should have put them in their best performing car ever. No two ways about it.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I think you missed my point completely.

        There is nothing GM could within reason do to the Vette interior that reviewers wouldn't complain about. It is de rigeur to pick on the interior, so reviewers do. Do you see people saying they'd never own a Noble due to the super crud interior? Nope. How much is a Noble? Oh.
        • 6 Years Ago
        It's a meme.

        Like reviewers hammered the 1980s Corvette for its digital dash, but give the S2000 one a pass.

        It's something to complain about in reviews that allows you to show off that you still have cred. I mean, if a news outlet reviewed a domestic product and liked it, they'd lose their readership immediately. Few readers who paid significantly more for an import want to hear that they could have been just as happy or perhaps more for less money with a domestic car.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Because 99% of the time you won't be going nearly that fast.

        And what matters in those times is the environment you find yourself in driving to whatever destination you have in mind.

        • 6 Years Ago
        LS, you might not be able to put a value to connotations, but that doesn't mean they aren't there and that most people care about them. Pretending that they don't exist is exactly why GM produced crappy products for ages. You can objectify and quantitate the value of something in any number of ways. However, ultimately the true value of something comes from the market. The market said GM made crappy products for a long time. Only for the last few years did GM begin to listen -- at first a sullen "can't these idiots see our cars have the best value?" and then a forelorn "the people are so shortsighted, but we have to cater to their values even though they are stupid." Fortunately for GM, the people who thought that way have been and are being cycled out.

        Back to the topic at hand, if you don't care about refinement or certain emotional connotations, it doesn't matter, because ultimately a corporation is a mony-making entity and you are a minority.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Considering the price, I think the interior is a major issue.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The interior is crap, but this thing runs circles around everything in its class and price range.

      Hell, with the money saved you could find a nice coach builder to create a custom done interior for you.

      Honestly though, the Corvette needs exclusive parts. A car that retails for 100 G's shouldnt have the same parts you'd find on a Cobalt
      • 6 Years Ago
      So I guess you will be posting the R8 review later.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have crazy respect for this car, and what GM has achieved with it, but I still think that Corvettes are a little too rough around the edges... mind you, I've never driven a ZR1, so I can't speak directly to that but from some comments I've heard from people who have (and from a few who just sat in it), it's a bit better but still leaves a lot to be desired. GM already has the performance side of things tightly sewn up. They need to spend some quality time on improving the interior and fit & finish.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I own a C5 Z06. That one hands down has a crappy interior, other
      then the soft feeling dash everything else is parts bin, the gaps are
      large etc. However the C6 interior is night and day, I sat in one not
      too long ago when I got my C5 serviced and it really is something
      else. It's not an Audi but it's not pretending to be one either. My
      mom drives a Range Rover sport and I don't think the materials and
      feel of switches and such are too far off from that. Especially the
      leather wrapped on like the one shown the pictures.

      As for the seats, I dont recall them as being too different than the
      seats in my Z06 and I think they are fine for me. I haven't sate in
      another sports car in a while other than a GTR and didn't think those
      seats were bad or any better. Could just be a personal preference
      thing or I'm just used to them. Although I did recently sit in a CTS
      - V and I will attest that those seats did feel very nice.

      C5 definiteness crappy interior C6...not so much. I think people are
      just going along with it's infamous history of bad interiors. I
      really was surprised at how much nicer the C6 leather wrapped
      interior was over my C5.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Great writeup :) Enjoyed it!

      By the way, did I see a radar detector in one of the photos ;).
      • 6 Years Ago
      I saw one of these cars on the road the other day. It was truly a surreal experience.
        JDM Life
        • 6 Years Ago

        Theres a orange z06 thats parked around the corner from where i live everyday, and being the fact the Z06 and ZR1 look almost the same....i would not say seeing it is "surreal"

        Gesh.....wonder what happens when you see a much better looking car like a enzo or 599.....=P
      • 6 Years Ago
      GM's best car. The engine.. wow. The exterior design.. wow.
      The interior however looks the same as the '96 Grand Prix my parents used to have. It's a shame.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I was going to snap "no it doesn't". But in a way, it does.


        However, it doesn't look nearly as much like a 97 Grand Prix as the 1997 Corvette did.

        This does have a noticeably better center stack and the door treatments are incomparably better.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Just last week somebody on AB summed it up pretty well, something along the lines of the ZR1 and the Aveo sharing the same interior. Though it's not entirely true, it's not completely outrageous either.

        The ZR1 is a gorgeous car, it's just a real shame about the interior. There's a lot of room for improvement which I hope we see in future iterations, because I really want to like this car!

        • 6 Years Ago
        You don't need to want to like it, go drive it, you won't care about the interior afterwards.

        I've given up on the interior bashing, it's fruitless. The reason the R8's interior is so delightful is because audi's entire lineup has (what the automotive press would argue) great interiors. Look at the GT-R and compare it to nissan's lineup, you'll see the same trend.

        Supercar interiors tend to be as good as the company them come from (at least at the GT-R/ZR1 lower priced level). Besides, people purchasing this car are purchasing it for the same reason they'd buy a CTS-V (though, admittedly, i love that interior), nothing matches the performance for the price.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I wish GM would do a refresh of the entire car, ala 2010 Mustang which uses the same chassis but with a new interior and exterior. This way the ZR1 will finally have a 100k+ worthy interior(like the CTS-V and all its beautiful suede) and a exterior that was designed specifically for this car from the beginning(like the Shelby GT500 front end compared to mustang GT front end).

      I can only dream...

      The car is pretty bitchin' the way it is though. You guys at AutoBlog are pretty lucky people.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I agree with you 100%.

        I wouldn't care if the ZR1 would win in a race, I'd rather have the new Camaro with the ZR1 engine than the ZR1 itself.

        Because the 2010 Camaro goes back to gen-I styling. Not an improvement on the 80's designs when America decided to hate cars.

        The C6 Corvette is an improvement on the C5 Corvette, which to me was a restyling of the arrowhead C4 Corvette.

        To me no Corvette will ever compare with the Stingray and Shark bodies... until they pay homage to the Stingray and Shark bodies.
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