Successful In Its Mission, But Not As The World's Greatest Sports Car

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Adhered to the Hamilton Hall dorm wall at Wright State University is a glossy poster of a jet-black sports car. It hangs low over an unmade bed, its corner blemished with a slight tear from an errantly placed thumbtack during orientation week.

A young engineering undergraduate, sitting at a desk just a few feet away, is staring directly at the poster. Instead of reviewing for an upcoming exam, his eyes remain fixated on the vehicle's sleek bodywork, ominous quad exhaust pipes and Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes. Locked in a trance, the student daydreams about what it would be like to drive the sinister-looking monster.

Unbeknown to that 19-year-old scholar, and thousands of miles from Wright State University, Autoblog holds the key to the vehicle pictured on that very poster. It is the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. With a 638-horsepower supercharged V8 mated to a six-speed manual transmission and a top speed of 205 miles per hour, it is the most powerful production car in General Motors' history.

The ZR1 has been upgraded and enhanced for 2012, so what is it like to drive America's premier sports car on public roads? Can the beast be reasonably tamed? Be pleased to learn that this evil brute is nearly everything expected, a little less and then a whole lot more.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 side view2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 front view2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 rear view

Autoblog is no stranger to the ZR1. We drove it to Hell and back in May of 2009, and at Spring Mountain Raceway last May. As the ZR1 enters its fourth year of production, Chevrolet has treated its flagship to a host of small enhancements inside and out, all of which are designed to improve the coupe's comfort, performance and value.

Last year, the Corvette ZR1 was delivered with Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires. With a "maximum performance summer" classification (treadwear rating of 220), the well-respected rubber delivered impressive handling. For 2012, Chevrolet is cranking things up several notches by offering the optional High-Performance package (PDE ZR1) featuring new Michelin Pilot Sport Cup Zero Pressure tires. The "track and competition" classified compound (with a treadwear rating of just 80!) is optimized for warm, dry conditions to increase cornering and handling capability. They are "... essentially street-legal versions of a racing tire," says the automaker. The insanely wide tires (285/30R19 and 335/25R20) come wrapped around all-new staggered-size alloy wheels that are each about five pounds lighter than last year's 20-spoke wheel.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 wheel detail2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 brakes2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 tire2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 tire

Inside the lightly revised two-person cabin, the steering wheel has been enhanced with model-specific badges, the center console and armrests further padded and there is now contrasting stitching (red, blue or yellow) offered with the custom leather-wrapped interior. Chevrolet has also directed some much-needed attention to the seats, which have been upgraded with larger bolsters on the back and side cushion areas. To help keep occupants in place, there are also new faux microfiber suede seat inserts. Lastly, the Bose audio system has been reconfigured with nine speakers (it had seven last year) and the sound has been re-tuned to better match the cabin's acoustics.

The engine remains untouched, but the ZR1's standard close-ratio manual gearbox has been tweaked for improved fuel economy. In a nutshell, fifth and six gears are now taller. According to Chevrolet, it should now deliver an additional two mpg on the highway cycle to earn an EPA estimated 14 mpg city / 21 mpg highway – an obvious exercise to pacify the Feds...

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 interior2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1  seats2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 gauges2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 drive mode control knob

When it first came on the scene, the ZR1 didn't carry a six-digit price tag. These days, a standard 2012 Chevrolet ZR1 starts with a base price of $111,600. However, the black car in our driveway was fitted with $17,435 worth of options. These included the 3ZR trim, which raises the base price to $122,600, the PDE ZR1 High-Performance package ($1,495) and the Chevrolet Centennial Special Edition package ($4,950). The latter includes the Carbon Flash Metallic exterior paint over full Ebony leather upholstery, Satin Black Cup-style wheels with red calipers, red accent stitching on the seats and steering wheel, a leather-wrapped instrument panel and doors with red accent stitching, special interior and exterior badging and Satin Black exterior graphics. Our final price was $130,010, including destination and freight. Steep, but not outrageous given the performance.

Even while stationary, the black ZR1 is striking in the flesh. While those who don't know Vettes sadly won't be able to tell the difference between it and its lesser brethren costing half as much, the ominous looking coupe has substantial stage presence. In this particular Darth Vader color scheme, it looks downright wicked.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 hood vent2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 badge2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 graphics2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 logo

We had the opportunity to take the ZR1 around the corner for a quick errand within minutes of its arrival. Without so much as a quick walk-around, we swung open the door and dropped into place. The green start/stop rocker switch is an oddity in a world of red push-to-start buttons, but it fired up the V8 without hesitation. As we carefully backed out of the driveway, the protruding front carbon-fiber splitter unexpectedly dragged over the sidewalk. Ouch. It would be the first of many countless encounters the splitter would have with the pavement despite our unwavering caution.

There wasn't much of an opportunity during those first few minutes to open it up, but we did spin the analog tachometer well around its dial on the surface streets (first gear is good for more than 65 mph, so shifting is theoretically optional). After less than 10 minutes behind the wheel, our initial impression was that the ZR1 was crazy fast, but it was also a very quiet supercar – much too quiet, which was both frustrating and baffling.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 engine2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 engine detail2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 engine detail2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 engine detail

Minutes later, we were online for some assistance. It came quickly. Ben Wojdyla (Associate Auto Editor at Popular Mechanics) suggested pulling the Exhaust Flap fuse. What is that you ask? It seems that Chevrolet, in a move to appease the EPA's sound limits on motor vehicles, electronically plugs part of the rear silencer on the ZR1 (and the Z06) to keep noise levels to a minimum most of the time. The result is that the ZR1 sounds like a Silverado pickup unless driven at wide-open throttle. Since it is our firm belief that sports cars should always sound at least as aggressive as they appear, Ben's advice was heeded and the offending 10 amp fuse was gently removed from its location in the passenger footwell. The process was accomplished cleanly and entirely by hand in about 45 seconds.

Seconds later, the supercharged LS9 6.2-liter V8 barked to life with a newfound throaty voice. Acorns fell from trees and nesting birds a quarter-mile away took flight. Hear the effect for yourself in the Short Cut video below.


Its lungs free to wail, we proceeded to drive the Corvette everywhere. We ran errands, drove kids to school and showed off to friends. Of course, the exhaust was arrogantly loud and pretentious, but the ZR1 was welcomed as America's hero at every stop. People took pictures with it, asked questions and generally just smiled. Fellow Vette owners waved eagerly, even from across divided highways (and we thought Mini owners were a passionate group). The car seemed to have no enemies.

The exhaust was arrogantly loud and pretentious, but the ZR1 was welcomed as America's hero at every stop.

Early in the week, a long trip down to Orange County gave us the opportunity to experience four hours of highway travel in the flagship Corvette. While exotics such as the Lexus LFA and Porsche GT3 do their best to shake your sunglasses glasses off your face, the ZR1 is fitted with GM's Magnetic Selective Ride Control as standard equipment. The electro-hydraulic system works miracles as it eliminates the busy and annoying jouncing common to track-tuned suspensions. Of course, the ride was firm, but it was never punishing or abusive, and most agree that the ZR1 rides better than the competition-ready Z06.

The blown V8 is not challenged by 65 mph travel on U.S. highways either, so our average fuel economy cruising in sixth gear was an indicated 20.8 mpg. Aside from a driving position that is lower than the surrounding traffic, which hampers visibility, our biggest irritant was that the ZR1 was a handful to keep within its lane. The huge contact patch from the steamroller tires had the coupe constantly chasing the cut grooves in the pavement. The Corvette was unnecessarily nervous and skittish as a cross-country cruiser, and it required full attention at all times to keep it straight.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 driving2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 driving

But then, effortless highway travel isn't the ZR1's forte – slaying its European competitors is.
While all enthusiasts are familiar with the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 under the Lexan-windowed carbon fiber hood, few realize just how insane 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque feels from the driver's seat. The ZR1 is fitted full of electronic nannies, all working their magic from different angles, but they are truly helpless against the beast lashed to the chassis up front.

Without launch control, both tires spun wildly and our forward movement was ridiculously slow.

We mashed the accelerator pedal. Instantaneously, all hell broke loose just behind our ears as the foot-wide alloy wheels attempted to centrifugally shed the expensive Michelin rubber wrapped around them. The tires, as tenacious and sticky as warm Silly Putty, ripped at the asphalt before kicking up a rooster tail of debris that was thrown yards rearward. Without launch control, both tires spun wildly and our forward movement was ridiculously slow. Attempted again, this time with launch control, and the ZR1 blasted to 60 mph in a traction-limited time of just over three seconds – with the noise and g-loading, we swear it feels even quicker than that.

Don't lift and acceleration through the gears is simply mind-boggling. Benchmarks such as 60 mph, 100 mph and the quarter mile fall effortlessly. And the accompanying V8 soundtrack is both spine-chilling and euphoric. Mechanically speaking, everything from the flick of the gearbox to the impressive powertrain to the snarling and cackling exhaust is nearly infallible. The components worked so well together that driving the ZR1 is an absolute joy.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 driving2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 driving

It quickly became obvious that the ZR1's limits were nearly untappable on public roads. Outlandish power aside, near-perfect suspension tuning raised cornering grip to ridiculous levels and the nauseating clamping force of carbon-ceramic brakes dropped stopping distances to a pittance. Despite the pounding, America's best sports car didn't even break a sweat (all fluid temperatures, easily observed from the cockpit gauges, hardly twitched). Is tackling a public canyon road in a ZR1 overkill? Embarrassingly so. It felt like we were using a M198 howitzer to shoot an empty beer can. But for our enthusiast-tuned blood, the experience was a blissful adrenaline rush.

Of course, hooning does have its consequences. Using the accelerator pedal as a block to press your socks through the sole of your shoe will yield less than nine mpg. And the gooey tires, at a dear $2,000 per set, will only last a few thousand miles before needing replacement. Such is the cost of this legalized drug.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 front 3/4 view

Look past GM's brilliance in the ZR1 machinery and you will find that the vehicle's human interface is still significantly troublesome. Not only is much of the switchgear cheap, but the cupholders are shallow and the interior lighting is dismal. Even the upgraded front seats remain a huge embarrassment. Their puffy thigh and side bolsters are marshmallow squishy, failing to hold passengers firmly in place during even lightly spirited maneuvers. The ZR1 corners in excess of 1 G, but the seats are so unsupportive that you will only feel it while pinned against the side of the door panel. We know GM can make good seats (hello, CTS-V), so why not fit them to the Corvette flagship? Apparently they don't fit, so this will need to be something GM tackles with the next-gen C7.

Adding to our frustration, the left shoulder bolster squeaked against the B-pillar incessantly and there was an utter lack of basic storage. We were also miffed to find that the center console, where the USB cable audio interface is located, cooks its contents more effectively than an Easy-Bake oven (our iPhone overheated and shut down during both long drives). The overall cockpit appointments were ho-hum at best.

2012 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 rear 3/4 view

GM says the key competitors to the ZR1 are the Lamborghini Gallardo, Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT2 and Ferrari 599. Without question, and mechanically speaking, the Corvette is easily able to run with the best in the world. However, the Europeans take things a bit further as they consider cabin appointments equally as crucial as performance. They wisely craft cockpits that are opulent, beautifully detailed and visually striking. In this tactile (and emotional) category, the Corvette trails by a wide margin.

The ZR1 is not engineered (or priced) for those seeking the prestige of a badge or the whiff of hand-tanned leather.

Yet while it isn't spelled out in the owner's manual, it is obvious that the ZR1 is not engineered (or priced) for those seeking the prestige of a badge or the whiff of hand-tanned leather. Despite incessant complaints about the interior, the automaker keeps its flagship focused on its primary mission: deranged levels of performance.

While the Z06 is arguably the better track car, the ZR1 is the emotional hook. It is built solely for dreamers. The list encompasses the student at Wright State who is spellbound by the poster on his wall, the diligent salesperson forever hitting the pavement and the entrepreneur hard at work making his hundredth product pitch. The ZR1 is crafted to allure those who have the drive and passion to aspire for better things. It captivates those who yearn. And without wavering, GM will always keep it within grasp of those looking up.

The Corvette ZR1 is a rolling testament to the honorable tenacity of the American dream.