755 HORSEPOWER AND A PRAYER IN THE WIND.
The Turn 11 and 12 complex at Road Atlanta, the final sequence of corners of one of North America’s greatest natural-terrain road-racing circuits, is no place for waffling commitment. A blind, plunging dive into a high-speed right-hand sweeper that leads onto the front straightaway, it has an intimidatingly narrow exit (and a looming concrete barrier) that makes for a sobering test of internal fortitude. Feeling out both it and the 2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1’s 755 horsepower is a bit like learning to juggle with live hand grenades. But Chevy’s pinnacle of front-engine Corvette evolution is a benevolent monster on the track. Respect its power and the ZR1 doesn’t flinch under duress or nervously protest midcorner commands. With its radical aero addenda pressing the car into the pavement at speed and working in concert with sticky Michelin tires and an array of clever electronics, the mightiest of C7 Corvettes shines the brightest at the edge of its performance envelope.
The Elements Formal introductions and prototype ridealongs behind us, this is our first proper dance with the fourth-generation ZR1. Building upon the already hard-core Corvette Z06 with its optional Stage 3 performance upgrade, the ZR1 features menacing front bodywork that has been punched out and cut to ribbons to allow 40 percent more cooling air to reach the engine and drivetrain (there are 13 heat exchangers onboard in total). The ankle-chopping front splitter, including a racing-derived airfoil underneath that routes air up through the vented hood, helps the ZR1 generate more downforce than its sibling yet with less aerodynamic drag, as does a pedestal-mounted carbon-fiber rear wing mounted directly to the chassis.
The $2995 ZTK Track Performance package fitted to the targa models we drove (a convertible ZR1 also is available) goes a step further by adding a much bigger adjustable wing, removable end caps for the front splitter, specific tuning for the standard magnetorheological dampers, and Z06-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 near-slick tires in place of the standard Michelin Pilot Super Sports (285/30ZR-19s in front, 335/25ZR-20s in back). Chevy claims ZTK-equipped cars produce 950 pounds of downforce at the ZR1’s 200-plus-mph top speed, considerably more than the Stage 3 Z06, which, due to its parachute-like rear deck spoiler, tops out about 25 mph slower.
A good chunk of that downforce is in effect when exiting Turn 12 in excess of 100 mph. The ZR1’s dogged stability allows for rolling onto the power quickly and opening the taps on General Motors’ berserker LT5 small-block V-8. An evolution of the 650-hp LT4 found in the Z06, the Camaro ZL1, and the 640-hp Cadillac CTS-V, the ZR1’s 6.2-liter adds a 52-percent-larger Eaton TVS supercharger with more boost (14.0 versus 9.4 psi), port-injected fueling to supplement the main direct-injection system, and a host of internal upgrades to produce 755 rabid horses at 6300 rpm and 715 lb-ft of torque at 4400. With at least 600 lb-ft available from 2200 revs to the 6500-rpm redline, the ZR1’s thrust is immediate and unrelenting, rocketing it down Road Atlanta’s short front straight.
The Chemistry We’ll have to wait for a test car to see how insanely quick the ZR1 actually is, but a zero-to-60-mph run in about 3.0 seconds and a quarter-mile pass in the high 10s should be doable. The LT5’s prodigious grunt also makes for linear, easy-to-modulate power on the street. We didn’t get to drive a ZR1 fitted with its $1725 eight-speed automatic transmission on the road, but clutch takeup on the standard seven-speed manual is progressive and impressively light in effort. Manual cars receive EPA fuel-economy estimates of 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, with the automatic giving up 1 mpg around town but gaining 1 on the highway (all ZR1s incur a $2100 gas-guzzler tax). For better or worse, the ZR1’s escaped-race-car visage attracts attention and smartphone cameras like no other modern Corvette, and seeing one fill your rearview mirror is an imposing sight. The noise emitted by the ZR1’s flame-spitting active exhaust system is one of its greatest charms, which you can sample in our video. While the exhaust is acceptably quiet in the car’s stealthier settings, cranking those up to 11 sees the LT5 blast a primal V-8 roar that is both louder and sweeter-sounding than the LT4’s.
The ZR1’s standard Brembo carbon-ceramic brake package is largely the same as that available in the Z06—which, in our testing, we’ve seen stop from 70 mph in as little as 128 feet—except for a new “hybrid” track/street pad compound and front rotors that are a bit more efficient at shedding heat. At triple-digit speeds, even toward the end of a day of lapping, the binders bite like a saltwater crocodile yet display no noticeable trade-offs in normal driving. Brake feel was reassuringly firm, and the pedal responded well to pressure when standing on it for the setup into Road Atlanta’s Turn 1, a sweeping right-hander followed by an uphill climb into the blind left that is Turn 2.
Like the Corvette Z06, the suspension calibration that lets the ZR1 bound over Turn 3’s curbing with poise also returns respectable ride comfort even in the firmest of its three driving-mode settings (Tour, Sport, and Track) on Georgia’s well-maintained roads. The electrically assisted power steering is heavily weighted yet precise, and 0.5-inch-wider front wheels help to maintain good turn-in feel while compensating for the ZR1’s slightly heavier nose versus the Z06. It’s through Road Atlanta’s famous downhill Esses and in slower corners that the Corvette’s electronic limited-slip differential and Performance Traction Management (PTM) software work their hardest, deftly managing forces across the rear axle and reining in the LT5’s power just enough if you jump on the throttle a bit too early. The PTM’s loosest track-focused modes allow for some sliding around before stepping in; while the Corvette ZR1 has the grunt to burn rubber for days, its breakaway behavior is quite benign.
One Helluva Ride The ZR1’s seven-speed manual with selectable downshift rev matching is more engaging by far than is the automatic, even if the shifter’s gates for third and fifth gear are still too closely spaced for our liking. But the eight-speed is definitely the faster of the two setups. While not as sharp as GM’s newer 10-speed unit found in the Camaro ZL1, let alone some of the best dual-clutch automatics, the eight-speed smartly downshifts and shuffles its ratios in response to cornering forces and throttle inputs. And its additional gears always let it squirt out of the tight Turn 7 harder than the manual-equipped cars. The Stage 3 Z06 pace car that GM’s lawyers had rolled out to keep us at sane speeds down Road Atlanta’s long, winding back straight stood little chance, as the ZR1 was crawling up its tailpipes after a few seconds. While the ZR1 likely could have brushed 170 mph on the back straight, the retina-detaching effectiveness with which the hottest Vette hauled itself down from 150 mph to make the 50-mph left/right chicane that is Turn 10a and 10b only added to our confidence.
Chevrolet says the ZTK-spec ZR1 is about 2.5 seconds quicker around Road Atlanta’s 2.5 miles than is the max-attack Z06, and the Corvette’s development drivers have already set a 2:37.3 stunner around Virginia International Raceway’s 4.1-mile Grand West Course—besting the $479K Ford GT in the process. We’ll see how it does in our hands at our annual Lightning Lap event later this year. But for the ZR1’s $122,095 starting price, its attraction lies with the relative ease with which drivers of all sorts can tap into its massive potential with no compromise to its entertainment or livability. It still goes down the road like other wide-body C7 Corvettes, just a stupid-quick one. Its cabin can be wrapped with leather and outfitted with luxuries such as heated and cooled seats. And there’s still a capacious hatchback cargo hold, although the ZTK’s big wing makes it a pain to stow the removable roof panel. We wish Chevy had come up with new performance seats that are more comfortable than both the standard and the optional Competition Sport seats it shares with other C7s, but, considering the ZR1’s warp-factor-per-dollar ratio, we’ll let that slide.
The ZR1 squirms under power as it catapults up the hill to the blind entry into Turn 11. Even after dozens of laps, you instinctively hold your breath as you pass under the track’s pedestrian bridge and send it over the crest into Turn 12. But Chevrolet’s ultimate, and surely final, C7 Corvette has clearly telegraphed its composure and its binding compact with the atmosphere. There’s no sweating Road Atlanta’s roller coaster now.