Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Convertible 2018 Review : Road Test

We test the finest and final example of Chevy’s iconic C7 supercar before the all-new C8 arrives

What we liked:

• Massive straight-line grunt

• Staggering grip, great balance

• Everyday usability

Not so much:

• Rear wing compromises boot access

• Eight-speed auto not the cleverest

• Incessant droning/rumbling of V8

Chevrolet’s current-gen Corvette will be joined in about 18 months by the all-new C8, which is based on a tradition-shattering mid-engine architecture and will be sold in Australia, but the C7 isn’t quite done just yet. Want proof? Here it is – the just-released top-dog ZR1, backed by performance stats that should send a shiver or two down the collective spines of the boffins at Zuffenhausen, Maranello and Sant’Agata Bolognese. Chevrolet quotes a 0-100km/h time of about 3sec (0-60mph in 2.85sec), 0-160km/h in 6sec and a top speed of 341km/h with the standard Low Wing set-up. The company also claimed the production-car lap record at Virginia International Raceway earlier this year, but it’s yet to announce a lap time for the 20.8km Nurburgring Nordschleife, although the Chevy team has reportedly been at the circuit with the car in recent months and there are rumours of a sizzling 7:12sec lap. Yes indeed, the C7 Corvette will be a hard act to follow.

Blown sky-high

The 2019 ZR1 is only the fourth Corvette to wear this hallowed alphanumeric suffix (the first one was the C3 generation, produced over 1969-71), but the newbie is by far the fastest, angriest to date, thanks primarily to its ‘LT5’ 6.2-litre V8, which packs a massive supercharger (it’s 52 per cent bigger than the one on the current Z06).

In fact, the blower is so large that it protrudes beyond the top of the bonnet – hence the central cut-out in the latter to accommodate the ‘shaker’.

The LT5 also features a dual fuel system (it comprises a combo of direct injection and port injection), a stronger crankshaft and larger throttle body.

It adds up to towering outputs of 563kW of power at 6300rpm and a bewildering 969Nm of torque from 4400rpm, channelled to the chunky rear rubber via either a seven-speed manual gearbox or eight-speed auto. managed to get its hands on this ZR1 (a pre-production car) within weeks of its international launch at Road Atlanta and, as evident from the accompanying images, it’s the top-shelf convertible variant, equipped with the optional ZTK Performance Package and Sebring Orange Design Package.

The ZTK pack brings a Le Mans racer-mimicking adjustable ‘High Wing’, a thrusting carbon-fibre front splitter, ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres and tweaked suspension settings with Magnetic Ride Control.

Tick the box that says ‘ZTK’ if regular track days are on the agenda, as the aero addenda is said to add up to 430kg of downforce. The flipside is that this limits top speed to ‘only’ 320km/h.

Ready to rumble

Firing up the big V8 via the silver ‘Start’ button on the dashboard, there’s no getting away from the ZR1’s Yankee muscle-car roots.

The supercharged 6.2-litre unit settles into a lumpy, burbly idle – a bit like King Kong gargling gigantic nuts and bolts immersed in engine oil. There’s none of the quad-cam, multi-valve sophistication of the latest breed of Euro twin-turbo V8s. Just good ol’ fashioned pushrods and two valves per cylinder here.

Despite its gargantuan outputs, the ZR1 is surprisingly docile when driven normally. One factor here is the long-travel throttle. You have to really flex your ankle to get through its full range, and the juicy stuff is only uncorked in the lower half of throttle travel.

The ZR1’s massive grunt is unleashed in highly linear fashion (as reflected by the fact that peak torque doesn’t come on tap until 4400rpm), so it doesn’t squash your organs in the way that a Porsche 911 Turbo does, even though its outright performance is lineball.

Despite its huge quota of torque, the Corvette’s traction is exceptionally good and, even with the electronic safety net deactivated, it takes a determined stomp on the gas to unstick the rear-end.

In some ways this is a good thing, as the ZR1 never feels like an unruly monster that’ll spit you off the road at the first opportunity.

A lot of credit here obviously goes to the fat rear Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 gumballs. The ZR1 with the ZTK pack wears 335/25 ZR 20 boots at the rear and 285/30 ZR19s at the front.

That said, our test car’s rubber is almost completely devoid of tread after having been thrashed non-stop at a media track night a week or so earlier. Nevertheless, this doesn’t seem to compromise their leech-like grip.

It takes a while to tap into the ZR1’s dynamic envelope as its limits are so staggeringly high that you need to gradually work up to them. Its cornering capabilities border on neck-straining as grip levels are seemingly endless.

The C7 Corvette features electrically-assisted power steering and, although it could do with a tad more feel, this set-up is meaty and accurate.

It takes a bit of elbow grease to properly manhandle the ZR1 as the steering weights up to almost Schwarzenegger-esque levels as cornering loads escalate. This isn’t something you rag with one hand on the wheel – you need both paws on the tiller.

It corners too

The ZR1 inspires a lot of confidence as the chassis has great balance – the transaxle layout is a factor here, contributing to perfect weight distribution over front and rear axles – and everything happens progressively.

There are no nasty surprises, even though General Motors Executive VP (and former Holden boss) Mark Reuss was caught out while pedalling the ZR1 pace car at the recent Detroit IndyCar Grand Prix.

The result was a nose-crumpling shunt with the wall, but that can obviously happen in a rear-wheel drive car packing 563kW and 969Nm if you overcook it.

For the record, Reuss has driven the pace car for the Detroit IndyCar event on numerous previous occasions without incident.

The C7 uses transverse leaf-spring suspension at the rear – a layout that dates back to the 1963 C2 Corvette – but this set-up is still remarkably effective.

The Magnetic Ride Control also smooths out ride quality to the extent that the ZR1 is never jarring – it’s a realistic daily driver as far as comfort and overall drivability is concerned.

Behind the wheel

The seating position is excellent, and the only aspect that begins to grate after a while is the incessant droning of the V8 at cruising speeds and lumpy burbling at idle.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good exhaust note, but the ZR1’s soundtrack is notable more for its quantity than quality – it doesn’t sound too bad at full beans, or when popping and crackling on the overrun, but the rest of the time it’s remarkably truck-like.

The GM-built eight-speed auto gets through upshifts and downshifts smoothly enough, but it’s not even a patch on the brilliant 10-speed unit fitted to the latest Camaro ZL1.

The latter transmission has a psychic ability to pre-empt whatever you’re just about to do, so you can leave it to its own devices even when you’re thrashing across a twisty road. In fact, it comes into its own here, as it downshifts the correct number of gears with whip-crack urgency for whatever cornering you’re braking for.

This isn’t the case with ZR1’s eight-speeder, which is a bit slow-witted. It’s fine for normal driving, but in max-attack mode the best bet is to take charge manually via the shift paddles.

Unfortunately, these are also disappointingly plasticky, and tugging them imparts a mouse-click feel, rather than a satisfying sensation of being mechanically connected to the transmission.

No complaints about the mighty Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, which pull up the ‘Vette with a greater sense of urgency than almost anything else I’ve driven.

They’re positively Herculean, wiping off speeds of 250km/h-plus with utter disdain. The brake pedal is a bit sensitive, but there’s a satisfying meatiness and progression to it after the first couple of millimetres of travel, and the stoppers remain fade-free even after a sustained pounding.

Around town

What about the more practical day-to-day aspects? On the whole, the ZR1 is a doddle to drive.

Lateral and rear visibility are limited (especially with that XXL rear wing), but there’s a great view out front as you peer over the protruding supercharger and curvaceous front fenders.

However, the low-riding front splitter that comes as part of the ZTK Performance Pack means you need to baby the car over speed humps and out of driveways to avoid scraping it.

The almost 2m width of the car and extra-long snout also require a brief period of familiarisation to get used to.

The cabin is a bit basic for an offering at this price point, and much of the switchgear and plastic trim betrays the ZR1’s blue-collar origins.

The fastest, most powerful production Corvette ever – the 755-horsepower 2019 ZR1.

Granted, the leather/microfibre seats look and feel decent and likewise the flat-bottom steering wheel, which has grippy Alcantara inserts on the side quadrants and shiny carbon-fibre at the top and bottom.

The only problem is the carbon-fibre bits reach finger-scalding temperatures if you leave the car standing in 42-degree heat for an hour or two. This can make manoeuvring out of carparks an ouch-filled exercise.

It almost goes without saying in a low-slung supercar but clambering in and out of the ‘Vette isn’t the most effortless exercise as your derriere is nestled so low in the seat that have to really heave yourself out of the car.

And, while we’re on the gripes, that absurdly large (yet aero-functional) rear wing makes access to the boot exceptionally awkward.

But for the most part, the ZR1 is easy to live with and driving it isn’t too much more challenging than pedalling a Toyota Camry, at least at sedate speeds. That said, unleashing its full potential calls for a skilful steerer.

The verdict

Weighing against the ZR1 is the fact that badge snobbery is obviously very much a thing when you start getting into this price bracket.

The ZR1 is priced from $160,000 in the US, but one could extrapolate that it would cost between $250-300K were it offered here, putting it squarely in Porsche 911 Carrera, Mercedes-AMG GT, Audi R8 and Jaguar F-TYPE SVR territory.

The ZR1 has the performance to eclipse all these competitors, but it’s a dead cert many buyers in this segment would opt instead for the cachet (and residual values) of one of the Euro sportsters.

That said, there are no doubt at least some out there who could just as easily be wooed by the brawny appeal of this Kentucky-built thumper.

As far as point-to-point blasting against the stopwatch, there’s no doubting the ZR1’s efficacy – it’s undoubtedly the fastest production car the US has produced to date.

Chevrolet’s current Corvette spearhead is ruthlessly efficient, but perhaps just a fraction lacking in its ability to stir the emotions.

When it comes to outright performance, however, there’s no doubt the mid-engined C8 Corvette – which is coming to a Holden dealer near you post-2020 – has mighty big shoes to fill.

How much is the 2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1?

Price: Coupe from $US119,995 ($A158,665); Convertible from $US123,995 ($A163,954)
On sale: N/A
Engine: 6.2-litre supercharged V8
Output: 563kW/969Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed manual, eight-speed automatic
Fuel: 15.6L/100km
CO2: N/A
Safety rating: TBC