Chevro­let Corvette ZR-1

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Amer­i­can cars get a hard time in the UK, of­ten shoe­horned into fea­tures as lip ser­vice. ‘Here’s the main event, but for those lovers of the un­so­phis­ti­cated we’ve got a [insert US “sports” car of your choice]’. Af­ter all, they don’t go round cor­ners, do they? With Corvettes, they’re usu­ally in­cluded just be­cause of the car’s looks.

Lift­ing the Corvette ZR-1’S large clamshell bon­net reveals the first sur­prise; in­stead of a chromed cir­cu­lar air fil­ter hous­ing, there’s a huge in­take plenum grip­ping the LT5 power plant tighter than a face­hug­ger did Kane’s head in Alien. The sec­ond is the ‘4 CAM 32 VALVE’ script atop. Eh? Where are the pushrods?

As a game changer, they don’t come big­ger than this. Styled by Fed­eral emis­sions leg­is­la­tion dur­ing the Eight­ies, ’Vette V8s strug­gled to put out 250bhp – a far cry from the mar­que’s Six­ties power-mad hey­day. Like oth­ers, GM was fear­ful of what Ja­pan’s tech­no­log­i­cal whirl­wind might pro­duce, so some­thing had to be done. En­ter Lo­tus Engi­neer­ing, and its di­rec­tor Tony Rudd. He de­signed a new 32-valve, all-al­loy, DOHC 5.7-litre LT5 en­gine, us­ing an ex­per­i­men­tal DV8 (type 909) en­gine as a ba­sis. Built at Mer­cury Ma­rine, in its first it­er­a­tion this baby was good for 375bhp and 370lb ft torque; mated to a six-speed ZF gear­box it was enough to pro­pel GM’S new baby from 0-60mph in 4.5sec

With the clam se­cured, it’s time to climb into an in­te­rior that’s pure Corvette; the seat­ing po­si­tion is low-slung, with my legs bang out in front, and all of the sturdy con­trols in per­fect reach. There’s an im­prove­ment in feel over ear­lier C4’s, still with that fa­mil­iar wrap­around driver’s bin­na­cle, but it strug­gles a lit­tle to match the qual­ity of our other cars. The en­gine erupts throat­ily and set­tles into an un­fa­mil­iar, bur­ble-free, me­chan­i­cal tick-over.

At res­i­den­tial speeds it’s an easy-af­fa­ble work­horse, wrap­ping its arms around you and invit­ing you over for a Bud and to watch the game. That’s thanks to a so­phis­ti­cated two-phase in­duc­tion sys­tem, with three-valve throt­tle body – us­ing a small pri­mary and two large sec­on­daries. Be­low 3500rpm only the former’s in­take ports and fuel in­jec­tors are open, but ramp mat­ters up and both se­condary units come on­line; sud­denly a bar brawl erupts and there’s an almighty dou­ble sucker punch to my kid­neys, with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing thun­der clap as the revs rise. And build they do, right up to 6500rpm – pre­vi­ously nose­bleed ter­ri­tory for a North Amer­i­can car. Throt­tle, shift – hello again ZF – throt­tle, heavy me­tal clat­ter, and re­peat. It’s a thrilling pack­age and one that to­day pro­vides an in­cred­i­ble per­for­mance thrill for the out­lay.

Yes, there re­mains a trans­verse leaf spring at the rear, but the ZR-1 cor­ners with more re­fine­ment than that might sug­gest and there’s very lit­tle dan­ger of those mon­strous 315/35ZR17 tyres break­ing trac­tion in nor­mal driv­ing con­di­tions. In a straight line, this tweaked 435bhp ex­am­ple is still out-pulling all oth­ers here when I ap­ply the large Bosch ABS II brakes.

You get 14 dif­fer­ent set­tings on the Bil­stein-en­gi­neered FX3 se­lec­tive ride con­trol sys­tem, so you can fid­dle to your heart’s con­tent. There’s even a ‘valet key’ you can in­voke – it cuts ac­cess

to those se­condary valves, lim­it­ing you to 200bhp – should you not want your other half (or even your valet) to ac­cess all its wild horses. Al­though for some rea­son when I flick it, I imag­ine Jack Ni­chol­son in A Few Good Men sit­ting in the pas­sen­ger seat bel­low­ing ‘you can’t han­dle the…’

‘The ZR-1 has un­doubt­edly the best en­gine ever put into the C4,’ says Clare­mont Corvette’s Tom Fal­coner. ‘Very pow­er­ful, it’s bet­ter built, more re­li­able and vir­tu­ally trou­ble-free. De­spite the power unit’s added so­phis­ti­ca­tion, you es­sen­tially get the same bul­let­proof Corvette ex­pe­ri­ence.’

The ZR-1’S only down­side is the lack of visual dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween it and a stan­dard L98 car with only the wider rear end and rounded rec­tan­gu­lar tail­lights in­dica­tive you’re sit­ting in some­thing spe­cial. Back when new that was a big ask of cus­tomers for a car that cost al­most twice as much. To­day? You can ex­cuse it, for the sheer Wild West clout on of­fer.

‘Sud­denly a bar brawl erupts, and there’s an almighty sucker punch to my kid­neys, with a thun­der­clap as the revs rise’

Rounded-rec­tan­gle tail lights tell you it’s a ZR-1 – oh, and the bumper badge

DOHC V8 will rev out to a dis­tinctly un-amer­i­can 6500rpm – eardrums and right foot re­joice Yes, you’ll have to make do with left-hand drive, but at least the cabin is driver-cen­tric

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