Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
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