When tasked with describing the automotive orgy of sound, fury, and bombast that was the late, great Corvette ZR1, auto writers everywhere struggled to earn their keep. The thesaurus-straining beast inspired endless four-wheeled superlatives, putting high-dollar exotics on edge, with its stratospheric performance and relative affordability.
Enter 2015, and the ragtag design and engineering team at the bowtie brand has built what is arguably the ultimate big-engine flagship: the 2015 Corvette Z06.
The numbers are epic: 0 to 60 mph in a scant 2.95 seconds (with the eight-speed auto), 1.2 cheek-flattening Gs around the skidpad, and seatbelt-snapping stops from 60 mph in 99.6 feet — making the subordinately named Z06 numerically superior to its ZR1 ancestor.
Even better, the Z06 starts at $78,995, well under the ZR1’s six-figure MSRP. Is this the ‘Vette you want, even with a mid-engined option allegedly around the corner?
I spent some quality, tire-melting time with the new Z06 at Spring Mountain Motorsports Resort in Pahrump, Nevada to test its mettle.
Choose your own adventure
Here’s a philosophical quandary sure to challenge the modern Corvette shopper: What to pair with that supercharged, 650 horsepower, 6.2-liter V8: a manual or an automatic gearbox?
Is this the ‘Vette you want, even with a mid-engined option allegedly around the corner?
While the Corvette’s three-pedal, seven-speed option delivers the ego-stroking satisfaction of rowing the shifter yourself, the eight-speed auto promises faster-than-a-dual-clutch gear changes and quicker sprints to 60 mph – two tenths of a second faster, for those keeping track. The eight-speed’s paddle shifters enable manual gear changes, thought the seven-speed can rev-match downshifts, offering handy throttle blips to accompany negative Gs.
Once you’ve agonized over transmissions, it’s time to go package picking — a rather entertaining exercise in mix-n-match go-fast parts that starts with aerodynamic options.
While the standard Z06 gets a front splitter and a rear spoiler, the $2,995 carbon-fiber aero package — available in a black or carbon fiber finish — adds a winglet-equipped splitter, carbon rocker panels, and a larger, wickerbill-clad rear spoiler.
The full-blown Z07 package ($7,995) adds larger winglets up front and a clear, and an adjustable center portion for the rear spoiler, which helps this Corvette produce the most aerodynamic downforce of any production car ever tested by GM.
Equipped with carbon ceramic brakes with larger rotors and gummy Michelin Pilot Super Sport Cup tires, the Z07 can lap Virginia International Raceway 4.3 seconds faster than last year’s ZR1. Boom. Add options like a leather wrapped interior with the premium package and competition sports seats, and you’d be hard pressed to reach the $100,000 mark. Double boom. Oh, and purists may cringe, but a convertible Z06 is available for $83,995. Splat.
The tech connection
Chevrolet Chief Engineer and de facto Corvette Godfather Tadge Juechter says the Z06 achieves performance that simply couldn’t have been possible five years ago, thanks to its matrix of CAD-designed chassis components, advanced materials, and trickle-down race tech. Adding to that cadre are features that make the Z06 a definitively 21st century sled, including an electronic drive mode selector that wrangles 12 parameters including steering effort, throttle response, magnetorheological suspension damping, stability control, and exhaust mode.
Once you’ve agonized over transmissions, it’s time to go package picking.
Furthering the march of progress is an electronic limited-slip differential that distributes power to the rear wheels and optimizes the balance between direction changes and stability.
Though there isn’t a whole lot of tech to be experienced from the Z06’s cockpit, the same cannot be said for the view outside the car. Chevy’s performance data recorder, which is bundled with the optional nav system, uses a windscreen-mounted high definition camera to record footage onto an SD card via a glove box-mounted slot.
Working in concert with a self-contained telemetry recorder that uses a GPS receiver cycling five times faster than the nav system, the performance data recorder can overlay everything from rpm and steering angle to g-force and speed data onto a high-definition video image. The system has famously captured valet parking shenanigans, but we preferred to use it for nobler purposes: track driving.
Seat of the pants
Slide into the Z06, and the cockpit’s materials and overall design presents a markedly more sophisticated environment over past Corvettes. Gone are the plastic-y overtones, replaced with more upmarket textures and generally well thought-out details.
There’s still a hint of cheese in here, namely due to some sloppy trim bits and the way the center console wraps weirdly around the driver — stuff you’d never find on a comparable Porsche 911 or Audi R8 – but, as with the C7 Stingray, this über Corvette is, for the most part, unrecognizably improved over past generations.
Tackling the turns at Spring Mountain demands equal parts bravado and caution because the relatively tight course doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error. Protecting the driver from potential humiliation is Chevrolet’s Performance Traction Management system, which estimates grip levels and anticipates wheel spin by modulating torque delivery before the tires start to slip.
However, engaging the optimal traction control setting requires a bit of counterintuitive button activation; it took a few times to select the proper mode, and the final step involves leaving the on-screen selector on the desired setting rather than pressing the button, which re-engages the baseline mode. But once you’ve figured out the secret handshake, piloting the 650-horsepower animal is actually a rather manageable task, all factors considered.
As the V8 fires up, the blast of sound from the four tailpipes actually does more to hinder than encourage — after all, even to seasoned hooligans this ‘Vette is quite the intimidating bit of kit, from its low, lengthy proportions and commanding stance to its primal supercharged scream. Dig into the throttle, and you’re shoved mightily into your seat as you merge onto the track, the mountains of torque keeping you pinned as the revs punch through the powerband.
Slide into the Z06, and the cockpit’s materials and overall design presents a markedly more sophisticated environment over past Corvettes.
The heads-up display on 2LZ and 3LZ models projects key performance info onto the windscreen, and of particular interest is the tachometer, which enables strategic cog swaps.
Blasting through the gears yields a veritable wall of sound from the car’s tail, but none of the telltale supercharger whine, which made the ZR1 such a haunting riot.
Nonetheless, this is a stirring car to drive hard in a straight line, one that catapults forward with impressive ease considering its rear-drive layout. The relative lack of tire slip comes in part from the electronic limited slip differential, but also from the Michelin rubber, which manages to maintain a vice-like grip on asphalt. Dump the clutch off the line, and a predictable plume of white smoke forms as the tires struggle for traction. But there’s surprising grip once they hook up, especially with the extra-sticky Z07 situation.
Turn-in isn’t quite as crisp as some if its skinnier-tired competitors (we’re looking at you, Porsche 911), but the Z06’s meaty rubber nonetheless manages to change direction swiftly and coax this 3,500-ish pound animal into a new trajectory.
Squeezing the throttle on exit with all systems off would spin this puppy like a top, but the Corvette’s sophisticated traction system manages to make the task pretty much idiot-proof, thanks to its progressive and seemingly transparent nature. Even in its most permissive setting, the electronics manage to reign everything in rather cohesively, but considering 650 lb-ft. of thump-y torque are being routed to two wheels, the smoothness of the power management is remarkable, as its ability to yield quick lap times despite the car’s tremendous engine output.
Aiding the efforts are strong-stopping brakes which perform perfectly adequately in steel form (though we did encounter fade during particularly hard-charging laps), and exceptionally powerful carbon ceramic stoppers on the Z07 which produced confidence inspiring deceleration worthy of an endurance racer.
End of the road
With the brake pads billowing smoke following a particularly vigorous lap session, I reflected on my time piloting the Z06 on Nevada’s wide-open public highways earlier that day. It was a harrowing exercise in driver license preservation, if ever there were one.
After the adrenaline rush of the racetrack, it’s practically soothing to ponder touring along Nevada interstates at warp speed. Why should throw-me-into-jail shenanigans be relaxing? With the exhaust valves shut, the Z06’s V8 hums along in relative silence, propelling these wheels down the highway with strong but restrained authority.
In seventh gear this baby is perfectly capable of hitting triple-digit speeds without breaking 2,000 rpm.
Despite the nuclear reactor powerplant, all is relatively hushed inside the cabin, with the aforementioned seat-squishing thrust readily available at virtually any given moment thanks to the tremendous torque curve and short gearing. And yet, in seventh gear this baby is perfectly capable of hitting triple-digit speeds without breaking 2,000 rpm. Astounding.
It may never reach its full performance potential in civilian hands, but that’s probably best; the Corvette Z06 is a punchy, involving, finely engineered creature that begs to be exploited on a racetrack. That said, it will more frequently have to settle for street duty.
It’s both a minor tragedy and a tremendous gift that these levels of power, grip, and downforce cannot be fully accessed on a regular basis. When all is said and done, though, the Z06 will some day serve as a memorable milestone in muscle car history, a fast, grip-y, engaging ride that makes the driver feel like a million bucks despite its $79,000 price tag.
- Gloriously throaty and seemingly limitless thrust
- Unflappable handling aided by prescient traction control system
- Manly enough for the most committed of overcompensators
- Makes a surprisingly capable long distance tourer, despite ludicrous performance numbers
- Lack of supercharger whine makes us nostalgic for the defunct ZR1
- Light-switch exhaust valve either whispers or screams
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