MILFORD, MI – “All Corvettes are high-performance cars, it’s just a matter of degrees,” the late Zora Arkus Duntov once said of the numerous special-edition Chevrolet Corvettes.

Duntov, an engineer from the glory days at General Motors Corp. and widely regarded as the “Godfather of the Corvette,” likely would have expressed the same sentiments for the ’09 Corvette ZR1.

Because after a day of testing the fastest, most-powerful and technically advanced Corvette to wear the crossed flags, we were left with one simple, albeit superlative-lacking, impression: the ZR1 strays very little from the Corvette’s roots as one of the most well-mannered sports cars on the market.

Of course, the limited-edition ZR1 still deserves a healthy dose of hyperbole.

Its hand-assembled, 638-hp, 6.2L supercharged V-8 and Tremec 6-speed manual transmission pour a seemingly endless gush of silky smooth power to the rear wheels, while massive Brembo brakes with lightweight carbon-ceramic rotors stop the car more quickly than a GM financial review.

Hours of aerodynamic work inside GM’s wind tunnel, combined with Delphi Corp.’s advanced MagnaRide suspension and unique, run-flat Michelin PS2 rubber, keep the car hunkered down during aggressive driving.

From a standstill, there’s no mistaking the ZR1 from its stablemates, either. To differentiate itself from lesser ‘Vettes, the ZR1 receives a bulged carbon-fiber hood with a rather quirky polycarbonate window to show off its aluminum-capped Eaton supercharger, as well as visible carbon fiber on the roof, rocker moldings and front splitter.

The unique chin-splitter design is thin in the middle and thick at the corners for improved aerodynamics, while a pair of inboard inlets draws additional cooling air for the brakes. The ZR1 rocker panels also add a vertical plane to keep air from slipping under the car, with the corners of the rear spoiler raised slightly higher than other Corvettes for an extra measure of stability.

A widened, carbon-fiber front fender inspired by the ‘63 Corvette Sting Ray further enhances airflow and provides the ZR1 with more muscular shoulders.

Whereas the Z06 employs red as a signature accent color, the ZR1 relies upon blue, a nod to its rumored roots as the Corvette “Blue Devil.” GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, a Duke University graduate whose mascot is the Blue Devil, reportedly gave birth to the car by asking Chevy engineers what they might come up with if asked to build a $100,000 challenger to Ferraris and Porsches.

The end result is an exterior design that is as intimidating in the paddock as it is out on the track. Combined with those sticky Michelins, the ZR1 slips around GM’s Nurburgring-inspired test track here like a Tyco slot car.

GM smartly closed one straightaway and coned a chicane into another to keep speeds down during media testing, but even the greenest driver recognizes how effortlessly the ZR1 tackles the track’s off-camber, downhill turns and refuses to get light as it crests the uphill bankings.

Elsewhere, however, the ZR1 resembles a fish out of water. Atop the highways and winding country roads that surround GM’s proving grounds, the aggressive aero package lends the ZR1 a more grotesque, unnatural aspect than even the base and Z06 Corvettes on hand for comparison.

’09 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Vehicle type front-engine, rear-drive, 2-passenger coupe
Engine 6.2L supercharged OHV V-8
Power (SAE net) 638 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 604 lb. ft. (819 Nm) @ 3,800 rpm
Compression ratio 9.1:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 105.7 ins. (269 cm)
Overall length 176.2 ins. (448 cm)
Overall width 75.9 ins. (193 cm)
Overall height 49 ins. (125 cm)
Curb weight 3,324 lbs. (1,507 kg)
Base price $105,000
Fuel economy 14/20 mpg (17/12 L/100 km)
Competition Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari 599 GTB
Pros Cons
Endless rush of power Looks best trackside
Famous ‘Vette drivability Gas-guzzler tax
Proof of life at GM Interior quality glitch?

Inside, ZR1 badges greet passengers along the door sills, on the headrests and inside the gauge cluster. Whether the interior reflects its price tag remains debatable, but the cut-and-sew French stitching from interior supplier Drӓxlmaier Group looks smashing. The sport seats snugly wrap the driver and passenger like a catcher’s mitt and GM has honed the short-throw shifter so perfectly it feels like an extension of your hand.

One potential issue, however, is the interior carpeting, which somehow became detached from the center console of one of the test vehicles. Likely a victim of too many pudgy automotive journalists riding shotgun with GM’s performance engineers, it also may represent a quality glitch that could send buyers howling back to their dealer.

However, the real story is how remarkably refined the ZR1 drives, with much of the credit going to the adjustable electromagnetic dampers that make up the GM/Delphi Magnetic Selective Ride Control (MSRC).

The Corvette always has stood apart from most other high-performance cars because of its compliant road manners, and the ZR1 is no exception: the whiz-bang MSRC instantaneously adjusts to changes in the roadway to provide a smooth, supple ride across rough roads, despite the ZR1’s track-hungry nature.

And as GM engineers demonstrated during our testing, MSRC keeps the rear end nicely planted during heavy acceleration, even under the sudden rush of 604 lb.-ft. (819 Nm) of torque.

Despite the forgiving suspension, as well as an enhanced Bosch stability control system and predictable mechanical steering, GM will include in the 6-figure purchase price a training class at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. It’s a responsible decision, given how quickly we became addicted to the beastly roar a boot full of throttle induces from the ZR1.

At first blush, another 600-hp supercar capable of running 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 4 seconds may seem to make little sense in such an environmentally sensitive, economically downtrodden time. In fact, the program was shelved twice during headier times at GM as the auto maker made way for a redesign of its fullsize trucks and the bottom-up development of its midsize cross/utility vehicles.

But the ZR1 finally is upon us, and from our perspective, it owes no apologies for its timing.

The ZR1’s seamless marriage between everyday drivability and outrageous performance demonstrates that perhaps the vaunted engineering capabilities GM built its business on remain intact, serving as evidence the struggling auto maker may eventually conquer the many challenges that cloud its future.

jamend@wardsauto.com