Monster ZR1: Front-engine Corvette won’t go quietly

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

A major technological pivot is imminent at Chevy as the world awaits the first mid-engine version of the iconic Corvette.

Physics have caught up to the front-engine, two-seat sports car. A mid-ship layout promises better handling balance, more frontal area for hybrid electric motors, and easier engine packaging.

But the front-engine platform isn’t going out quietly.

All hail the 2019 ZR1, the fastest, meanest ’Vette ever built. The ZR1 pushes the front-engine envelope with an astonishing 755, supercharged horsepower — 105 more than its cousin Corvette Z06 and 48 more than a Dodge Challenger SR Hellcat. Chevy says the V-8-powered rocketship will hit 210 mph and throw flames out the its rear, quad tailpipes.

But power is only half the story. Equipped with a huge rear wing, the ZR1 will make a race car-like 950 pound feet of downforce, sucking it to the ground on high-speed racetracks. Estimated to track the cost of the previous-generation, 2009-2013 ZR1, the C7-based ZR1 will likely cost north of $130,000, but with the performance of exotic supercars priced 10 times higher.

In a sneak peek of the ZR1, Car and Driver expects it to be the fastest car ever timed at its annual “Lightning Lap” competition at the formidable Virginia International Raceway, eclipsing even the $900,000 hybrid Porsche 918 supercar. The mere 650-horse, 350-pounds-of-downforce Z06 is already just 1.5 seconds off Stuttgart’s finest.

“I’ve never driven a Corvette like this before, and nobody else has either, because there’s never been one like this before,” said GM product chief Mark Reuss. “Its unprecedented performance puts all other global supercars on notice that the ZR1 is back.”

So far does the ZR1 push the limits that it will be illegal in Europe because the giant, Eaton supercharger under the front hood — 2.9 inches taller than the Z06 unit — does not allow enough room under the skin for the continent’s strict pedestrian protection rules, which require padding under the hood to absorb the impact of a body.

The all-powerful ZR1 badge is not applied lightly at Corvette. Only four low-volume ZR1 variants have been made, the first in 1970. The most recent ZR1 — based on the last-generation C6 chassis car — was the stuff of legend. Nicknamed the “Blue Devil,” it supercharged Corvette’s push-rod V-8 for the first time to the tune of 638 ponies.

The new Corvette king was unveiled this week in Dubai by Chevy’s global boss Alan Batey and Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter. Chevy says it chose the venue because Corvette has a passionate following in the oil-rich Mideast where it is considered an exotic along with European spots car makes. That, and the thirsty, 6.2-liter V-8 will need its own personal oil tanker for fuel.

But for the rear wing and different wheels, the ZR1 is identical to the Z06 aft of the A-pillar. However, given the enormous demands of the monster within, the front end is all-new from fascia to chevron-patterned carbon-fiber hood. To hold four-more heat exchangers (bringing the total to 13), the Corvette’s nose gains two huge, outboard nostrils that look like they were taken off a Lamborghini Aventador. All told, the additional plumbing tacks on 140 pounds of weight.

The most powerful Chevy ever built, the ZR1 is the first GM product with a dual-fuel-injection system – and the first ZR1 offered with an automatic gearbox (a seven-speed manual is also available). Behind the supercharged mill, the cockpit is a leather-wrapped refuge with heated and cooled seats, premium Bose audio system and more amenities. The exterior debuts a Sebring Orange paint with matching brake rotors and seat belts.

The standard ZR1 will come with a small rear airfoil. Step up to the ZTK downforce package and you get the high wing and bigger downforce number.

“The new wings help generate more downforce without adding drag,” said exterior design manager Kirk Bennion.

The Corvette ZR1 gets its U.S. debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month. It goes on sale next spring. Its mid-engine successor? Expected it to take a bow in January at the 2018 Detroit auto show.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.