Payne: Chevy’s ‘King Nasty’ ZR1 ‘vette roars

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Atlanta — In 2009, the insane, 638-horsepower Chevy Corvette ZR1 debuted as the fastest ’Vette ever. Then-General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner (a Duke alumnus) dubbed it the “Blue Devil.” In 2014, the earth-shaking, 650-horse Corvette Z06 surpassed the Blue Devil as the greatest ever. GM product boss Mark Reuss declared it “Big Nasty.”

Four years later, an all-new, winged ZR1 boasting (wait for it) 755 ponies has returned as the ’Vette without equal. All that’s missing is a nickname. Blue Devil II? Yuge Nasty?

Just call it king.

I traveled here to pay homage to the mostest Corvette ever at one of America’s greatest racetracks, Road Atlanta. I was not disappointed.

Even before we media put the beast to the test outside Atlanta, the $120,000 ZR1 had laid down legendary numbers. Lap record at Virginia International Raceway in 2 minutes, 36 seconds — faster than the $900,000 Porsche 918 or $400,000 Ford GT supercars. A sprint to one mile at 187 mph. Average speed around Papenburg, Germany’s 8-mile oval, in 212 mph.

And yet I was still skeptical. After all, I track-tested the 2009-model year ZR1 at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.

The Blue Devil, which resurrected the iconic ZR1 badge last used in 1990, was diabolical fun. The first supercharged Corvette boasted off-the-chart engine numbers. To keep it from burning holes through guardrails at the end of Milford’s straightaways it came equipped with exotic, cutting-edge, ABS-controlled, carbon-ceramic brakes that stopped so quickly I swear my eyeballs bounced off the windshield in front of me.

But in corners the ZR1 was a handful, its power overwhelming the sixth-gen, C6 Corvette’s chassis and demanding the driver wrestle it like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. Fast ... and furious.

Sure, the 2019 ZR1 is based on the new, aluminum C7 chassis — built from the ground up to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in C7R race trim and to endure the twist of the ZR1’s 715 pound-feet of supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 torque.

But walk around the ZR1 and it looks like Hulk on four wheels. Its muscles are literally bursting through its skin. The massive supercharger pushes against the carbon fiber hood like Hulk’s bicep through a tattered dress shirt. So tightly is the engine packed that ZR1 is illegal in Europe because it doesn’t meet pedestrian safety standards.

So tall is the hood bulge that the available heads up display can’t clear it. Massive corner front intakes — apparently ripped from an F-22 fighter jet — feed more air to the beast within via four heat exchangers on top of the Z06’s already cramped nine.

And yet virtually the same Z06 tools of tires, Brembo brakes and suspension are supposed to contain this supercharged tornado?

Yup. Son-of-Blue Devil (now there’s a nickname!) is a revelation on track, leaving papa’s ghost in the rearview mirror. Credit nearly 1,000 pounds of downforce from a ZTK aero package consisting of tall rear wing and front splitter. Bolted clean through the bodywork to the rear bumper, the Sopwith Camel wing keeps the 3,600-pound ’Vette glued to the asphalt.

ZR1 was noticeably quicker than Big Nasty — until now the Corvette benchmark —around Road Atlanta putting down the power earlier exiting Turn One, then allowing more grip through legendary Turn 12.

The numbers tell the story. Motor Trend test driver Randy Pobst lapped Road Atlanta in 1.26.4 seconds — unofficially beating the Dodge Viper ACR’s production lap record by a tenth — and obliterating the 1.28 pole time in my sports racer prototype class last November. I managed a leisurely 1.37 while lapping behind a Z06 pace car — my ZR1 nearly running over top of its sibling in fast turns and at the end of the back straight.

The ZR1 makes the extra 100 horsepower useful — not scary. The 8-speed auto is quick-shifting magic (preferred over the balky 7-speed manual). The car simply walked away from the nimble Grand Sport Corvette and its “mere” 460 horsepower. Who knew 460 ponies could feel like a dog?

The ZR1’s talents even distracted chief motorhead Reuss from his busy schedule to get in a few laps at Atlanta. How many cars detour top execs from their 24/7 schedules?

But like its C7 siblings, the ZR1 is hardly a caged track monster that would be out of its element on public roads (like, ahem, my 1,000-pound race car). Despite its comic book looks, the ZR1 is a tame daily driver.

Fire it up and I set off every car alarm in the vicinity — but then the car rode happily around suburban Atlanta roads on magic carpet magnetic shocks while in quiet “Tour” mode. Unlike supercars costing four times as much, the Vette’s hatch will easily swallow two golf bags while its passengers settle into their heated/cooled seats listening to a soothing Sirius XM symphony.

Always close by, however, are Corvette’s signature “oh, crap!” handles — for those moments when the road clears, the driver rotates the drive mode selector to “TRACK” and the four pipes roar like Simba.

At a magazine stand in Atlanta airport on the way home, I picked up “Car and Driver” — an artist’s rendering of the coming, next-gen, mid-engine Corvette on its cover. The ZR1 is likely the last of the front-engine V-8s (alert the collectors!). Appropriately, it’s going out on top.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.

2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car


$$119,995 base ($136,815 auto as tested)

Power plant

6.2-liter, supercharged V-8


755 horsepower, 715 pound-feet of torque


7-speed manual; 8-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 2.85 seconds (mnftr.); top speed: 212 mph


3,600 pounds (est.)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 13 city/19 highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Stupid power; serious downforce

Lows: 7-speed manual has one-too-many gates; ticket bait


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★