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Burning the world's oil for a good cause: The rapture of the hypercar

DAN NEIL / RUMBLE SEAT

October 17, 2008|DAN NEIL

Dear Future: We're really, really sorry. Kinda got carried away, what with all the petroleum and all. You're probably wishing that we had saved a few barrels of oil for you, for airline travel and making fertilizer. And those little plastic swim fins would come in handy, now that Greenland has melted.

I know, "sorry" doesn't feed the bulldog. What's that? You've eaten your bulldog? OK, you're just making this harder.

The problem with petroleum, you see, is that it's so utterly intoxicating, so rapturously explosive, such a giddy kick to the Newtonian groin. A gallon of gasoline represents about 125,000 BTUs of thermo-chemical energy and weighs a mere 6 pounds. To match the energy of a single gallon of gas, our most advanced lithium battery has to weigh between 30 and 40 pounds and be hooked up to a wind turbine for, like, ever.

Gasoline is the light, sweet liquor of the gods, the glowing blood throbbing in Odin's temples. . . .

Oh, right, sorry.

If gas is our combustible heroin, cars like the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 are our big needles. This 638-hp, 205-mph, $105,000 affront to all that is good and decent and respectable, this angry strake of carbon fiber and aluminum turns gasoline directly into moments of teary bliss. Let me tell you, it's one thing to mouth the pieties of alternatively fueled transportation -- hybrids, diesels, electrics. It's quite another to feel the arch-adrenaline of dinosaur-fueled horsepower and say, "Never again."

Some may wonder why badly bleeding General Motors would invest precious development dollars turning the already quite mental Corvette Z06 into this necromantic hypercar. Isn't the electric Volt the company's salvation?

Maybe. But because the ZR1 builds on the Corvette program -- the aluminum-and-balsa chassis is the same; the supercharged LS9 is a titanium-rod-and-crank version of the base pushrod V8 -- it represents a relatively small marketing outlay. And marketing is what it is. This car has appeared on every magazine cover from Motor Trend to Bass Masters Quarterly.

Having to get around in wooden, orphan-drawn carts, Future, it might be hard for you to appreciate what it's like to drive such a car. To begin with, in terms of comfort and usability, the ZR1 crushes comparable hypercars such as the Lamborghini Murcielago, the Porsche 911 GT2 and the Ferrari 599. To put four sets of golf clubs in those cars, as you can in the Corvette, you'd have to use a crowbar and a Sawz-All.

At around-town, light-throttle speeds, the ZR1 drives like a two-seat limousine. The cabin is comfortable and easy to enter and exit. The dual-mode magnetic rheologic dampers (don't ask) deliver a freakishly supple and smooth ride, like every road was paved that morning. It's downright unnatural. The ride compliance is especially notable given the obscenely oversized Michelin Sport Pilot tires hanging luridly out of the wheel wells (19-inchers in front and 20s in the rear).

With 320 pound-feet of torque at the flywheel at a breath off idle (1,000 rpm), the ZR1's engine is supremely tractable, quiet and refined around town. The close-ratio six-speed gearbox is slicker than a Glock soaked in KY jelly. The net of it is, then, that the ZR1 sacrifices very little to the war gods, not even fuel economy. You can stick the gearshift in sixth and get 20 mpg at highway speeds.

But you wouldn't do that, Future, oh no. And neither would we.

What you would do is line up the ZR1 on some empty straight of tarmac and nail the throttle. To do so is to throw yourself on a horsepower grenade. Even with traction control engaged, the wheel spin is enough to cause the ZR1 to sidestep in a cloud of Michelin-flavored smoke and thunder. A half-second later, the tires hook up and you're drowning in your own spit and hallucinating speed. In less than four heartbeats (3.4 seconds), you've gone through 60 mph and you're grabbing second gear.

Now the four-lobe Eaton supercharger is fully angered, the gas is pouring down the V8 gullet, and the exhaust flaps are wide open. Can you hear me now? In 8 seconds -- long, loud, delirious seconds with a soundtrack from every NASCAR movie ever made -- you're in three-digit territory.

It's around here I discovered a fascinating thing. If you punch the throttle at the top of third gear, around 6,500 rpm, where all 638 supercharged horses live, you can well and truly break the rear tires loose. Oh. My. God.

Meanwhile, the ZR1 has more lateral grip than the world's current supply of Polident. On big, fast, neck-wrenching esses and sweepers and mountain switchbacks, the ZR1 just puts a shoulder down and carves through them. The two-mode dampers, set on Sport, null out whatever body roll might have the temerity to sneak past the oversized anti-roll bars. The ZR1 might have a touch of stiff-nosed, low-speed understeer, but with the phenomenal, right-now torque at your toe, rotating the car is as easy as dialing in the radio.

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