Let's review a few things: At $54,995 and 455 hp, the current, seventh-generation Corvette is a monster, a practical and almost flaw-free device. Similarly, as the media is fond of telling you, we live in a golden age; if you're building fast cars, you have to offer at least 500 hp if you want any attention. The last top-line Ford Mustang made 662 hp and-this is not an exaggeration-thanks to 200-mph gearing, occasionally felt half-asleep. Dodge builds a family sedan with 707 hp. When it comes to horsepower, the industry is generally agreed to have a last-days-of-Rome going on, and yet the numbers keep reaching for the moon.
Into this bat-guano party steps the 2015 Corvette Z06. It makes 650 hp and costs $78,995, which makes it both absurdly fast and remarkably cheap. Its supercharged, 6.2-liter, direct-injected pushrod V8, which GM calls LT4, produces 12 hp more than the LS9 V8 in the old Corvette ZR1, which was also supercharged. Like that car, the Z06 offers standard magnetorheological dampers and select carbon-fiber body panels; unlike that car, it has electric power steering, a seven-speed manual, an optional eight-speed automatic, and an electronically controlled, variable-lockup limited-slip. Plus a removable roof panel and an available convertible model.
The coupe weighs 3536 pounds. Thanks to the base C7's aluminum frame-20 percent more rigid than that of the previous Z06-Chevrolet says the convertible needs no additional structural reinforcements, weighs within 60 pounds of the coupe, and is tuned identically to it. On either car, if you choose the carbon aerodynamics package, you get a carbon-fiber front splitter, carbon rocker extensions, a larger spoiler, and small nose winglets. If you are the sort of person who sits up nights figuring out how to fit slicks and a straight pipe to his dishwasher, the track-focused Z07 package ($7995) is built for your weirdo brain. It brings the carbon pack plus the carbon brakes; Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires; a 59-millimeter, clear-plastic Gurney flap on the trunk; and larger winglets.
There's more here than just a bonkers engine. Because the Z06's rear fenders are more than three inches wider than those of the base C7, the taillights are three inches farther apart, to keep the newly enplumped rump from looking cross-eyed. The grille is so effective at humping air into the engine bay that Chevrolet says the engine actually sees less air volume with the grille removed. Scoops on the rear-fender vents force 50 percent more air to the newly enlarged transaxle coolers. And while the Z07's clear Gurney "looks a little NASCAR," as one engineer told me, it also causes air to bunch up over the rear glass, providing 80 percent of the Z07's total downforce with a center of pressure just in front of the rear wheels. (Fun fact: GM considered a traditional rear wing mounted directly to the rear fascia, but that would've required reinforcing the fascia to take the load, which would've added cost. It also would've shifted the aero balance rearward, requiring more front downforce for balance. The Gurney simply produces pressure on the middle of the car, and with a relatively small drag penalty.)
As the NASCAR boys say, this thing ain't dumb. The computer-controlled shocks talk to the computer-controlled differential, the engine-management computer, and the electric-steering-assist hardware. That whole mess is similarly in cahoots with the car's traction and stability nannies and their army of chassis sensors. Like many modern cars and the Corvette Stingray upon which it's based, the Z06 is thus one big algorithm suite, its feedback and handling constantly adjusted underneath you. And it's distinctly American. Think Nissan GT-R by way of the battleship Iowa and one of those beef-jerky warehouse outlets you see in rural Tennessee.
For Chevrolet, this car is something of a philosophical shift. First off, no Z06 has been supercharged from the factory. Nor has the model ever had an automatic, or a removable roof, or a chassis so digitally managed. Until now, the name meant a high-revving, naturally aspirated V8; a relatively simple, track-focused chassis; and a minimum of equipment for low weight. GM races a nonsupercharged, Z06-look, Z06-badged C7 silhouette car in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship; that machine uses a 5.5-liter V8 with restrictors the size of ping-pong balls, and it produces less power than the street car. Thanks to modern motorsport regulations, the street car is in many ways more complex.
Add all that up, and you have a machine that some of the Corvette faithful see as too tech-heavy, a ZR1 with the wrong badge. GM simply insists that the model had to evolve in order to meet customer demand. (A lot of people wanted an automatic Z06 or a ZR1 convertible, apparently, and a lot fewer wanted a hard-core track special.)
Fine, I say: Buy automatic Z06 convertibles, America. Just know that it is weird and wrong for a car with this badge to not sport a clutch pedal and a track-day-legal roof, and that long after your deaths, historians will take a detached, rational look at the manual transmission's fall from favor and label you all sexless weenies.
The raw ability on tap is astonishing. During performance testing, R&T's nigh-unfazeable road test editor, Robin Warner, saw an astonishing 1.17 g of grip with a Z07-pack Z06 on a slippery, 46-degree Fahrenheit skidpad. (When he returned from the test track, he was so gobsmacked, he immediately went desk-to-desk around the office with the results, making everyone bask in the number's magnificence.) In the same less-than-ideal conditions, our test car walloped to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds, 0.1 second quicker than the last ZR1. Chevy engineers claim the Z06 circulates GM's Milford road course one second faster than the ZR1 on equal tires. It's an easily believable boast.
The styling is the only divisive point. Most people seem to agree that the base Corvette Stingray is aggressively pretty. The Z06, with its vents and scoops and fillips, looks patently ridiculous. It is either serious or cartoonish, depending on how you're wired; after a day around the car, it struck me as somewhere in between, like those old G.I. Joe public-service announcements where the Joes patrolled suburbia and kept kids out of trouble. ("Timmy, playing in construction sites is dangerous. Also, I'm an armed stranger giving you unsolicited life advice on the street, but don't think about that now, even though you'll grow up and likely be weirded out by the memory of the whole thing.")
I suggest the following: Much like G.I. Joe, the Z06 and every other 600-plus-hp car is best accepted without deep introspection. Burnout smoke is car-person beer goggles anyway.
But I digress. You are likely interested in what the car feels like to drive. Let's pause and discuss the lockup philosophy of the electronically controlled limited-slip differential.
Wait for it . . .
Good. The troglodytes have now left the room. The troglodytes don't deserve this thing.
Everything you'd expect is here: The V8 sounds like unholy intercourse artillery-you want to use it to visit destruction on small countries, or maybe launch it into space and take over the moon. The carbon brakes offer a consistent and friendly pedal, and they repeatedly pull the car down from triple-digit speed without protest. (Our test car gave a slight increase in pedal travel when hot, but braking distances didn't seem to suffer.) The standard C7 stuff remains great-a clean, quiet, and nicely constructed interior; a meaty, slick-shifting manual gearbox or a smooth and predictable eight-speed automatic. As in any other C7, the sport seats are fantastic, although the Z07 pack makes so much grip, you squirm out of them at high speed. And finally, you get the feeling that you've somehow cheated the system, because you're in a Corvette that doesn't make you pay for its violence in lack of feedback or build quality.
Oddly, the engine is the least impressive part. This isn't meant as a knock; the LT4 is a torque firebomb, a steamroller of shove that spits out neck-snapping thrust from idle to its 6500-rpm redline. It's equal parts high-revving sociopath and low-rpm sweetheart, but compared with the ZR1's eight, it doesn't feel new in either detail or execution. That's neither good nor bad, just an observation.
Surprisingly-at least for a Corvette-it's the sense of nuance that gets you. When I climbed out of a Z06 after my first laps around Road Atlanta, Tadge Juechter, the Corvette's famously candid chief engineer, walked over and asked me what I thought. I told him I was most struck by the steering (it felt generally heavier and more alive than that of the base C7) and the predictability of the differential and dampers, the combination of which helps you slide the car like a hero-doofus or put the power down while doing juvenile stuff like leaping curbs.
This prompted two great moments. First, Juechter dragged over one of his engineers and asked him about steering calibration. The two men then explained to me, in the most patient way possible, how the steering was different from that of the Stingray. It turns out steering boost is governed by an algorithm that takes into account a host of variables, including lateral acceleration, speed, and steering angle. This is common with electric-power-steering systems, the only differences being processing speed and the skill of the engineers tuning it. The steering difference between this and the base C7, Juechter said, was "probably" due to the change of tire and wheel width, but there were so many factors at work, he didn't seem comfortable nailing it down.
Next, I got to meet Chris Barber, the 32-year-old, fresh-faced engineer who dialed in the Z06's active differential. He kindly took 15 minutes to broad-stroke how this particular diff delivers power to the rear wheels-constantly adjusting, much of it based on when and how your right foot goes down, steering angle, yaw, and so on. The rear axle, he says, "knows everything," and after a handful of laps-the car loose and drifty when asked, clean and tidy when not, and tame as a housecat on Xanax-you tend to believe him. Stability control off, you're allowed to make enormous mistakes with little penalty, you forget about the computations beneath the surface, and the car's moves are telegraphed years before they happen. If the ZR1 kept you perpetually at arm's length and wary, the fluid, compliant Z06 seems to want you in a permanent bear hug. As with any Corvette, going quickly takes stones, but you never feel like the car's about to bite you.
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Active differentials aren't new-the Z06's basic hardware is available on the Stingray-but because this one deals with a bonkers V8, the effect is eye-opening. It's also the most engagingly subtle use of the technology outside the 730-hp Ferrari F12berlinetta, which triples the Z06's price.
Alex MacDonald, one of the Corvette's chassis engineers, attributes much of the subtlety to GM's tuning philosophy: They want motion on the taillights. "The diff helps the car suck back into a drift instead of just dropping into a tankslapper," he told me. And then a flicker of disappointment crossed his face. "We did a lot of calculations with competitors' [active diffs]. That's partly why we developed ours in-house. Everyone's pretty binary, on-off, not making full use of the potential. You turn in, all's great and the car is loose [and sliding], and then the diff just sucks the car down. It's boring."
You have to love a guy who believes a diff can be boring. Five seconds later, we launched into a conversation about the Z06's quick-adjusting magnetorheological shocks. It contained a host of tidbits, but the most telling was MacDonald trailing off on the potential: "The cool thing about MR is that you can vary the damping at different speeds, different roll angles . . ."
There is a lot going on here under the skin.
Naturally, you want to peek behind the curtain. After talking to MacDonald, I drove the car on the track again, specifically looking to suss out the diff. As much as I tried or varied my inputs, I couldn't feel the diff changing how the car pointed or put its power down. This made me feel like a total hack until I talked to Corvette factory driver Tommy Milner, at the track to give journalist hot laps. He said he couldn't feel the diff either, noting that the car just pointed its nose and always did what he wanted. (When I later mentioned this to Barber, he laughed gently, saying, "Oh, if you feel it, something's wrong.") Given that racing drivers typically pick apart complex street cars, this seems like the ultimate compliment.
For a certain set, this car will prompt the usual questions. People will inquire as to the point of a 186-mph Corvette that lets barely trained mortals drift at Can-Am speeds during the average track day. Is there a cap, they'll ask, for usable performance? Why build a street car that cannot use a tenth of its capabilities on the street? Those questions are irrelevant. People raised them when European sport sedans crested the 300-hp mark, and when the 427 Cobra was launched in 1965. And frankly, if you don't like the idea of a high-po Corvette without an ounce of evil in its bones, you need to soak your head. Friendliness is good.
The real triumph here isn't the speed but the accomplishment-the creation of a truly digital, constantly variable car that feels deeply analog. It took guts to shoot for that, brains to pull it off, and GM managed to stuff the Z06's simple blueprint full of silicon without changing the badge's inherent personality. Call it a win for the digital age, a win for the old school, and one of the better meshes of cars and computers in history. Just don't call it a ZR1.