The Mojave Desert, with Death Valley dead ahead, turns out to be ideal proving grounds for the Corvette Z06—as long as you can dodge both jackrabbits and Nevada and California highway patrols, the buzz-cut enforcers of this beautiful, desolate land.
The Chevy handlers who gave me the keys to this car warned me that the police know I'm out here. Further, that while the maximum Nevada speeding fine is a stiff-enough $1,000, the CHP might just send an egregious offender straight to San Quentin.
This supercharged, superhero Corvette, with 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque and a 195-mph top speed, proves too great a temptation. With my foot to the floor, I shift from a redlined third gear to fourth at 115 mph, then crank fourth to its hurtling 145-mph peak. As for fifth? Just call it the San Quentin Gear. This quaking force is accompanied by the automotive equivalent of a porno soundtrack: The breathy moan and whoosh of the supercharger, and a raw, penetrating V-8 snort through the active exhaust system. (Of course I’ve had it in the ear before).
The sound isn’t the only thing that puts the Z06 on top. From its aluminum structure and featherweight carbon composite bodywork to its breakneck performance, the Z06 is designed to beat a Who’s Who of exotic supercars.
Leave it to the Corvette faithful to parse the Z06’s tangled history, which began as an under-the-radar Corvette option code back in 1963. All you need to know is that there are now two Corvettes, hyper-stylized yet tasteful, to choose from. The standard 455-horse Stingray is Everyday; the Z06 is No Effing Way.
Drinking from the deep technical well of LeMans-winning Corvette endurance racers, the track-centric Z06 coupe torches 60 mph in 2.95 seconds. That’s with the optional eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic, a gearbox that sends the dawdling old six-speed to the shitbox of history. The quarter-mile flashes past in 10.95 seconds at 127 mph. The car generates a spleen-crushing 1.2 g’s of lateral force through curves, and stops from 60 mph in less than 100 feet. Those two numbers will almost surely set records for a production automobile. How forceful are those Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes? From 25 mph, the Corvette can halt in less than one car length. Neighborhood cats and dogs will be thankful.
A few critics have groused that the Z06 looks a bit too heavily armed, with its ground-hugging front splitter and carbon-fiber winglets and the wing that soars off the trunklid. But these aero additions are fully functional, not decorative. Hey, this ‘Vette is a legitimate killing machine: You wouldn’t ask John Rambo to hand over that survival knife.
Compared with a civilian-issue Stingray, saucy fenders flare about two inches wider up front and three inches in back. Twenty-inch Michelin tires, specially and uniquely designed for the Z06, are fully two inches wider out back than the standard Stingray. Girded with a supercharger than whirs to 20,000 rpm, the 6.2-liter LT4 V8 sits below a weight-slashing carbon-fiber hood. The new supercharger whirs to 20,000 rpm, 5,000 more than the previous ZR1 model.
Should you feel like relaxing, the Z06 can be docile as the standard Stingray. Dialing the Z06 to Touring mode softens the magnetic suspension, soothes the steering and dampens the exhaust note to Muzak levels. Compared to the back-breaking T-tops of old, the ‘Vette’s removable carbon fiber roof panel is a featherweight marvel.
Like the basic ‘Vette, the Z06 can shut down half its eight cylinders to save fuel, earning a reasonable 15/22 mpg rating from the feds. But the more heroically the ‘Vette performs, the more heroic its appetite: My 98-mile, desert-strafing run returns 10.6 mpg.
There’s even a convertible Z06 version, part of Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter’s plan to give the people what they want. With both Ferrari and Lamborghini saying arrevederci to manual transmissions – ditto the Porsche 911 GT3 – purists can praise Chevy for keeping the manual faith.
That seven-speed, rev-matching manual transmission is still aces in my book, despite the automatic’s objective performance edge.
While it’s perfectly suited to a cross-country cruise, the Chevy can also be pure overkill for public roads, like sending a UFC champion to take out a third-grade bully. Sprung into action, it’s a supercharged wood-chipper for your driver’s license. Fortunately, all licenses remain intact as we roll into Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch for some track time.
For too many sports cars, claims of a technology trickle-down from racing versions are just marketing fluff. The Z06 not only draws aero magic and components from LeMans-winning Corvette endurance racers, but there’s actually trickle-up: No lie, the latest C7R racer actually starts with the aluminum chassis of the production car.
Serious track mavens will demand the Z06’s one-upping Z07 package. The $8,000 option stiffens springs and recalibrates magnetic shock settings; fattens anti-roll bars, adds flypaper-sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport Cup tires and the carbon brakes; and bridges the trunklid winglets with a mildly unsightly hunk of translucent plastic. Consider it an aerodynamic cow catcher, bunching up enough air over the trunklid to actually double the car’s stabilizing downforce at 150 mph. Pinning the Corvette to the pavement like a rogue NYPD patrol, the Z07’s added drag trims top speed to 186 mph, but the performance gains are easily worth the trade-off.
Like nearly every modern supercar, the Z06 is expressly designed to be an accessible and approachable date. The man behind the wheel will feel he’s dating a supermodel, and can bask in envious stares – but the Z06 is also one part Girl Next Door.
Even in a multi-adjustable Track mode that loosens the electronic safety leash, the Z06 never turns evil, threatening to ruin the fun or your life. Even when I intentionally kick the tail wide, the Corvette is ridiculously easy to gather back in again.
Seeking YouTube glory, we pop in an SD card to sample the Performance Data Recorder. This CES-worthy gizmo captures track laps or street hijinks in high-def video glory. It overlays video with telemetry data—including speed, GPS-based track position and g-forces—and records in-car audio. (“Holy Shit” will be a familiar utterance.) Owners can play back video in the car, share it online and even apply track-analysis software to improve their skills. The electronic limited slip electronic differential is another Back to the Future engineering marvel. It works so transparently that you’re blissfully unaware of its operation, and the billions of digital zeros and ones making their magic.
Quibbles are minimal. As on the standard, 455-horse Stingray, the four-horn exhaust system recalls a tacky mariachi band. The central screen occasionally ignores fingertip commands. Standard chairs are nothing special, so you’ll want the handsome, body-hugging Competition Sport Seats.
The most capable Corvette in history is also the screaming bargain that’s been advertised. The coupe starts at $78,995, the convertible for $83,995. One coupe I drive stickers for $82,000, or less money than a loaded BMW M3 or M4—cars that the Corvette will chew up and spit out like day-old Chiclets. A deluxe, leather-swaddled model with the Z07 goodies checks out at $95,130, a bit below 100 grand, less than you’d spend on a stripper Porsche 911 with 400 horsepower.
This, for a car that will beat Ferrari 458s, Porsche 911 Turbos and any Lamborghini, ever – cars that cost from two to four times the ‘Vette’s price. The only cars in existence that will beat this Z06’s lap times, and not by much, are the million-dollar babies, cars like the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder.
The Z06, of course, is a Chevrolet, not a Ferrari, and its lower price is partially explained by its lower position in the automotive social order. But Z06 buyers, distinctly chip-on-shoulder types, will see that as yet another advantage: They’ll love nothing more than hunting down hoity-toity cars, and their owners. After one screw-you blast from the Z06, sniffy, arrogant exotic owners will need a new pastime: Instead of looking down on the Corvette, they’ll watch its ass receding into the distance.
Follow Lawrence Ulrich at @lawrenceulrich