"America's sports car," the sobriquet for the storied Corvette, has long had a slightly pejorative ring. The implication was that Chevy's two-seater might be big, bold and incredibly powerful, but unless you were doing burnouts at a stoplight, the 'Vette just wasn't in the same league as its European competition. Not until now, anyway.
Starting in 2005 with the all-new sixth-generation 'Vette, known to insiders as the C6, and continuing this model year with the Z06, the car has evolved into a ride that should make Porsche-philes beware.
The C6 came clad in what designers euphemistically call "evolutionary" styling: a decidedly familiar look with few notable changes. Beyond the aero-flush headlights that replaced Corvette's signature pop-ups, little was different. The important changes, however, weren't readily apparent. The C6 had shrunk six inches, making it roughly the same size as Porsche's 911. It was a bold, if visually subtle declaration of war. The C6 was more powerful and more sophisticated, with a trick electronic suspension that could respond to road conditions and driver input almost instantaneously. America's sports car was suddenly a serious contender.
Now comes the Corvette Z06 with similarly modest visual changes and performance advancement that are all but invisible. You likely won't even notice the carbon-fiber front fenders on this spin-off. You'd need a lift to check out the hydro-formed chassis components, magnesium cross members and the switch from steel to aluminum frame. Most obvious is the newly tapered silhouette, which widens 3.3 inches at the rear. That's to make room for a pair of enormous 325/30ZR-19 tires. You need that extra rubber when you're trying to put 505 horsepower and 470 foot-pounds of torque to the pavement.
Punch the start button, and the Z06 burbles to life. But squeeze the throttle and exhaust bypass valves pop open, and the 7.0-liter LS7 V-8 releases roars with the menace of a NASCAR contender. The new engine is designed to handle the most aggressive driving. The connecting rods and intake valves are fashioned from titanium. A dry sump oil system ensures consistent lubrication during sustained high-speed cornering.
Whether on street, track or windy back road, the Z06 is enormously capable, delivering a lot more than just the traditional straight-line acceleration you expect from a Corvette. Yeah, it'll blow the doors off almost anyone foolish enough to challenge you when the light turns green (Chevy claims 0-to-60 times of just 3.7 seconds). But the Z06 can also deliver 0.98 Gs on the skid pad, and during a day of hard driving, you may see it slip past 1.0 on the gauges built into the car's head-up display screen.
The Z can deliver the occasional unpleasant surprise. With its carbon-fiber transverse composite spring rear end, the tail will occasionally twitch in a hard turn, though it's quick to recover. The transmission tunnel gets unpleasantly hot. And the electrically operated doors—there are no door handles—disconcertingly stuttered a couple times. But these are small quibbles.
At a time when U.S. automakers are struggling more than ever to justify their existence, it's good to see the Z06 make the word "American" synonymous with "world-class."