I recently received the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a low-mileage 1991 Corvette ZR-1. I was thrilled; I’ve always been a huge fan of this car for a number of reasons, but primarily because it was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It returned true power to the masses after the drought of the Malaise Era. It helps that the thing embodies the transition from the 1980s to the 90s.
(Full disclosure: I was hired as a consultant to help a private collector sell a few of his Corvettes. As part of that deal, I was allowed to review this low-mileage model. I will do my best to speak to the experience impartially, unaffected by my interest in selling it.)
A 70 year legacy of… something different to everyone
When someone thinks of the Chevrolet Corvette, there’s a lot they could potentially be picturing. Its checkered flags ushered in what I would consider to be the first ‘modern’ American sports car. They might daydream about the aspiration of the C1, designed during the economic boom following World War II that stressed long, elegant lines, fins, and plentiful chrome. Maybe they think of the later years of the C2 with its available big-block V8 as performance got hot in the 1960s. It’s possible, like many Baby Boomers, they grew up with the pitiful, 150hp (but beautifully designed) C3, choked by the Clean-Air Act and the American automakers refusal or inability to adapt their technology. Maybe, for that reason, they reflect with misplaced anger towards President Jimmy Carter.
More likely than not, they aren’t thinking about the fourth-generation Chevrolet Corvette, the C4. It was a divisive, anti-purist Corvette for the masses. It was the first generation to adapt a lighter, fully-polycarbonate body. It was the first recipient of the LT1 engine, the most powerful mass-production V8 in an American car since 1973 (that I could find). It brought General Motors out of the Malaise Era, both technologically and stylistically, and it birthed the second coming of the high-performance beast for the street: the Corvette ZR-1.
What is it?
The C4 Corvette ZR-1 a badass, heaping helping of the early 1990s, much like Jurassic Park, especially when optioned with the color actually called Turquoise Metallic. I think it was designed to match the Jazz Solo cups you inevitably had with you at the time. It was also very much a product of collaboration; Chevrolet had come to terms with the fact that their drivetrain and suspension technology was pretty wack, yo (linguistics befitting the era), so compromises were made. They ‘in-sourced’ engine design to Lotus, their recently-acquired British arm.
The mad lads at Lotus reworked the standard L98 engine with some new, race-derived tech. Four valves per cylinder and four cams, along with some hot fuel, engine, and efficiency management to create the LT5 engine with three hundred and seventy five horsepower. Hot damn. In the early 1990s, that was Ferrari territory. That’s not hyperbole either; in 1991, the Ferrari Testarossa made 390 horsepower, and was slower than the Corvette ZR-1 by every available metric.
Why does the Corvette ZR-1 matter?
The Corvette ZR-1 was a brilliant, brash return to form for the American muscle car. In the year 1990, the (albeit beautiful) I-ROC Camaro sucked, the Mustang was an uninvolved hatchback, and everything worthwhile from Dodge was actually a Mitsubishi. The Viper wouldn’t follow for another two years. The Corvette ZR-1 was the first Corvette with genuine sporting aspirations since the Malaise-Era chokehold of 1973. It was the closest in output that the Corvette had been since its 425-horsepower heyday of 1971. It was finally ready to compete on a global stage, but ironically never competed in LeMans in current form. The technological advancements of the ZR-1 have always astounded me, and I think it’s a massively handsome, sleek car augmented by incredibly wide rear tires and ground effects. A generational American sports car, of which Chevrolet only produced 6,939 examples over its six year run, making it effectively obscure and desirable.
Hagerty’s valuation doesn’t totally agree, and lists their value as stable, but stagnant, over the last 5-10 years. I fully expect their value to begin to increase, as is the case with many of the cars that interest me, as the buying power of the eldest Millennials continues to increase, and they take interest in the cars that they and their siblings had posters of on their walls. The Corvette ZR-1 will certainly be a more pleasant entry-point than the Porsche 930 Turbo, which has already spiked over $175,000 for clean examples.
Cool, but how does it look?
It looks pretty bitchin’. This particular shade, called Turquoise Metallic (apt, I know) is quintessential early-90s flair. It’s very low-slung, with massively wide rear end, and has a taut stance overall. It’s nowhere near as low as some newer sports cars, but it looks very period correct. As far as the C4 is concerned, I’ve always really liked the more boxy, four-light tail setup that has recently re-emerged with the C7, but I’ve never been exceptionally fond of the profile as it moves forwards. Above the wheels, everything feels high. It has a high neckline, and the hood appears to slope upwards to accommodate the 5.7L V8 before sharply dropping back down to form a somewhat pointy nose. This actually results in a fantastic, polygonal shape for the cabin, door, window, and a-pillar, from the waistline up.
Over the rear wheels, the overhang is short and compact, and intentional. When you get up to the front wheels, things begin to look a little more… heavy. The incredibly long hood creates the feel of a top-heavy car, even without too long of an overhang. It looks as though you could lift the rear half of the car without incident. Of course, this is classic sports-car design. Long hood, short cab, short rear. Like a crouching tiger. Or Jaguar. Or something. The Corvette ZR-1 feels slightly too three-box to work just right with that aesthetic.
Alright, let’s get in!
Ouch! Shit! Jeez. First note: the Corvette ZR-1 requires a complicated, messy, aerobic flop of an ingress. Because of a very low profile, and a surprisingly high door sill (which I read has something to do with the partially-unibody design, new for the C4), it is tough to swing into. Even if you’re only 5’8″. After nearly popping my right knee out of socket, I was inside, the way that a human sits in a car designed for a human, and I was free to explore the cockpit.
Moving left to right, my first point of confusion was the seat adjustment. I was surprised to find it located on the center console, but I’m glad that they were able to keep buttons off the steering wheel at all costs. That was a big assumptive-futurism issue in the 80s that I’m glad has been overcome by more practical applications. Next up, the steering wheel. A little larger than I was expecting, but it was pleasant and hefty, and didn’t distract too much from the gauges behind it. Oh my god, I love digital gauges. Maybe it’s my love of the 80s/early-90s, but I find them fantastic. They are more practical and easier to read than analog gauges, and they look better both in day and nighttime. And they’re just generally awesome.
I did notice that for everywhere other than my ass, the front seats housed ample room. It’s a wide enough track to have space between the driver and passenger, lots of footwell, reasonable storage space, and the hatch platform area was large enough for some groceries, a briefcase, or maybe a small piece of luggage. It would be tough to fit 2-3 days worth of luggage for two people in here. Do they make roof racks for Corvettes?
Dancing in the Hill Country
I had a lot of preconceived notions about how the super-sport Corvette ZR-1 was going to drive. Was it going to be visceral? Adrenaline-pumping? Loud? Any other words that journalists like to use when describing sports cars? Pulling out of the nicely paved, planned community in which the Corvette resided was smooth and void of drama. Even with an aftermarket exhaust (which was a little whiny at low RPM), it was relatively quiet.
I really liked the gear shifting. The clutch uptake was higher – and the clutch itself lighter – than I had expected. The gears shifted pleasantly. The throw was long, but firm and direct. It didn’t give me any sort of pushback. It was supposed to have been fitted with GM’s infamous skip-shift fuel-saving technology, but I either drove the RPM’s high enough, or maybe this feature had been disabled, and I didn’t notice it.
Pulling out onto the rural highway I was tempted to give it a good footing, but I was overly wary of breaking the tires loose, and potentially sliding my way into oncoming traffic. This was for naught; those massive rear tires offer plenty of traction, and I was able to pull right out and get right up to 70mph. Effortlessly. It does not take a whole lot of throttle to push the Corvette ZR-1 to highway speeds and beyond, but it offers some characteristic buttoned restraint in helping you keep within the legal limit.
For a car that is closer to turning 30 than I am, it was remarkably planted, flat, and stable on the road. No rattles, no shakes, no weird vibrations. The Corvette is first and foremost a grand tourer, and even in ZR-1 trim I was pleasantly surprised by how mild and controllable it has the capability to be. In sweeping or quick turns it stays equally steady with minimal body roll; I never pushed it hard enough to kick the tail out or upset it, but I was so pleased when it ate up any of my road related requests.
This is a bit of a tired phrase, but it rings true: you really start to crave the power and the sound. Planting your foot in the accelerator, whether it’s from 5-15, 30-50, or 50-80mph, hearing the 5.7L engine react, feed its 32 valves, and create noise, is a wonderful thing. It’s something I could really, really get used to.
Would I daily?
Uhh. Hell yes I would. Rare, obscure version of popular car? Check. Generational technology with significance to American car manufacturing? Pop-up headlights? Cha-ching. Partially digital gauge cluster? Check. Big-ass, efficient V8 and passably great six-speed manual transmission? Bingo.
Everything about the Corvette ZR-1 is simultaneously screaming and whispering; it’s a beautifully fun juxtaposition.
To be fair, I didn’t drive it in traffic, which I typically like to do before putting my ‘daily’ seal of approval on something. But screw it because this car was so awesome. I would daily for sure. I would say, especially for an older car, it holds up extremely well, is still relevant enough to be daily-driveable, and met or exceeded every single expectation I had set out for it.
Everything about the Corvette ZR-1 is simultaneously screaming and whispering; it’s a beautifully fun juxtaposition. It’s excellently quick without being terrifying. You can whisper at highway speeds. It’s wide track is aggressive, but it’s design is approachable and subtle (in relative). Maybe not as subtle when outfitted in Turquoise, but it’s so much more enjoyable that way. It’s impossible to forget what and why it is when you’re driving it, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I genuinely had a blast, and I would drive this thing into the Jurassic Park sunset in a heartbeat.