by Hib Halverson
text and images ©2004 Hib Halverson
No use without permission
It's a rare Chevrolet executive who gets more than five sentences into a discussion of product before saying the word "value". A dictionary in my office defines "value" 18 ways. I read the first four, then decided: heck with this! Let's define "value" as: bang for the buck.
If there ever was a Chevy with value; it's the Corvette Z06. The "bang" is performance and those cars are 3100-lb. bunker buster bombs, right through the doors at foreign car companies, particularly the Germans, which once ruled the hard-core fringe of the high-sports segment. Deafened by the blast, their marketing types are left crying, "Die Amerikaner...sie treten unsere Zugpferde mit dieser Z06 und das zu einem Preis mit dem wir nicht mithalten konnen!" Rough translation: The Americans are kicking our ass with this 'Z06' and doing it at a price we can't match.
Its charter is simple: extreme performance presented in a civilized manner at reasonable cost. Three years after its 2001 introduction, this car is a benchmark by which sports cars for aggressive drivers are judged. On race tracks and autocross courses all over America, it spanks cars carrying prestigious foreign nameplates and costing upwards of half-again its price.
Don't believe me?
Famed road racer and GM Performance Division Chief Engineer, John Heinricy, has driven a Z06 to three-straight SCCA T1 Class National Championships, besting Vipers, Porsches and whatever else the persistent but still loosing side wants to throw at America's Sports Car.
2004 is the last year for the Generation Five Chevrolet Corvette. It will be replaced late this summer by the "C6", so we thought a farewell drive in a C5 made sense. General Motors Communications loaned us a '04 Z06 equipped with RPO Z16, "Le Mans Commemorative Edition", which includes a lightweight, carbon fiber hood and a red-accented, white strips over Le Mans Blue paint scheme which mimics the look of GM Racing's '03-spec. Corvette C5R Le Mans race cars.
This particular road test car was interesting in that it was not part of GM's regular media fleet and actually belonged to Dave Hill's Corvette development team. It's VIN was quite low, 00025, and it was built in April of 2003.
Don't get me wrong. I think big thumpin' motors with lots of power are like sex with Britney Spears: you could never have enough-but, while the Z06's 405hp LS6 is quite an engine, what makes the '04 Z06 a smart bomb in the bang-for-the-buck category is its ride-and-handling and refinement. Want to win drag races? (At least for now) Get a Dodge Viper. Want a car which laps road courses quicker than most of the world's production sports cars, feels race-car-crisp on the street and is reasonably civil when driven to the grocery store, the post office and the cleaners? Buy a Z06.
First thing I did with this Le Mans Blue bullet was run it up Glendora Mountain Road. Just 20 minutes from my Southern California office, "GMR" is the closest place the "extreme performance enthusiasts," whom Chief Engineer, Dave Hill, claims are the market for the Z06, can get for a driving workout.
I quickly reacquainted myself with the car's neutral balance, great steering response and, if I really went into a corner too hot and sloppy, its slight understeer. A mile or so up are three hairpin turns, each at the end of a short straight.You come up to these first hairpins hard on it at the top of second gear or in mid-third, then brake hard while heel-toeing a downshift to first or second.
I don't trail brake C5s because they rotate easier than other cars. Once I turn-in; braking's done. Around the apex, I keep the car balanced then, as I exit; I roll on the throttle. Off a slow hairpin, Z06 is capable of power oversteer. While sideways is fun; smooth and controlled is quick. I stay smooth, get the power on soon and with confidence. The rear suspension does its job in spite of a sometimes choppy surface.
After those hairpins, come esses, more hairpins, a second-gear right hander then a fourth-gear straight onto which I accelerate, hard, through the rest of second, third and into fourth. With the gas mashed to the floor, the LS6 working towards its 6000 rpm peak and the fun meter pegged; a left-hand sweeper approaches rapidly. Again, the road undulates here and there. This is one of few places on the first part of GMR where you really haul ass and, as the suspension works over these rough spots; I notice the '04 Z06's body moving just a bit less than what I remember from Z06 trips over GMR in the past. Off the gas. Onto the brake. Back a gear and into the sweeper.
Entering fast turns over a few bumps, the '04 Z06 is more comfortable at the limit than were '01s,'2s and '3s. I didn't have to work quite as hard on smoothness. This increased "forgiveness" during corner-entry builds confidence. Clearly, GM made some useful changes in shock valving and we'll get to those changes in a minute.
The left sweeper ends in a 90-deg. right. Then, there are esses and another hairpin, all linked by short straights and, finally, I arrive at a turnout at the end of the first part of GMR where I always park and think about whatever I've just driven.
It doesn't get much better than a Z06 on this road. The car's ride-and-handling neared perfection and two problems kept it from getting there. The brakes were a little soft, probably from the fluid being boiled before we got the car. The left side tires had their shoulders worn off, probably on a skid-pad, also, by whomever had the vehicle before us. The car felt slightly different in hard lefts than in rights, and, during the following week, whenever we were on the highway; it pulled to the left.