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Is the Corvette ZR1's LS9 the End of Performance as we Know it?

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© 2008 by Hib Halverson
No use without permission, All Rights Reserved

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Poll:  Is LS9 the End of Performance as we Know it?

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Be it "a" pinnacle or "the" pinnacle of Corvette engine performance, the LS9 is at the head of a long line of high-performance V8s going back to 1955.
Image:  GM Powertrain
It's unknown if, beyond an initial short-term buying frenzy, the third generation Corvette ZR1 will be a market success. You'd think (and hope) the unprecedented offering of a 640hp Corvette would be a sell-out as long the General could build them but...

The first ZR1 (1970-'72) sold 53 units. Admittedly, its low sales were because it was, in a practical sense, a race-only option. The second generation (1990-95) did much better, at 6,939 units, but sales dropped an average 80% in the final four model years. Interestingly, the manufacturer's suggested retail price of a '90 ZR1, adjusted for inflation, was about $97,500, a number close to the '09's MSRP. At best, the only ZR1s which ever achieved market success were the 1990 (3049 units) and 1991 (2044 units) models.

As of late-July '08, Corvette sales have slowed by about 30% and to the point that, at Bowling Green Assembly, O.T. is a thing of the past. We're hearing about dealers discounting Z06es and in some major markets, such as Los Angeles, dealers are buying radio and TV time to advertise $5000-8000 discounts on Vettes. The nation's economy is in recession and the cost of gasoline a sky-high numbers is bound to affect demand for a new Vette costing a hundred large.

One liberal, vote-prostituting response to "greenhouse gases" might be direct regulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from vehicles, over and above the CO2 reduction resulting from new CAFE legislation which effects vehicles sold in the U.S. beginning in the 2011 model year.

At one time, the working title of the CAC's LS9 article was "Ruthless Pursuit of Power: The Final Chapter". Selected by one of our staff who ran short on Zoloft after seeing Al Gore's global warming movie then attending an Obama campaign rally, he along with other observers in the automotive community, feel that the LS9 marks the end of an historic era of performance automobiles. They think a CO2 standard will be the "kiss-of-death" to high-performance engines...the end of 400 horsepower engines-much less any making 638.

Is the "kiss of death" terminology a little strong? Perhaps, but there are automotive powertrain engineers, even some who influence Small-Block V8 development at GM, who have recently stated that accomplishing a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to conform to some of the standards being kicked around in Congress and maintaining the performance to which people buying cars like Corvettes are accustomed would be challenging, to say the least.

But, look on the bright side! Amost two years ago, when President Bush proposed the CAFE overhaul, "Maximum" Bob Lutz, GM's Vice Chairman for Product Development, told media at the New York Auto Show that meeting the revised CAFE and preserving a level of performance customers expect from rear-drive cars couldn't be done. While some tasked with bringing GM Powertrain products to market, now feel meeting the new CAFE has become just "challenging", the fact remains that after the bill passed and Bush signed it, GM ended development of a rear-drive Chevy Impala along with a new generation "Northstar" V8 for Cadillacs.

Bottom line: the new CAFE and coming CO2 standards will force the performance car "landscape" to change and probably not to our liking. Even if global warning is proven to be the questionable science that some believe it is, the chances of getting environmentalist legislation repealed is right up there with pigs flying at light-speeds and just slowing the momentum to pass new, leftist-environmentalist legislation will be hard to accomplish.

Greatly simplified, when hydrocarbon fuel (gasoline) is oxidized by air-ie: burned in a Vette's engine-what goes out the exhaust is mainly nitrogen, water and carbon dioxide. The nitrogen goes through the engine mostly unchanged. Consequently, to make any practical reduction in CO2, the amount of fuel burned by the engine has to be reduced. While some fuel burn reduction at no expense to performance may come with additional, new technology--and cost, we might add--most of the low-hanging fruit on the fuel efficiency tree is long-gone. To make horsepower; you have to burn fuel. Problem is: compliance with a tough CO2 standard will require burning less-maybe a lot less-gas. If CO2 is regulated directly, it will probably be to a level that most high performance engines currently exceed and that is from where comes the fear that the LS9 just might mark the end of an era.

So...will the 2009 ZR1's 640-hp engine represent a historic, zenith in Corvette performance, which by 2011 or '12, will be gone, never to be duplicated or surpassed?

That, fair reader, is the question. It won't be answered for a couple of years, I suspect, but now's the time to place your bets and, more importantly, to cast your votes! In the meantime, I'm hoping for pigs to fly at near-light speeds (and soon!) so I can afford a new ZR1.

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