1990 Corvette LPE ZR-1 Review

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

Until now, TTAC has only reviewed new cars. Due to popular demand, we've decided to experiment with reviews of pre-loved automobiles. This raises some important questions. Should we compare the used car to its contemporaries, its latter-day incarnation or an equivalent-priced new car? Or should we just review it "as is" and let TTAC's Best and Brightest hash out those issues in the comments section? As the Brits say, we're going to suck it and see, beginning with Sajeev's review of a Lingenfelter-modified 1990 ZR-1 Corvette.

The ZR-1 is J. Timberlake in fiberglass, bringing "sexyback" with a low-slung beltline, voluptuous hood and toned backside. But check out the attention to detail: black moldings tuck away gaps better than a frantic Worldcomm auditor. A wide-body rear avoids rice boy lumps and scoops with passion and precision. The understated flare in the ZR-1's doors proves that GM could put Pininfarina on notice.

No doubt: Chevy got props from reluctant Ferraristi when the Bow Tie Boys lifted the ZR-1's clamshell hood and exposed the Mother of Pearl motor. The quad-cam V8 was loaded with Lotus-fettled technology, bursting at the seams with 375 horsepower built by (get this) Mercury Marine's finest craftsmen. With 0 to 60 sprints in 4.6 seconds, a top speed of 180mph and an asking price under 60 grand ($58,995), the American had joined the big leagues.

The test car was modified by Lingenfelter Performance Engineering (LPE), purchased through a GM dealer. Since the Chevy shamelessly whacked Lotus in the knees by demanding a ZR-1 bore spacing befitting the small-block family genes (4.4 inches), LPE tuned, honed and ported the ZR-1 to 6.8 liters, 12:1 compression and a jaw-dropping 660hp. That's all motor, baby: no boost, race fuel or laughing gas.

Let the clutch out and a rush of sixteen fuel injectors fans the flames, while thirty-two valves keep the pressure on your cerebral cortex to a Honda-like 7500 rpm power peak. The ZR-1's V8 rumbles at the bottom end and screams bloody murder, F355-like, at the top of the power band. And yes, it's fairly quick.

I needn't risk my license to prove the point. Much love to our friends at Car and Driver, who recorded the astounding fact that the LPE ZR-1 does the 0 -150 – 0 hustle in 23.3 seconds. My quarter mile drag verifications came in at 11.7 seconds at a scorching 129 mph, hitting 185 mph in the standing mile. It's absolutely terrifying– in a good way.

But the ZR-1 isn't all motor. The Corvette C4 underpinnings took no prisoners during their SCCA-dominating tenure. Porsche was powerless, so Ferrari was next. Even with an extra 100lbs up front, the ZR-1's low center of gravity and blessed suspension made most overlook its lack of chassis integrity, dumbbell-weighted steering and long-throw ZF gearbox.

Thanks to a brace of chassis bracing, a Hurst shifter and modern coil-over componentry, the LPE ZR-1 attacks corners with poise and a bit more refinement. Its steering requires significantly more muscle than finesse, but gets the job done in bombastic Lamborghini fashion. And before the beancounters plundered the Corvette's parts bin, the ZR-1's buckets hugged like a mother and coddled like a Cadillac.

Yes, the Vette's interior is Lumina approved, but these thrones turn a dental visit into a Disney vacation. Plus, the C4 Vette's F1-esque seating position invigorates, mostly because I'm not one of America's Biggest Losers. All of which makes curve flattening in LPE's ZR-1 an exercise in patience, practice and pleasure.

You definitively don't want to go into a corner too hot, as there's no handling taskmaster to save your bacon. But with 18" Michelins (the non run-flat variety) afoot there's plenty of margin for error. And when you roll into the throttle at the apex, look out! The LPE ZR-1 flies though any turn, with nothing but 13.5" rotors, Wilwood calipers and ABS interference stopping it.

And when checkered flags turn to business casual at the Hyatt, putter down the interstate in the ZR-1's insanely tall gearing and set the dampeners in "Tour" mode. Magnaride it ain't, so hand over that ignition key to the valet. Just don't leave without the dash-mounted power key: its absence causes the LPE ZR-1 to "lose" more horses than the Porsche Boxster S has to start with. Damn! (Just like the Veyron, you need a special key to get full power.)

So, thanks to the tuning gurus at LPE, the Corvette ZR-1 lives to see another day. Not to mention Chevrolet donated this engine's pedigree for the universally acclaimed pushrod V8s that makes today's GM products so desirable- including the new ZR1. So if you ever meet the first Corvette to credibly compare with Italy's finest, show some respect. The ZR-1 is still the "King of the Hill."

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Apr 23, 2008

    Fair enough. But this was considered an American Exotic. (maybe it still is) Those SBC's have the 415's low end, but none will scream above 7500rpm with the world's fattest powerband down below. The SBC could rev like mad with a hot cam, but low end grunt and smoothness suffers. Not so with a DOHC LT-5 big block. This all-motor car could be daily driven if so inclined.

  • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Apr 28, 2008

    Update: the new ZR1 makes 638hp with a blower...not too shabby. But its still 22 ponies shy of Lingenfelter's all-motor homage to the "King of the Hill."

  • CKNSLS Sierra SLT Let me get this straight-It's OK for GM to make cars in China and ship them here-under a Buick name. But for the Chinese to directly do it is not OK.If the Big 3 had not a deserted sedans/low end of the market they wouldn't have anything to worry about.Yea...makes perfect sense.
  • Analoggrotto This must look great in your Tellurides
  • Dukeisduke Meanwhile in the EU, they're inviting Chinese manufacturers to build assembly plants there, especially in Italy. FIAT cut back production in Italy from one million vehicles a year, to 750,000, so the Italian government wants the Chinese plants for the jobs they'll create. They've contacted BYD about building a plant, but so far, BYD has only committed to building a plant in Hungary. A second plant in the EU will depend on demand for vehicles.
  • Dukeisduke Huh, that photo looks like a coupe.I wonder how many of the of the original Tesla Roadsters are still on the road? I haven't seen one in years.
  • Dukeisduke L. S. Swap. Do it.