THE new Corvette Z06 is an economics seminar on wheels. Begin with the idea of marginal utility. How much more useful is this 505-horsepower, 198-mph, carbon-bodied ballista compared with the 400-hp, 186-mph standard model? It is worth the extra $20,000? That depends on your fondness of stainless-steel plumbing, orange jumpsuits and men who call you Susan.
But the notion of utility is not the same as use-value. As Adam Smith noted, utility includes emotional rewards, and these the performance-variant Z06 provides in heart-squeezing, tears-of-joy abundance.
Here is the Vette perfected, the hyper-amplified soul of the ultimate American sports car. Here are the honking, foot-wide rear tires and sick fender flares the stock car cries out for. Here are the outrageous 14-inch front-brake discs with red mono-block calipers the call-brand Corvette now seems denuded without. Here are the four-barrel grenade launchers -- I mean, the 4-inch exhaust pipes -- that Corvette owners would otherwise order out of a Borla catalog.
In the peculiar, secret-handshake world of Corvette enthusiasts, if you own a Z06 you are a made man -- excepting the highly unlikely event that you are a woman.
And yet one of the things that makes the Z06 such a rich and perplexing experience is that it is, actually, a pretty useful car, in the Marxist use-value sense of the word. Name another car that goes nearly 200 mph and gets 26 miles per gallon on the highway. You can’t fit Shakira’s thong into the cargo space of a Ford GT or a Ferrari F430, while the Corvette Z06’s 22-cubic-foot hatchback space can hold four sets of golf clubs (never mind that the car can only carry two people). The only car to rival it in high-speed luggage transport is the Bentley Flying Spur.
And speaking of our friend Karl Marx: If you at all subscribe to the labor theory of value, the hand-built Z06 is one of the most utterly undervalued products on the planet. For starters, its LS7 engine is assembled by a single technician (I’m hoping he wears overalls with the word “Labor” on the back) at GM’s Performance Build Center in Wixom, Mich.
Unique to the Z06, the LS7 displaces 7.0 liters -- a historically resonant 427 cubic inches -- and is strapped with all manner of race-derived sinew, including: titanium connecting rods and intake valves, sodium-filled exhaust valves, cast aluminum piston heads, CNC-ported aluminum heads with, apparently, quite ridiculous airflow capacity and a dry-sump oiling system to keep the engine from starving itself during high-G maneuvering. This and much, much more, as they say on the Home Shopping Network, makes the LS7 one of the best power plants built anywhere.
Once the engines are watch-worked together and tested, they get crated up and sent to the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky., where they are married with similarly specialized Z06 transaxles and chassis. The LS7 bolts to a high-load version of the six-speed ZF transaxle, with a heavy-duty clutch and stronger half-shafts.
It’s here where the Z06 program distinguishes itself from other factory-tuner programs like BMW’s M, Mercedes’ AMG, Audi’s S or even Subaru’s STi shops, which are largely satisfied with monster motor and suspension upgrades. The Z06 gets a skeleton transplant: The steel chassis is replaced with a hydro-formed aluminum structure. The floor pans and front fenders go from fiberglass to carbon composite, and the roof structure and engine cradle are cast or machined out of magnesium. All this whittling brings the Z06 down to 3,147 pounds, or 141 pounds fewer than the standard-issue Vette.
Now, let’s take a look at market equilibriums. The Z06 is substantially lighter than a Ferrari F430 or a Ford GT and virtually the same weight as a Lamborghini Gallardo and Porsche Carrera GT. Of all the super-car parameters, weight -- not horsepower -- is the most expensive to optimize, and yet at $65,800 the lightweight Z06 is about $90,000 cheaper than the least expensive of those cars, the Ford GT.
Something’s happening here, and if the Z06 program managers say the car makes money for GM -- well, that’s fine, I’ll play along. But if the same economics applied to some of GM’s lower-priced cars, then the HHR would cost about $79.95.
Why haven’t I mentioned the Dodge Viper. Because I hate that car.
The C6 -- the sixth-generation Corvette -- Z06 is the most powerful, the quickest, and fastest Corvette in its 53-year history. It’s the Super Bowl halftime show of torque. The boys at Car and Driver have managed to launch the coupe to 60 mph in a face-warping, guy-on-the-rocket-sled 3.4 seconds.
That sounds about right. Having spent a week in the car, I can tell you, the zero-to-60 dash is indeed diverting, but what’s really interesting is what comes next: second gear. Because the LS7 redlines at 7,000 and peak output loiters at 6,300 rpm, when you shift from first to second, the clutch re-engages just as the falling tach needle sweeps over the point of maximum thrust. The feeling is like riding in the pocket of a Saunders Wrist-Rocket.
The Z06 is a performance-first car, and so I’m obliged to tell you that, yes, when you get on the gas, the vacuum-actuated valves in the normally sedate exhaust system tip open and the thing sounds like Cerberus going after the mailman. The car just tears away from you with the traction-control light on the instrument panel flashing spasmodically. Golly. In addition to its ferocious low-gear acceleration, the Z06 has truly deceptive intra-continental speed. It’s nothing to look down and see you’re purring along at 150 mph. Just call me Susan.
So, it’s fast. It’s also got absurdly high cornering capacity and fantastic brakes. I wouldn’t say it’s the most confidence-inspiring super-car I’ve ever driven -- still a little too much weight-transfer under braking for my taste -- but the car’s steering, throttle responses, shift throws and clutch are all nicely weighted and muscular. I can’t abide a watery clutch.
The thing that I can’t get over, however, is just how civilized this car is around town. Stick in second gear and leave it. It’s got so much torque -- so tidal in its inexorability -- that the car pulls away from the light and motors on.
And when that rare, uncluttered freeway onramp presents itself, click your heels three times and you’ll be in Kansas in no time. Leavenworth, maybe.
2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Base price: $65,800
Price as tested: $69,995 (estimated)
Powertrain: 7.0-liter, 16-valve pushrod V-8; six-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 505 horsepower at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 470 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm
Weight: 3,147 pounds
0-60 mph: 3.4 seconds
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Overall length: 175.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Carbon-fiber catapult