We are the angry birds, with plumage of red, yellow and white, streaking across the floor of this desert wasteland. There’s not much alive in California’s Death Valley, at least not to the naked eye, but you surely wouldn’t miss us. With 1,950 horsepower and 24 forward gears among our trio, you’d hear our collective cry from 20 miles away.
My raptor is the brilliant yellow Corvette Z06, and I am in the lead. Two friends and colleagues follow closely behind in their own borrowed Chevy Z06s, a fleet flock rupturing the fabric of the still, tepid air.
When I had envisioned driving the all-new, 2015 model-year Z06, the dream wasn’t even half as good as this. The Z06 is the top-tier Corvette. This is more than just an upgrade over the base Corvette Stingray, it’s basically a new car. And it is world class; a supercar at a fraction of the competitions’ prices.
More from FORTUNE
The cheapest Z06 starts at $80,000. Outfitted in full racetrack-ready armament (and the nicest interior), expect to pay closer to $105,000. That’s about the price of a handful of options on a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (which has a base price $320,000).
The seventh generation of the Corvette has been a surprise, a feel-good story for General Motors in an era where good news has been in short supply. The Corvette program almost died on the table during GM’s bankruptcy. Evidence of the quality of cars now coming off the line — with the Stingray as the prime example — was overshadowed by the grievous recalls of substandard products of old.
In addition to legalities and politics, Corvette has long faced another challenge: cultural. Corvettes are often the butt of jokes among supercar cognoscenti, who have traditionally viewed them as lower class and not comparable to cars made in Italy or Germany. But I want to get past all of that and talk about the visceral world. The one where your butt is in the seat and the sound of the engine makes your blood bubble, your heart yammer and the reptile part of your brain squeal. When it comes to a car like the Z06, that’s the world that most matters.
The Z06 is a fundamentally changed car. The 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 creates 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque, 190 more hp than the base, $55,000 Stingray. The brakes are bigger and better, and Brembo carbon-ceramic stoppers are an option. The suspension has been artfully manipulated. And it has gained an array of exterior appendages designed to play tricks with the air.
The end result is a car that posts numbers on par with cars vastly more expensive. The Z06 is capable of reaching 60 miles per hour in three breathless seconds. Spin the Corvette around on a flat expanse of asphalt and it pushes well beyond 1 G before tire traction breaks away. The Michelin tires and suspension are mated in an incredible way, giving as much grip as many racecars.
The overall takeaway is this: The Z06 can frolic with Ferraris and tussle with Porsches. The ‘Vette’s engineers are heroes, having over-thought most everything. Using magnetorheological shocks — a trick system that softens or stiffens electronically — the car is surprisingly supple even on so-so tarmac. It’s taut, but it’s a far better ride than, say, the new Jaguar F-Type coupe.
They’ve also used tricks learned from endurance racing at Le Mans, leveraging the electronic stability controls to make the car even faster at the very edge of control when piloted by a skilled driver. It’s the kind of thing only achieved on a racetrack, with the proper (and quite complicated) controls set just right. Consider these features performance Easter eggs, only experienced by 1 percent of the drivers who will ever own the car. And these improvements are baked into the DNA of the car; it’s better than it needs to be.
And unlike any new Ferrari or Lamborghini, you can still get it with a stick. It’s a seven-speed, and lovely to use. Most buyers will go for the eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters, which is actually faster off the line, and very easy to live with.
But can you really consider a Corvette a supercar? It’s a matter of semantics — some would argue that even a Ferrari 458 doesn’t qualify. But the Z06’s performance numbers certainly put it within the sphere. And the physical attributes are different from anything else on the road. Nobody would confuse it as a regular commuter car—or a product of Stuttgart.
As I move across the desert, the car alive around me, my own senses on high alert, I have my answer. I’ll take it to the racetrack in the afternoon. And I’ll just begin to push and prod the higher levels of performance the Z06 is capable of. I’ll want to spend more time — a lot more — with this car.
At this very moment, though, compatriots in my rear-view mirror and a desert road unfurling over the brow of a distant hill, I feel utterly adrenalized. Joyful. It’s special in a way that only a very few cars automobiles can achieve. And that’s what a supercar should really be all about.