There's Something About the C6 Corvette Z06
After the debut of the C6 Corvette Z06, Chevrolet could’ve bragged about the use of advanced materials in its construction or that, with 505 hp, it had GM’s most powerful naturally aspirated engine ever, as of 2006. Instead, the company went a different direction: it touted the car’s weight.
The ad was simple. There was a yellow Z06 driving on a road with 3130 written in bold below it. It’s burned into my mind (unfortunately it's nowhere to be found online). My dad liked the car and its light weight so much he ripped it out of a magazine and put it on the mantle in our kitchen. Sure, there are lighter cars out there, but that one figure speaks to the focus of the C6 Z06: to be the fastest, lightest, best-handling Corvette ever.
That’s when the Corvette team ran into a problem: the C6 Z06 was so fast that there were concerns it was the limit of the front-engine architecture. It initiated the investigation of a mid-engine platform.
“The true history is this whole conversation around mid-engine started when we were doing the C6 ZR1,” Tadge Juechter, the Corvette’s executive chief engineer, recalls. “For a long time we were very worried that the zero to 60 on the ZR1 would be slower than the Z06. The thing that saved us actually was the Michelin tires. The traction performance of the Michelins let us squeak the ZR1 a little bit quicker than the Z06. But it put the fear of God into us that the end of the road is here. We can't just keep throwing horsepower at this thing and have a better car. It's going to be a worse car in many ways trying to cram more horsepower into it.”
Tadge wasn’t wrong. The C7 Z06 that came after was more powerful, thanks to a supercharger, heavier, and had luxury features to appeal to more buyers. While it was capable, it was also a handful in a lot of situations. "All ate up with power," as Juechter put it. The C7 didn’t resonate with the Z06 faithful like the C6 did. The C8 Z06’s move to mid-engine architecture let the Z06 return to a natural aspiration, to get back some of the straightforward appeal of the C6.
“We could not have done this engine in the front-engine architecture,” Juechter says. “Engine power is all about breathing. Putting the engine in the back let us do these gigantic plenums. We have super low restriction in the big gutter pipes for the car to breathe through.”
That new engine, the LT6, is the world's most powerful naturally-aspirated V-8. It has dual overhead cams, a flat-plane crank, 670 hp, and an 8600 rpm redline, all linked to an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s the most exotic engine fitted to a Corvette ... since the C6 Z06’s small block, the thruline that inextricably links these two Vettes. Back in 2006, the LS7 was the wildest small-block ever, a dry-sumped, 505-hp 7.0 liter goliath that revved to 7000 rpm and had torque for days. That was all hooked up to a six-speed manual from Tremec.
The C6, like the C8, used exotic materials like magnesium, aluminum, and carbon fiber to keep the weight low. They both look great; low, wide and imposing. Later C6s even got Magneride and early versions of Chevrolet’s brilliant Performance Traction Management traction control, systems that are now standard in the Z06.
When we extoll the virtues of the C8 Z06, it's the C6 Z06 that we have to thank for them.
I’ve always put the C6 Z06 on a pedestal. My first encounter with one was at a Chevy consumer roadshow just after it was released, when I was about 18. It was the sort of event where a manufacturer sets up a bunch of test drives in a stadium parking lot, like an autocross in Cobalt and test drives in a Malibu. There was also the opportunity to ride with a professional driver in a Z06.
My mind was blown. This was by far the fastest car I’d ever been in, but as thrilling as the acceleration and speed was, the poise in corners and the braking was just as impressive. It bent my brain. Years and many rides and drives in faster and more capable cars later, that first ride still sticks with me. The raw, visceral experience is nearly unmatched. And that was from sitting right seat. I never even got to drive one.
I met this particular Z06 on a cold November morning near Lime Rock Park. This is a 2009 model in cyber grey with a more interesting history than most: It’s the personal track car of Sam Posey, racing legend, commentator, architect, artist, and R&T contributor. Posey bought this car to replace his Viper, which was too loud for Lime Rock Park, his home track.
It doesn’t have any of the track options that became synonymous with the Z06, like the Z07 package. This is a more road-oriented build. That it was still purchased as a track car by one of the all-time great racing drivers shows how good the platform is.
Other than a fresh set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, a few extra badges, and Rick Hendrick’s signature on the transmission tunnel, this car is as it came from the factory. With about 12,000 miles on the odometer, Posey’s car is a nearly perfect representation of the Z06 that so many people bought a little more than a decade ago.
Idling in his driveway, with temperatures hovering around freezing, it was clear that the Z06 wasn’t thrilled about being woken up. The engine’s lope was slow and labored. The clutch was heavy, the gearbox obstinate. The C6’s interior can charitably be described as fine, but in reality it’s full of cheap plastics, unsupportive seats, and an overall feeling of flimsiness populates the entire thing. It felt more like I was in a Silverado than Chevy’s most focused sports car. For such a light, lithe car, everything about that initial interaction felt slow and heavy. It wanted to go quickly.
That’s where Lime Rock Park comes in. LRP is a short track, a classic bullring that is only 1.5 miles long with seven turns. On paper, it sounds like a simple track that’ll get boring quickly. It never gets boring. There’s elevation and a lot of demand placed on the car and driver through each part of the lap. Each corner appears simple on the surface, but there’s nuance everywhere. The more knowledge you have, the better. There’s also an amazing flow, it builds to a crescendo each lap. You’ll never want to stop lapping.
The downside is that high-powered cars frequently feel too fast for the place. There’s little run off or room for error, so a mistake or a failure could end up being costly in more ways than one. The Z06 is what I’d call a high-powered car. Thankfully, it's an approachable one.
All of those feelings of that first ride came back as soon as I pulled out of pit lane. The first run to redline put me in awe. I’ve sampled the LS7 before in the Camaro Z/28, but the Z06 weighs 700 lbs less. That makes all the difference. And because it’s so tractable, the entire circuit is done in third and fourth gear without issue.
This engine is a wonderful monster. The redline is stratospheric by small block standards at the time, but isn’t charting unknown territory. It doesn’t sound exotic, if you’re used to American V-8s passing by, the LS7’s noise won’t make you turn your head. It doesn’t matter. It’s the rare engine that has mountains of low end torque that also makes power up top, so the revs don't matter. Mash the throttle and it goes.
Then there’s the handling, which is magic. The wider track and all the work that the Corvette team put into the C6 is evident. It’s a lively thing, but communicative and plain fun. It should feel like it’s going to bite, like it’s going to actively fight you around the track, but it doesn’t. It works with you to make you faster.
After a few laps, I found myself hitting 135 mph before hopping on the brakes into Lime Rock’s Big Bend, getting back to power sooner and sooner through some of the slower corners, and trusting it implicitly through the Uphill and the fast Downhill that leads back onto the main straight.
That first ride from 15 years ago kept popping back into my head. The raw capability still shined. The Z06 drives so well that the subpar interior and some of the other quality issues disappear. It’s that good.
The current Z06 is amazing, a tribute to the ingenuity and creative energy of the entire Corvette team. That new V-8 is a riot, a throwback to when Ferrari hated turbocharging and was all about high revs. The design is fantastic, a low wide thing that makes the C8 look far less ungainly, far more sinister. And it’s fun at any speed. It might be the performance car with the widest breadth of performance capability available today.
The C8 has evolved into something blisteringly fast and engaging on road and track, but the C6 is raw. Focused. That’s what makes it such a legend. Chevy didn’t acquiesce to any consumer demands; it used the track-focused formula started with the C5 and took it a step further. The fixed roof, the stiff suspension, the lack of an automatic gearbox option, and the seeming inability to be happy at any speed other than flat out likely turned away more buyers than it brought in. Instead of chasing sales, this Z06 chased lap times. Those who own one are members of a special club, and they can rest easy knowing that the C6 Z06 was a once-in-a-lifetime car. It's the pinnacle of the front-engine Corvette. It wasn't about luxury or status. It was about driving a car that takes humble components and uses them to embarrass cars that cost three times as much. The C8 Z06 might reach new heights of performance, but without the C6, it might not exist at all.
You Might Also Like