The 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 Was The Best Version Of The Worst Corvette

Corvette launches have always been the subject of much fanfare. The current-generation Corvette, the mid-engine eighth generation C8, took the automotive world by storm: It looked like a supercar, and the C8's 6.2L V8 ensured it performed like one. However, the fourth generation C4 'Vette was not as lucky. Debuting in 1984, advertisements from the time claimed that it was "the most advanced production car on the planet." The car certainly looked the part. Designers took every swoopy line from the previous generation and replaced it with a harsh angle. 

The C4's digital dashboard and sawblade wheels did its best to hide a terrible secret: The new Corvette was woefully underpowered. The 5.7L V8 put out a scant 205 horsepower when it launched (via Car and Driver). For comparison, a 1984 Buick Regal T-type made similar numbers from a turbocharged V6. A new Corvette is supposed to be leagues better than any other Chevy on the road. It's meant to be lauded as the absolute best General Motors had to offer. When GM unveiled the C4 Corvette, all it could come up with was a sad fiberglass shovel with a seriously weak engine. Not to mention it had an MSRP of $28,000. Adjusted for inflation, that's nearly $80,000 today. That's a hefty price for a car that's only slightly better than a souped-up Buick. 

The sadness continued for much of the 1980s, until Chevy came out with a version of the beleaguered C4 that propelled it from a cheesy hamstrung wannabe to a supercar killer: the 1990 Corvette ZR-1. 

The Corvette's redemption story

The ZR-1 killed any notion that the Corvette was just another frumpy, inefficient American car left over from the Malaise era. Aesthetically, it didn't look wildly different from any other C4 Corvette. The outside changes are subtle, and do little to betray what made the Corvette special: the engine. Instead of the strangled and weak boat anchor that rested inside prior 'Vettes, the ZR-1 was equipped with a 5.7-liter V8 developed by Lotus and built by Mercury Marine, the boat engine manufacturer. It churned out 380 horsepower to the rear wheels, very nearly twice the horsepower of the sad attempt at a Corvette just six years prior.

Performance figures from the ZR-1 are nothing short of staggering. According to Car and Driver, the ZR-1 rocketed itself from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds, and completed the quarter mile in 12.8 seconds. That's quick even for today, and mind bogglingly fast for over 30 years ago. With a top speed of 175 miles per hour, the formerly low-end Corvette was now an apex predator to its European counterparts. Over the course of more than half a decade, the Corvette made a complete turnaround. A dreary excuse for a sportscar redeemed itself into a legendary performance masterpiece.