Can't beat it for thrills per buck.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $38,555
As Tested $46,970

Forty grand isn't exactly pocket change, but the Chevrolet Corvette is one of the best performance values on the market today. It delivers a combination of acceleration and handling performance matched only by the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 Carrera and various exotics, all of which are far more expensive. Sports cars in its price range, such as the Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster offer an entirely different driving experience and performance characteristics.

Though it's still no Cadillac, this newest generation of the Corvette -- the C5 -- delivers vastly improved ride quality -- and performance -- over the fourth-generation Corvette.

Model Lineup

Three models are available: Hardtop ($38,555); Coupe ($39,130); Convertible ($45,555). All use the same 345-horsepower 5.7-liter V8, revised for 2000 to meet California's Low Emissions Vehicle standards.

With its fixed roof, the hardtop presents a different profile than the coupe. The hardtop comes standard with the 6-speed manual gearbox, high-performance Z51 suspension, a 3.42 limited-slip rear axle and Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. It also comes with air conditioning, a tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, active keyless remote, cruise control, leather-trimmed seats, AM/FM/cassette, and power windows and locks.

The coupe adds a six-way power driver's seat and illuminated visor vanity mirrors. Its roof panel removes easily when it's time for al fresco motoring.

The convertible offers the carefree feeling of top-down motoring. Sure, the coupe can put wind in your hair and it costs about $6,000 less than the convertible, but it doesn't match the feeling of driving with the top down.

Two suspension options are available for coupe and convertible: electronically controlled damping adds $1,695, while the Z51 performance handling package adds $350. For 2000, the Z51 package has been upgraded with larger stabilizer bars to improve handling. A four-speed automatic is standard on Corvette coupes and convertibles; a six-speed manual is an $815 option. The hardtop is only available with the six-speed.

Leather is standard, but optional sport bucket seats add $700. Other options: A $375 Head-Up Display projects key instrument readouts onto the windshield. It works well at night, but is difficult to see in daylight. Twilight Sentinel ($60) provides delayed shutoff of the headlights to help you find your way to your front door. A $350 power telescoping steering column allows better positioning of the steering wheel for drivers of different heights; as on all models, the steering wheel also offers a manual tilt adjustment.

Walkaround

This fifth-generation Corvette was introduced in early 1997 -- thus the C5 designation; it was the first complete redesign since 1984. Convertible and Hardtop versions came along later. While the basic concept is the same as it was back in 1953 -- a two-seat plastic-bodied all-American sports car -- the C5 shares almost nothing with previous-generation Corvettes. The wheelbase is longer, the track is wider, structural rigidity is far higher, and there are far fewer pieces in the whole assembly, which improves rigidity and quality.

With its thick hindquarters and Acura NSX-like front fenders, the styling of the Corvette has been controversial. But the rear end reminds me of the hot IMSA GTP Corvettes of a few years back and I find the front fenders handsome when viewed from outside or from the driver's seat. The convertible version looks graceful when the top is down.

Interior Features

The Corvette offers a comfortable cabin, something that wasn't always true with previous-generation models. Low door sills and narrow side rails make getting in and out easier than before and there's more room for driver and passenger. There's also a real trunk and we were able to cram two huge duffel bags in it. The other major element of improvement is the elimination of the rattles and stress squeaks that have haunted Corvettes for so long. Its handsome analog gauges are easier to use and more satisfying than digital displays.

The convertible top stows neatly under a flap that folds flat at the forward edge of the trunk lid. You'll need to read the owner's manual to figure out how to use it, however. The top is made of high-quality material with a glass rear window. The top seals well -- there were no leaks in our car wash test or our high-speed wind test.

The coupe isn't exactly quiet and there is more interior noise in the convertible than the coupe. However, this is a sports car, and noise -- particularly the calculated growl of that terrific new V8 -- is part of the deal. If you want quiet, go to the library.

Driving Impressions

The LS1 V8 engine is potent. It produces 345 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque. Automatic or stick, the new Vette is fast traffic. It's quick at the starting gate, beautifully balanced, surprisingly comfortable, and built to a far higher standard than any Corvette in history. While we prefer the 6-speed that came on our car, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there's enough muscle in the new V8 to cover the small performance penalties associated with auto-shifters.

Unlike most ragtops, the Corvette convertible weighs the same as the coupe, which means its acceleration performance is undiluted: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5 seconds with the 6-speed manual transmission, about 0.4 seconds slower with the automatic. The only performance penalty that goes with the convertible version is top speed. The ragtop doesn't share the coupe's aerodynamic efficiency, so it tops out at a mere 162 mph versus 174 mph for the coupe. Of course, when the top is down there's more drag and a correspondingly lower top speed. Still, that's speed that'll get you to the drive-in in a pretty big hurry -- and the local slammer even faster.

From a handling and acceleration standpoint, it's tough to perceive any performance distinctions between coupe and convertible. Corvette's chief engineer said the structural design for the new Vette began with the convertible, and as a consequence no shoring-up measures were required for the soft-top chassis. You hear the same song from almost every purveyor of convertibles, but in this application it seems to be true. If there's any distinction to be made between the agility and stability of the Corvette coupe and the new convertible, it would be all but impossible to discern on public roads.

Even with the basic suspension package, our test car's responses were surgically precise, if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 345 horsepower and great gobs of torque. The Corvette offered sharp reflexes while driving down rural roads in Maryland. It provides a superb blend of muscle and finesse, with a much higher tolerance for mistakes of the enthusiastic variety, complemented by brakes that are nothing short of raceworthy.

Just as important, there wasn't a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles wherein the dashboard and exterior oscillate at differing rates. Ride quality is decidedly stiff. You don't get a sports car's ability to change directions without snubbing body roll and limiting up and down suspension motions, and when you do those things you're obliged to accept some tradeoff in comfort. Potholes in and around Washington, D.C., were easily identifiable in the Corvette. Yet they were not uncomfortably harsh. We heard them and felt them, but they weren't jarring and did not unduly upset the handling balance.

Final Word

Although there are a number of great sports cars in this price range, the Corvette does not really have any direct competitors. Similarly priced BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK models operate at a more modest pace. When it comes to pavement-ripping prowess per dollar, nothing can match the Corvette's power and grip.

Dodge Viper rivals and surpasses the Corvette's dynamic capabilities, but it is a more highly focused car and costs considerably more. When it comes to civilization and comfort, the Corvette wins hands-down. To get a similar blend of comfort and true sports car performance, you'll find yourself in a Porsche store looking at 911s, but the 911 can't compete with the Corvette's price.

The Corvette is no longer this country's only sports car. And it has evolved well beyond what we would call affordable. But coupe, convertible or hardtop, there doesn't seem to be much question that the latest generation of this all-American is a world-class GT.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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