Can't beat it for thrills per buck.
by Mitch McCullough and Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $40,280
As Tested (MSRP) $47,620
Fifty grand isn't exactly pocket change, but the Chevrolet Corvette is one of the best performance values on the market today. This fifth-generation Corvette, called the C5, 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 the C5 price range, such as the Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster offer an entirely different driving experience and performance characteristics.
More power is on tap for the entire Corvette lineup this year. Most of this power comes in the form of more torque at lower rpm; and torque is what makes the Corvette go like stink. Even bigger news for 2001 is the introduction of the Z06, a powerful new model based on last year's hardtop.
Corvette is available in coupe, convertible and hardtop body styles. Coupe ($40,280) and Convertible ($46,805) use the 350-horsepower 5.7-liter V8; it meets California's Low Emissions Vehicle standards and offers an additional 5 horsepower over last year. The engine in the Z06 Hardtop ($48,055) displaces the same 5.7 liters, but produces 385 horsepower thanks to substantial re-engineering.
The C5 Coupe features a body-colored removable roof panel as standard equipment; it comes in translucent plastic as an option. But the Z06's top is fixed, a design chosen by engineers because that structure is stiffer. The Coupe's rear window opens like a hatchback, while the Z06 and the convertible have actual trunks.
Coupe and convertible come standard with automatic transmission, air conditioning, a tilt steering column, leather-wrapped steering wheel, active keyless remote, cruise control, leather seats, AM/FM/cassette, and power windows and locks. An options package ($2700 coupe, $2600 convertible) includes a six-way power driver's seat; power telescoping steering column; Twilight Sentinel, providing delayed shutoff of the headlights to help you find your way to your front door; illuminated visor vanity mirrors; and a head-up display that projects key instrument readouts onto the windshield. The head-up display works well at night, but is difficult to see in daylight.
The six-speed manual transmission is an $815 option. Also optional is the Z51 Performance Handling Package, including primarily larger stabilizer bars, for $350. The more exotic suspension option, for $1695, is called Selective Real Time Damping suspension (F45). It has three selectable modes - Tour, Sport and Performance - each with its own set of calibrations. F45 senses road conditions and vehicle speed then modulates the damping efforts of the shocks to keep the car riding and handling smoothly on a variety of road surfaces.
The Z06, meanwhile, gets entirely different stuff, standard. See below.
The fifth-generation Corvette, or C5, made its debut in 1997; it was the first complete Corvette redesign since 1984. 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. It offers vastly improved ride quality -- and performance -- over the fourth-generation Corvette.
With its thick hindquarters and Acura NSX-like front fenders, the styling of the C5 Corvette has been controversial. The rear end is reminiscent of the IMSA GTP Corvettes of the late '80s, and the flowing front fenders are handsome when viewed either from outside or behind the wheel. The convertible version looks graceful when the top is down.
The Z06 is more than a hopped-up model; it's a vastly different animal. It was intended as a street racer with track capabilities, Chevrolet's one-up response to Ford's Mustang Cobra R. The designation Z06 has a rich history, dating back to the original and legendary 1963 split-window Sting Ray, where Z06 was a racing package-the Z0 comes from Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette's famed first chief engineer. It was revived for this more-than-worthy successor, only now it's a separate unit, not an options package.
Z06 hardtop and C5 Coupe present different profiles. The Z06 hardtop roofline is actually more coupe-like than the Coupe, whose hatchback glass slopes more steeply. Other visible differences between the C5 Coupe and Z06 are subtle, starting with tidy Z06 emblems on each side of the car. The Z06 has modest mesh air intakes in the nose and wedge-shaped meshed cooling inlets for the rear brakes, located on the rocker panels just aft the doors. It also has open five-spoke aluminum wheels affording a view of big red brake calipers, and four 3.5-inch exhaust tips under the center of the rear bumper. The 17-inch front wheels are 9.5 inches wide, while the 18-inch rears are 10.5 inches wide. They carry massive and exclusive Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber, P265/40ZR front, P295/35ZR rear. There is no spare, nor are the tires run-flat; instead, you get an emergency tire-inflator kit. Try not to run over any nails.
The Z06 is 117 pounds lighter than the C5 Coupe, although its creature comforts, such as leather, air conditioning, carpeting, sound system, traction control and stability control are untouched. The weight is saved by using thinner glass, a titanium exhaust system and less insulation. Don't bother arguing that insulation is a creature comfort; with a car like this, noise and spiritual comfort level are intertwined.
The LS6 treatment of the trusty GM 5.7-liter overhead valve engine (LS1 in the C5) is a ground-up renovation, yielding 385 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 385 foot-pounds of torque at 4800-and it has those big, bright red valve covers! The aluminum block is specially designed to improve lubrication and reduce back pressure, while the heads feature refined porting and reshaped combustion chambers, fed 10 percent more fuel by larger fuel injectors through a massaged composite intake manifold. The pistons are cast from stronger alloy, and their special shape helps increase the compression ratio from 10:1 to 10.5:1. But most of the 35 additional horses comes from a racier billet steel cam which, along with stronger valve springs, raises the rev limit from 6000 to 6500.
There's also a new clutch to handle the torque, and a close-ratio six-speed gearbox with revised linkage. Its higher numerical gears contribute to the quicker acceleration-the Z06 will knock off a standing-start quarter mile in 12.6 seconds.
The Z06 uses the same double-wishbone suspension front and rear, but its 30mm front antiroll bar is larger than the C5's, the monotube shocks are beefier, the composite transverse rear leaf spring has a higher rate, and the camber is set for hard cornering. The brakes are the same 12.6-inch discs, front and rear.
Corvettes come with comfortable cabins, 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; arriving at the airport after a trip halfway around the world, we were able to cram two huge duffel bags into a coupe. The other major 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.
Convertibles come with a top that 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, and even more in the Z06, as we mentioned. However, this is a sports car, and noise -- particularly the calculated growl of that terrific new V8 -- is part of the deal.
The LS1 V8 engine is potent. It produces 350 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque (with the six-speed, 360 pound-feet with the automatic; that's a significant increase in torque over 2000 models (345 and 350, respectively). More important, the torque is available at much lower revs in 2001, thanks to revised intake runners.
Automatic or stick, the Corvette 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, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there's enough muscle in the LS1 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 175 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.
Significantly, we haven't seen 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.
Even with the basic suspension package, responses are surgically precise, if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 350 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. Chevrolet's second-generation Active Handling is standard equipment in 2001; it's a magical system that gets you out of slides before trouble strikes, by applying braking to the individual corners as needed. It utilizes on-board sensors to measure yaw, lateral acceleration and steering wheel position, then brings into play the capabilities of Corvette's standard ABS brake and traction control systems to smoothly assist the driver in maintaining vehicle control in oversteer or understeer situations. Some such systems have been getting criticism lately, for their hair-trigger qualities, their eagerness to aggressively assist before the driver wants or often needs such assistance. Corvette engineers say that this 2001 system has been carefully calibrated to limit such intrusiveness. Aside from an "Active Handling" message on the instrument panel, drivers might not even realize they've been assisted.
Much to our relief, and even surprise, we found this to be true on the race track. We spent two days in the Z06 at the Rupert Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School, which is Chevrolet's official school for high-performance driving. It's located at a wonderful 2.2-mile rhythmic driver's circuit Bragg-Smith designed about an hour from Las Vegas. In a nutshell, we found the Z06 to be rock-steady, precise, consistent, and, of course, fast. An absolute joy to drive. The brakes didn't fade. The transmission and shift linkage was solid, tight, shifting perfectly each time, whether up or down. Bragg-Smith reports that each three-day school requires some 4000 shifts of the cars (he uses C5 Coupes and Camaro SSs as well), 12,000 to 15,000 miles in a year, and there's never been a gearbox problem. Never been any problem, in fact; he says he only changes the oil and brake pads (and goes through piles and piles of tires), and that's it.
The car didn't understeer unless the driver forced it to, by his own error. It only oversteered in response to deliberately crude throttle application, and then the Active Handling brought it back into line by applying the brakes to the outside front wheel. There was one spot on the track where the suspension gave a mighty twitch, full on the throttle in third gear exiting a turn, but it stopped at that one twitch. It's a new circuit, and still smooth; a bumpy circuit might have brought different results. But it must be kept in mind that this is a road car, not a racing car. Its performance for a road car was beyond impressive. And wildly enjoyable.
A number of great sports cars are in this price range, but 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.