I've tested Chevrolet Corvettes for four decades, driven countless examples of genus one through six, restored three, raced several, and currently own one. So trust me when I tell you that the freshened 2008 coupe and convertible are the best Corvettes ever produced. They're not as zip-quick as the Z06, which carries over for another year, but thanks to significant improvements, the '08 base models are armed to charm even die-hard Porsche and BMW addicts.
We gave you the detailed engine-room tour last month when we introduced you to the new 6.2-liter LS3 V-8. Get used to that 6.2 designation, because it's going to be the standard Corvette piston displacement for as far as the speculator's eye can see. The LS3 brings a larger bore, better breathing, and more juice: up to 436 hp when you opt for the new active exhaust that bypasses the quieter of two routes through the mufflers when triggered by aggressive combinations of throttle and rpm.
During a half-day blast in both a coupe and a convertible near General Motors's Milford, Michigan, proving ground, the 2008 Corvette's extra impetus and more assertive voice were clearly evident. The new V-8 is graciously behaved to 3000 rpm, beyond which it becomes an animal. There's a more intense lunge for the 6500-rpm redline accompanied by a concert of combustion run amok. A thicker layer of insulation subdues valvetrain and injector percussion to let the bass, tenor, and alto notes sing through.
On a thrill scale of one to ten, if the current LS2 is a five and the LS7 (Z06) is an eleven, the new LS3 is a strong eight. According to Corvette product manager Harlan Charles, the added power trims a tenth of a second off 0-to-60-mph acceleration (say 4.4 seconds using Automobile Magazine test methods with a manual-shift car) and two-tenths from the quarter-mile elapsed time (12.8 seconds at 115 mph or so on our yardstick). Tom Wallace, the Corvette's chief engineer, claims to have seen 190 mph during two-way German autobahn runs.
There's also good news from the transmission department. Another massage of the old faithful Tremec (Mexican-made six-speed manual shared with the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Viper) has achieved shorter throws with lower effort. Thanks to friction reductions and synchronizer improvements, shifting is now more wrist action and less elbow crunching.
Last year's arrival of a six-speed toggle-shifted automatic significantly upped the take rate of that option, from about 60 percent to nearly 70 percent of Corvette sales--this in spite of the fact that the new wide-ratio transmission adds $1250 to the tab (the previous four-speed slushbox was a no-cost item). In response to complaints that we, and others, have voiced about the lack of vitality in this automatic, Corvette engineers have perked it up with new calibrations that they claim will lessen the wait for a downshift by 70 percent while decreasing the lag in upshift action by 50 percent. No one will confuse this transmission with a sequential manual in track mode, but the Corvette automatic has definitely been roused from its slumber. Factor in the addition of a performance axle ratio (2.73:1 versus the standard 2.56:1) and you've got a powertrain that leaps out of bends to inhale straightaways.While I loved the new engine and appreciate both categories of transmission improvement, the Vette's steering revisions surprised me most. After years (decades?) of lifeless Corvette steering, the '08 provides a clear and succinct tie-line to the road. Wallace attributes the improved feel to a new rack-and-pinion steering gear with better bearings, less lash, and lower friction. Hurray for that.
The fourth improvement is a high-zoot interior option that covers most of the touch areas with neatly trimmed French-stitched leather. Take your pick between charcoal and linen (Chevy's name for light beige) or charcoal and sienna (code for brick red); prices have not been announced, but this upgrade will likely cost about $4000. All Corvettes receive brushed-aluminum accents to their shift knobs and door releases along with center-console panels trimmed with a carbon-fiber-like finish instead of painted plastic.So the Corvette enters 2008 as the pride of General Motors, a sports car without peer when heritage, performance, price, and execution are taken into account. Even with Mustangs and Vipers exploring the 600-hp realm and a world full of tempting Porsches and BMWs, life's a beach for today's Corvette.