The road ahead twists and turns up into the hillside, its surface glistening with rain, the trees flecked with the first hints of autumn. On a bright, sunny day, this would be sports-car heaven, but we’re approaching the road with trepidation. Of the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the Dodge Viper SRT10 coupe, and the Ford GT, only the Corvette has traction and stability control–and all have superwide tires and 500 hp or more.
The Corvette leads the way. As if 505 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque in these conditions weren’t enough of a handful, we turn off all of the electronic aids. (OK, we’re a little bit crazy.) This is what we discover: The Corvette is sensational on these roads, whether we’re sliding around second-gear hairpins or blasting through fourth-gear sweepers. The 7.0-liter pushrod V-8 sounds amazing when you bury the throttle, emitting a deep, hard-edged growl that wells in volume with revs. There is plenty of thrust available in the seam of the torque mine, even though maximum power is developed at 6300 rpm and this ultimate small-block will rev smartly all the way to seven grand.
The Z06 is the most expensive and powerful production Corvette yet, with a base price of $65,800. It has eighteen-inch-diameter front and nineteen-inch rear wheels shod with 275/35 and 325/30 tires, yet the ride is well controlled and beautifully damped as we crest brows and plunge into dips. Traction is amazing, too, except when you goose the throttle in the lower gears in tight corners. Correct with the steering, relax the pressure on the gas pedal, and the car resumes a neutral path.
Everything gels in the Z06 once you’re into its operating mode. At low speeds, it feels like a regular C6 Corvette, but once you get serious, this is a different animal–hardly surprising, because virtually every component has been changed. The vented and cross-drilled disc brakes are powerful and reassuring, even if the pedal is a little bit soft on initial acquaintance, and the steering talks to you the more you coax it. The shifter is a bit clunky, but you don’t need to stir it that often.
With your pulse rate quickened and your senses working overtime, it’s time to stop and gather your thoughts–and turn your attention to the car behind you, the sinister-looking black 2006 Viper coupe. The Dodge feels pretty darned big after the relatively compact Corvette. It also lacks traction control, has even wider 345/30YR-19 rear tires, and makes more torque.
Floor the throttle in second gear, even on the streaming road surface, and you’ll realize that the Viper’s huge 500-hp, 8.3-liter pushrod OHV V-10 has a softer, more gentle power delivery than the Corvette. Ninety percent of the peak torque of 525 lb-ft is produced between 1500 and 5600 rpm, and it’s delivered in a very smooth and almost undramatic manner, an impression enhanced by the muted swoosh from the side pipes. The lack of fuss and bother is disconcerting, because you don’t realize you’re always traveling at 80 mph and more until you glance at the speedometer.
The Viper’s shifter is so ponderous that you change gears when necessary rather than for pleasure. Although the car tends to wander a bit over surface imperfections, it rides big bumps pretty well, and the brake pedal has a wonderfully solid, fast response, as though the car were engineered for racers by racers. (Which, in truth, it was: Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology top brass likes to frequent racetracks, and Viper Club members asked for the coupe to satisfy their need for speed, which is denied by those track owners who won’t let open cars run without a roll bar.)
The Viper gobbles up the short straightaways on these roads and is surprisingly deft around even the tighter corners. The steering, which is meatily weighted and full of wriggly feel, is excellent, while the car turns in sharply and obediently. Some 31 percent stiffer than the Viper roadster, according to SRT, the coupe feels sharper, more alive, more integrated.
As we round a long left-hand bend, we spot a suitable roadside parking space and stop the Viper, brakes sizzling, engine gently ticking after its exertions. Next up is the Ford GT. We have been working our way up to this one, because it has 550 hp, lacks stability aids, and is mid-engined. Just as we fire up the supercharged 5.4-liter DOHC V-8 engine, the rain starts to fall harder. Great! If ever there was a disaster looking for a place to happen, this is it.
Yet it doesn’t. The GT, too, is user-friendly, although you need to be more watchful in it. It is more of a precision instrument than the other two, with quicker and lighter steering and more rapid turn-in. But with its mid-engined layout, this is the most tail-heavy of the three, and you sometimes feel the load transferring abruptly onto the outside rear tire. You still travel at warp speed across the hinterlands of Appalachia, but your palms are a bit sweatier at the end of the stint. It feels big, too, although not large enough to tackle the half-dozen cows that suddenly appear on the roadside as we crest a brow.
The engine has plenty of midrange grunt, with 500 lb-ft of torque that peaks at 3750 rpm. The GT doesn’t sound as racy as the Corvette, its engine note soft and overlaid by the muted whine of the supercharger, but it is very swift–the quickest from 0 to 60 mph. All three cars are incredibly fast, with sub-ten-second times for the 0-to-100-mph dash and quarter-mile times of around twelve seconds.
With cars this quick, we’re glad to be on some of the best, least inhabited, and most challenging roads in America, perhaps even in the world. The byways of southern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, northeastern Kentucky, and West Virginia form the greatest unknown sports-car playground in the United States. There’s a sort of conspiracy that says that all of the good roads in the States are on the West Coast and in the Northeast–but we’d rather be here, especially since the cops seem absent.
Unfortunately for us, we’re here when the remnants of Hurricane Katrina, downgraded to a tropical storm after laying waste to the Gulf Coast, sweeps in to deposit plenty of rain under leaden skies. Our appointment at BeaveRun, north of Pittsburgh, is washed out, so we head back to Michigan and GingerMan Raceway on the west side of the state. We have a little more than six hours to cover 460 miles. Then the heavens open, and we ply the freeways of Ohio and Indiana in a gray murk, peering through banks of spray and frenzied windshield wipers.
In the course of this epic journey, we discover that all three cars are, despite some flaws, quite practical and very safe. In the Viper, there is plenty of luggage space under the rear hatchback, although thieves will have little difficulty identifying your monogrammed Louis Vuitton gear. The radio and HVAC work fine, too. The Viper tends to bounce around over expansion joints but cruises quietly, thanks to a top gear that’s suitable for land-speed-record attempts. The cabin gets incredibly hot unless you run with the air-conditioning on, and the seats have too much rib-cage bolstering and a cushion that’s too long for people under six feet tall. Rear visibility is on the atrocious side of appalling, which makes merging onto freeways scary. The interior design is pleasing, but the decor is gloomy, and the materials just aren’t up to snuff in a vehicle that, as tested, costs $87,890.
The Corvette suffers from that fault, too. The interior of the Z06 is crafted a gazillion times better than the old car’s, but that’s like comparing a mule to a donkey; they were both compromised to start with. For nearly $70,000, you expect some special touches and top-notch materials, but they’re absent. Every time you drive a new Corvette, you wonder why General Motors didn’t spend a little more money to make its top-line sports car a standout in all regards.
But the Corvette is a great everyday car. You can see out of it, for starters, and it rides quite well on the highway. There is space to stow stuff, and it even has cup holders. The trunk is a decent size, but your luggage is exposed. The Z06 is the only one of our three cars that has electric seat adjustment, although those seats lack lumbar support. The gauge cluster works fine, and we love the tri-mode head-up display–street, which shows your speed; track one, which has a circular tach, oil pressure, and lateral g’s; and track two, which has the same information but with a linear rpm gauge. It allows you to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, which is a beautiful thing when you’re traveling fast.
Even the GT coped well in the deluge, but it is the least practical of the three. Rear visibility is even worse than the Viper’s, the stowage space is scanty and awkward to use, the giant A-pillar creates a massive blind spot, and the roof cutaways in the doors mean that ingress and egress can be tricky–particularly when you park next to another car. The GT, though, is special, from the perforated seat covering to the bespoke toggle switches, from the carefully chosen typefaces on the gauge cluster to the view of the top of the Eaton supercharger in the rearview mirror. You can spot the odd low-rent Ford parts-bin piece, but this is otherwise a unique, lovely environment in which to spend time. The seats, too, are comfy, but the boniest of us find that those perforations dig in after three or four hours in the saddle. The GT is the noisiest car on the highway, with a lot of tire thrash, yet it rides in a supple manner.
We spent a lot of time looking at these cars in close company, and only the Corvette is a little anemic in appearance. The C6 looks good but isn’t as flamboyant as it should be. It also takes a trained eye to spot a Z06, despite changes that include carbon-fiber flared front fenders, a different front fascia, lovely cast-spun-aluminum wheels, a tail spoiler, and four exhaust tips.
The Viper looks wonderful and is much sexier as a coupe than as a roadster. The front half of the bodies are identical, but the greenhouse and the modified, raunchier rear fenders make the coupe a real standout. The GT, however, is the best-looking of the bunch. It says a lot for the original GT40 that the shape looks modern–futuristic, even–and it says a lot for Ford’s designers that they updated the detailing and looks without spoiling the purity of the original.
As we clear Ohio, the sun peeks from behind the clouds, and the pace increases. Somewhere, the Viper hits 170, and the GT makes it to 183 mph–the drivers will forever remain anonymous–but the Corvette driver chickens out at 140. All three drivers report awesome stability at high speed.
We arrive at GingerMan just in time to run some laps in the evening. We assume that many owners of these cars occasionally will steer them to a track to wring them out in a way that would be stupid in the public domain, and the track is also a good place to compare their ultimate performance.
All of them lap the track faster than any street cars we have driven previously at GingerMan. The Viper is the slowest (!) of the three but the easiest to drive fast. The steering, which is so nice on the street, loses a little weight on track, but the car is very stable. You might think that 500 hp would turn it into an oversteering monster, but the Viper has been house-trained. If anything, it understeers in the quicker corners, and its transitional movements are benign. The brakes are strong and don’t go away, but the slow shifter is a bore on the track, and the car tends to spin the inside rear wheel in the tight stuff.
The Corvette is just awesome. It is the lightest of our three cars by more than 300 pounds, and that shows on acceleration down the short straightaways and on braking into the tightest corners. (The brakes do go away the next day, probably the corollary, as technical editor Don Sherman points out, of its slightly front-heavy weight distribution.) Man, this thing is fast. And it sounds fast, too. The handling is spectacular, with mild initial understeer and a very neutral stance that can be teased into power oversteer with provocation from your right foot. The steering really livens up at max attack and loses the artificiality we had noticed on the street. Driving the Corvette hard is a delight and a challenge–it’s a world-class track car, as special when pushed as it is unexceptional when driving down the highway.
The GT, too, is magic on track. The steering, which is light on the road, weights up and reminds you of a good racing car’s: totally intuitive, relaying everything that’s going on. You notice that this is quite a heavy car when you bury the center pedal, but otherwise you can throw it around as if it were a Mazda Miata. It won’t go as far sideways as the Corvette, but you can power-slide it, or you can simply revel in its superb traction and crisp turn-in. It also has the best gearshift of the three, as precise and light and fast as the Viper’s is slow and clunky. We even get a Le Mans-style moment while heading down the back straight, lights aglow, staring at a brilliant red sun as it dips toward the horizon.
After three days, almost 1200 miles, and five states, we reckon that these are America’s greatest cars–and that two of them, the GT and the Corvette, are among the world’s best cars. We like the way they pay homage to great American cars of a previous era. The GT takes as its inspiration the cars that won Le Mans in 1966, ’68, and ’69. The Viper is a throwback to the Cobra, particularly to the Daytona coupe. And the Z06 captures the magic of the special-order, semiracing Sting Ray Z06 of 1963.
All three have their appeal. The Viper concept looks a little dated now, but it is still a rambunctious beast, big and extroverted, a car for people who don’t mind showing off. It’s a bit like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in that respect, except that it actually performs. All of us really like it, but it isn’t even the favorite of our Mopar diehard, assistant editor Rusty Blackwell.
Everyone adores the GT, because it feels and looks so special. Sherman would take it, because “it is the most collectible, the most exotic, and I would keep it for the rest of my life as a valuable heirloom to pass on. Plus, it’s great to drive.” We spotted a couple of GTs in the paddock at the Monterey Historics recently, which makes sense: this vehicle presses all of a car geek’s hot buttons. The only downside is the $162,195 price of our test car, although road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos points out that this undercuts its true competitors, the Ferrari F430 and the Lamborghini Gallardo.
The Z06 is the most usable of our three and also the least distinctive. It is also an incredible performance bargain, even faster and cheaper than the Viper. In performance, price, and driving pleasure, it blows the current Porsche 911 Carrera S away, although the 911 has nicer steering, a slicker gearshift, and a much better interior. Blackwell would take the Z06: “If I could afford a car like this, I would want to drive it a lot. It’s such a stealth car, you could stay under the radar with it, it’s easy to drive day to day, but it’s nearly as quick as the GT.”
Me? I love all three. Were money no object, it would be the GT. But for most of us, money is an object. Someone like me could afford a Z06 as a toy for track days and for blasting through the countryside. It says a lot, we feel, that we can now compare Chevys, Dodges, and Fords with European exotics. Now all the American industry has to do is up the ante with its more affordable cars.
Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Best lap time 1:32.75
Best lap average speed (mph) 73.0
0-60 mph/quarter-mile (sec) 4.1/12.0
Braking 70-0 mph (ft) 149
Cornering l/r (g) 1.10/1.09
Weight (lb) 3147
Distribution f/r (%) 50.9/49.1
Top speed (mph) 198
Dodge Viper SRT19 Coupe
Best lap time 1:33.95
Best lap average speed (mph) 72.0
0-60 mph/quarter-mile (sec) 4.3/12.4
Braking 70-0 mph (ft) 150
Cornering l/r (g) 1.04/1.02
Weight (lb) 3454
Distribution f/r (%) 48.8/51.2
Top speed (mph) 190
Best lap time 1:32.45
Best lap average speed (mph) 73.2
0-60 mph/quarter-mile (sec) 3.8/12.2
Braking 70-0 mph (ft) 156
Cornering l/r (g) 1.03/1.01
Weight (lb) 3489
Distribution f/r (%) 43.4/56.6
Top speed (mph) 205