Ann Arbor - So it finally comes to this happy conclusion a mere forty-eight years after the initial flame (blue, of course) was lit: The Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is, at long last, a real, 100 percent, no excuses, no explanations, no footnotes American sports car, one that can hold its own with just about anything on the road, even if that anything comes from Zuffenhausen or Maranello, at a price that no other company in the world--not even the one from Hamtramck--can approach, let alone match. How could it not be our 2001 Automobile of the Year?
There were some extremely strong contenders this year. Our testers all loved the Porsche 911 Turbo coupe and were all greatly impressed by the superbly refined Lexus LS430. But when you get right down to it, all three of these top candidates are philosophically similar to their forebears, and, when compared with earlier versions, all of them simply provide more of the same. But the Corvette Z06 provides so much more of the same that it is in a completely different category from all previous Corvettes, including the legendary L88 big-block cars and the four-cam ZR-1.
There's more power, of course: 35 strong horses added to the stable to bring the honest net power rating up to 385 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and that power is put to the ground through more rubber (295/35ZR-18 Goodyears on lightweight, 18 x 10.5-inch alloy wheels at the back) via a revised six-speed gearbox that gets you off the line harder and faster than before with its 2.97:1 first gear. The other five gears are better spaced, all but the direct 1:1 fourth being lower than before. And, let it be noted, the all-new LS6 engine is so clean that the car qualifies as a low-emissions vehicle. Oh, yes, and it gets 19 mpg in town and 28 on the highway, EPA-certified. And it gets to 60 mph in four--four point zero--seconds. Easily.
Any questions about whether two-valve pushrod engines are necessarily outmoded relics? True, 68 horsepower/liter is not particularly impressive when compared with the 120 Honda extracts from the S2000, but when you have enough liters, who really cares? Think of it as 1.1 horsepower per cubic inch and be more impressed. The much-revised-from-the-LS1 all-alloy LS6 V-8 gets the job done, and it's a pleasure to use, even trundling along in heavy traffic. The much-maligned first-to-fourth shift imposed by the shift linkage, if you're not hard on the throttle in first gear, actually makes a lot of sense and is in no way intrusive when you're not in a big hurry; acceleration from low speed in fourth keeps you even with most other cars, anyway.
We found only two major downside elements: The car is really big, almost too big for a two-seater, and its interior is tacky to the point of being downright shoddy for a modern car. For some reason, all American manufacturers seem to think that the first and best place to trim costs is in the area where the car owner spends most of his or her time. Wrong. Five hundred dollars and some careful thinking time spent on the cabin of the Corvette would utterly transform it into a really serious world-class cockpit. That said, we can't severely fault the ergonomics of the seats, belts, and primary controls. Things are pretty much in the right place, and they work pretty well; they're just cheap, not exactly what you're looking for when you spend $50,000 on an object of self-gratification. And, while we're being conciliatory, remember that this car was not designed for the wandering byways of the Old World. It's American through and through, and we've got wide roads, big parking spaces, and no problem with really big vehicles; witness the hordes of giant SUVs everywhere.
Generation Five Corvette styling has been controversial from the outset. The car has just a few too many Japanese-looking styling cues, and the wide, tall posterior, for all that it sports the traditional four taillights, is more than a bit gawky. On the Z06, two changes from the mainstream Corvettes help the look quite a bit: the addition of truly functional air scoops at the lower rear edge of the doors for the rear brakes and under the daytime running lights in front, and the close-coupled top, a reversion to the classic Corvette notchback look that preceded a series of Italianate fastback coupe shapes from the '63 "split window" C2 onward.
There is something at once tighter, lighter, and more immediate about a top that just covers the cockpit rather than stretching back to enclose more space and expose the luggage to casual view. The Z06 profile would be greatly improved were there a small radius at the upper rear corner of the side windows, but economic considerations mandated use of the same door and glass for the hardtop as is used on the Corvette convertible, We can live with this cost-cutting concession to get a car this good into the hands of eager drivers at the lowest possible price.
The Z06 is available in a restricted range of colors: black, white, red, silver, and the bright yellow that Chevrolet is pushing in its press fleets, perhaps because the C5-R factory racers are painted in yellow and white. The overall design is at its best in black.
But the Z06 is not really about style; it's about all-out performance in a car that can actually be used on the street. It is "no less an everyday driver than a stock Corvette," according to our Mark Gillies, who compared the Z06 with the special $54,000, 300-off Ford Mustang Cobra R ("you would have to be a raving mad enthusiast to drive it every day") in our August 2000 issue. He also noted that it makes a "sophisticated noise that's like a pure racing engine's." All this with a good sound system, excellent air conditioning, and enough luggage space (with a real trunk lid, a nicety once unknown to Corvette drivers) for two people on a long trip. He also reminded us that the Z06 chassis, despite some peculiarities in the variable-ratio power steering, is less edgy and more capable than that of the Dodge Viper ACR.
We think there is no question that Chevrolet was pushed into making this superior extreme-performance model by the resounding success of the Viper, dominant in international racing where Corvettes have never managed to accomplish much, despite many tries over almost half a century by the factory, both openly and clandestinely, and numerous private owners, including Briggs Cunningham. The Corvette C5-Rs that ran at Le Mans last year--and that are sure to be back this June--and the program that brought them into being were certainly Viper-inspired. If the Corvettes have only beaten their crosstown rivals occasionally this year, they have only one season behind them, and the Z06 tends to prove that Corvette engineers now know what they're doing and have the ear of management willing to let them achieve the necessary results.
That the engine is so powerful, flexible, and clean is to their credit, but where they have really shown their innovative spirit is in the Active Handling system, which, of course, includes traction control (which, of course, can be switched off if you like) but also has a skid control function.
Sensing control inputs, speed, loads on all four wheels, and rotational discrepancies, Active Handling reduces engine power when necessary and applies the brakes individually to hold the car in line. The system's switch has three modes: traction and stability control off; traction and stability control on (Active Handling); and Competitive Mode, which eliminates traction control but will keep the car from spinning, thanks to the electronic stability program. Okay, you don't need all this magic because you're such a great driver, but, believe us, most people do and will benefit from this work accordingly.
Consider also the purely mechanical aspects of the suspension system, quite apart from the clever electronics (some of them adapted from Cadillacs, believe it or not). The wishbones all around are forged aluminum, beautifully made, and exceptionally light for their proven strength. At both ends of the car is a single lightweight transverse leaf spring made of advanced composites. Not many performance cars, even the most respected, have as favorable a sprung/unsprung-weight ratio as does the Z06. And it's not because the car is heavy; at just a bit over 3100 pounds, the Z06 bears witness to a serious program of weight reduction, including making front and back glass thinner, using titanium in the exhaust system aft of the catalysts, and paring the wheels to the minimal amount of material required to carry the (considerable) cornering loads. The anti-roll bars are tubular, making them lighter than a solid bar and, intellectually, a great deal more elegant. And, with all its emphasis on being track-worthy, the Z06 rides awfully well and quietly.
The chassis is set up with a little negative camber on all four wheels, good for cornering and tough-looking if your eye is sharp enough to see it. After a lot of chopping and changing over the years on wheel and tire sizes, the Corvette Z06 comes to us with 17 x 9.5-inch front wheels and 18 x 10.5-inch rears. The front tires, 265/40ZR-17s, are more than an inch narrower than the rears, and the grip balance seems, to us, just about perfect. No spare tire is carried, and the handed and directional tires fitted are not run-flats, so it is important that there be low-pressure sensors in the cockpit and a can of repair goop in the trunk. One day, perhaps, there will be an adequate emergency solution for cars with four different tires, or tires that just don't go flat, but for right now hoping for the best seems to be the approved technique.
The wheels themselves are bespoke for the Z06, claimed to be lightweight, and definitely both light and strong in appearance, with plenty of open area to let you admire the bright red calipers and the big vented brake discs. There are a lot of differences between the first Corvettes of 1953, every one of them white with red interior, and the 2001 Z06 model, but perhaps nothing marks the maturity of the Z06 as much as its wonderful brakes. Conceptually and dimensionally, the original Corvette was closely based on the contemporary Jaguar XK120: same wheelbase, same bad seating position on top of the same type of thick ladder chassis frame, same engine type and configuration (in-line six), same steel disc wheels bolted to inadequate drum brakes that were prone to overheating and severe fade when used in anger. Not that there was much performance potential in the Corvette's three-carburetor Blue Flame Six, hooked up as it was to a two-speed automatic, the only gearbox available until 1956.
The poor ergonomics of the Corvette and the XK120/140 remained as long as those cars stayed in production, but, while Jaguar went on to incorporate better brakes and kept its twin-cam six, Corvettes got a light, powerful V-8 and kept the bad drum brakes. Ceramic-metallic linings in the late 1950s helped a bit for racing but were useless on the road, unless you drove with your left foot riding lightly on the pedal to keep them warm enough to work at all. Through all the years, through all the 4.3- to 7.4-liter V-8 powerplants that raised performance to awesome levels, Corvettes had brakes that were just not as good as those of the competition, even when four-wheel discs arrived.
No more. When we blasted this year's ultra-high-performance models--the Porsche 911 Turbo, the BMW Z8, the Ferrari 360 Modena, and the Z06--around the very tight confines of the Waterford Hills racetrack, we were as confident of the Z06's stopping ability as we were of that of the European thoroughbreds, and that's saying a great deal. Those big discs are the capstone of the Corvette's arrival at the summit of mass-produced world-class sports cars. Forthcoming exotic supercars, the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, the Porsche Carrera GT, et al., may move performance benchmarks but at prices that would let you buy a Z06 in every color and still have money left over to pay for the insurance. In terms of value for money and raw performance, you really can't do any better than this extremely well-focused design, and in terms of the cars available on the U.S. market, we could not find a better Automobile of the Year.