A new Corvette is supposed be the most momentous event in the American automotive universe. It is an unequaled source of magazine-cover speculation both breathless and absurd: "Mid-engined Corvette!" "Turbine Power for Next Corvette!!" "Chevrolet Readies Flying Corvette!!!" A new Corvette is a royal wedding, a celebrity drug overdose, and a presidential sex scandal, wrapped in fiberglass and dropped onto four wheels.
The 2005 Corvette, however, is none of these things. It is a new Corvette without the dramatic new look, without the stunning new technology, without the miraculous new materials. At least part of that is because the '05 Corvette is striding onto the stage well before its predecessor gets all stale and crusty. For the first time since the 1960s, the Corvette's product cycle approximates that of a normal car.
This is a change from the recent past. If you read James Schefter's All Corvettes Are Red, you know that the last new Corvette took only slightly less time to complete than most ancient Egyptian pyramids, largely because it was carried out despite General Motors' visionary leaders. (All of whom, we can assume, are now lying about atop large piles of money in their vast northern Michigan lakefront homes.)
Things at GM are much better now. We can tell, because the new, sixth-generation Corvette (or C6, as we cognoscenti say) is making its debut only seven years after the C5. And, evidently, the car was done with the full backing and cooperation of the company's management. It's a new day indeed. This is certainly positive news both for GM and for Corvette fans, but the C6's timely arrival has diminished its dramatic impact.
What's also diminished the C6's impact is that the styling looks so familiar. Yes, the hidden headlights are gone, the grille is centered, and the whole car is a little pointier. But overall, the '05 looks like a cleaned-up, better-executed version of the C5 rather than the entirely new design that it is.
Make no mistake: All the body panels are new, as are the greenhouse and the roofline. The leading edge of the roofline is higher, the trailing edge lower. The wheelbase has been stretched a little more than an inch, the length snipped five inches, the width shaved an inch.
The smaller size was an attempt to give the Corvette, in the words of chief engineer Dave Hill, a "more maneuverable, more tossable appearance." Don't confuse that with a more maneuverable car, however, as the turning circle is again nearly 40 feet. Still, we're glad to see a smaller Vette, particularly one with just as much passenger space and nearly as much luggage space.
The trimmer size is also intended to make Chevy's sports car "more acceptable in an overseas environment," according to chief designer Tom Peters, who also penned the C6's platform mate, the Cadillac XLR, as well as the Pontiac Aztek. Aiding the international cause are exposed headlamps, which eliminate the need to add extra lights for Europe. Dropping the hideaway lights "was one of the most grueling choices that we made," says Hill, but he adds: "With the Corvette, when we make a decision that's technically correct, then it's right for the car." And, indeed, the exposed lights incorporate HID low beams and also save weight, cost, and complexity.
Underneath the new skin, the formula is unchanged even if many of the parts are new. The C5's fiberglass and balsa wood sandwich-construction floor panels are carried over, and the Corvette again uses an extruded-aluminum cabin support architecture, hydroformed frame rails, and a structural central tunnel. A new rear tub eliminates the provision for a spare tire (part of the previous design but never used), which allows the car's tail to be narrower.
Mechanically, the biggest news is under the front-hinged hood: The OHV V-8 has been bored out to 6.0 liters, for an estimated 400 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 400 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. The revamped engine, dubbed LS2, weighs less (by 15 pounds), revs higher (to 6500 rpm rather than 6000), and has a higher compression ratio (10.9:1 versus 10.1:1), while occupying roughly the same space. The LS2's 50 extra ponies came from increased displacement, better breathing, a revised camshaft profile, and less exhaust back pressure. What about variable valve timing or additional valves, you ask? They're being held for the Z06, which follows by a year and is said to achieve 500 horsepower.
The Corvette's rear-located six-speed Tremec manual and the four-speed automatic transmissions both return. (The XLR's five-speed manu-matic couldn't handle the LS2's torque.) The six-speed is still saddled with the annoying first-to-fourth skip shift, but the good news is improved shift quality and lighter clutch efforts. When you choose the Z51 suspension option, you get shorter gears. For now, paddle shifting is not offered, nor is manu-matic-or even gated-shifting for the automatic.
The C6 uses the C5's suspension layout, including composite-plastic mono-leaf springs, but the parts are new. Once again, there are three suspension options: base, Z51, and the magnetic adjustable suspension introduced in 2003. Its two positions, Tour and Sport, have been recalibrated for greater separation. The C6 rolls on larger wheels, eighteen inches up front and nineteen at the rear.
The base C6 upgrades to larger rotors taken from the XLR, while still larger brakes with cross-drilled rotors are part of the Z51 package. With the Corvette again weighing in at roughly 3250 pounds, stopping distances should improve.
A targa top is again standard, and the B-pillar is now angled rearward to manage wind flow better when the top is removed. Although the top is larger, it weighs about the same, and it stows more easily beneath the rear hatch. The hatch itself now has a power closer, so it needn't be slammed shut.
At last we arrive at the interior, which, along with greater international acceptability, was another major focus of the new car, as even GM vice chairman Bob Lutz conceded that the cabin was "one oft-mentioned weakness of the C5." The interior is all new and includes as standard the starter button ignition and keyless access found in the XLR. The heads-up display has three different modes, including one that shows a tach dial and a cornering-g meter. The stereo and climate control displays remain visible even in bright sunlight, and a DVD-based navigation system is optional. Power seats are standard, but they still have manual recline. The overall cabin design is neater, but we'll reserve judgment on the materials and surfaces, as they're not yet in final form.
The Corvette itself, however, is in final form. The days of wild styling gyrations apparently are over. Chevrolet is satisfied with the C5 and happy just to finesse it. Mechanically, the situation is the same. A pushrod V-8, a rear transaxle, and rear-wheel drive-that's the formula, and it works, so why change it? After all, Porsche gets away with the same thing. The 911 has looked the same forever; it's always used a rear-mounted, flat-six engine (turbocharged for top-spec models). Like the 911, the current Corvette is a blast to drive; the new one should be better. The only sad part about the Corvette settling into a groove is that the words new Corvette won't carry the same sense of wonder and possibility they once did.