Back when the Corvette was first earning its reputation as a race-hardened American sports car that sold for a reasonable price, enthusiasts accepted that such a proposition involved certain compromises. Like engineering students who get high marks if they can attain any two of the "better, faster, cheaper" trinity, sports-car drivers understood that getting lots of bang for relatively few bucks often meant putting up with the ride harshness of a Roman chariot, the styling elegance of a plastic sex toy, the build quality of a polyester leisure suit, and an interior suitable for Charles V, the Hapsburg emperor who liked to rehearse for his death by sleeping in his coffin.Cars in general have gotten a lot better in the half-century since, owing both to technological improvements and to the fact that Americans and western Europeans, having socked away more than $10 trillion in additional personal wealth over the years, are willing to pay more for them. The Corvette marque evolved through five "generations" (from C1, the original 1953-62 Vette, and C2, the first Sting Ray, to the C5, which bows out with the 2004 model year), improving more or less consistently while holding the line on price and sticking to its original conception: a lusty engine stirred by a robust shifter at cocktail height, teamed with a crude but effective suspension capable of blood-draining cornering grip. While the cost of a Corvette in constant dollars has roughly doubled in the past fifty years, that of a Porsche has tripled; and Ferraris, which used to trade for a couple of Corvettes, today cost three to five of them.
Now the C6 is upon us, and although it does not look startlingly different from its immediate predecessors-the overall effect is of a sprightlier, more modern machine with its wheels closer to its corners-in many respects, it's a very different automobile. Said to retain only fifteen percent (by mass) of the C5's parts, the C6 is five inches shorter and an inch narrower than the C5 yet has a 1.2-inch-longer wheelbase and puts its larger wheels (eighteen-inch front, nineteen-inch rear) even closer to its sides. Weighing about the same as the model it replaces, it delivers comparable fuel economy (an estimated 23 mpg, combined city and highway) while cranking out 50 more horsepower. It boasts improved materials and build quality and offers an all-new, somewhat less humdrum interior and an array of creature comforts-xenon headlamps, keyless ignition, and cabin air filtration are standard-for about the same price as the C5.
In short, it's a better car. But is it good enough to hold up its head in a world where-we're happy to note-good, fast cars have become almost as commonplace as autumn leaves?
We'll be back with word on that in a moment. But first, a blast from the past.
Many American men of a certain age keep barrels of Corvette nostalgia down in the cellars of their psyches, and I'm no exception. The first two cars I owned were Vettes, and in some ways, they defined the extremes of the Corvette spectrum that has existed ever since. In 1961, I bought a '59 convertible, in "classic cream" with red coves and red upholstery. With its 283-cubic-inch engine, live rear axle, and brakes that, if memory serves, required that you mail GM a postcard should you ever want to haul it down from highway speeds, this little cream puff had a performance envelope thinner than a Harvard rejection letter. It was, however, outlandishly fun to drive in sunny Florida, so long as you didn't expect it to negotiate across gravel at speed without spinning into the next county. A few years later, yearning for something with more hair on its chest, I bought a three-quarter racing 1963 split-rear-window Corvette coupe, shortly after watching its triumph in heavy rain at a Palm Beach raceway one stormy Sunday afternoon. "Daytona blue" over a dark blue interior, it had a 327-cubic-inch, 300-horsepower engine, an unflappable four-speed transmission, a 4:11 independent rear end tight as a Timex mainspring, a stiff suspension, glass-packs, a full roll cage replete with fire extinguisher and competition belts, and "sintered metallic" brakes that worked best when hot. Its owner-driver, who was about to take delivery of a '65 with a 396-cubic-inch engine, gave me a good price. (Then, as now, civilian buyers regarded a track-time pedigree with as much enthusiasm as bachelor farmers pondering a bartered bride with a porno career in her past.) Driving the Sting Ray home that night, I was pulled over by a Sunshine State Parkway trooper who courteously explained that, having heard its rolling thunder and taken a gander at its racing stripes and numbers, he "just wanted to see what the hell this thing was!"
What it was, of course, was one of the great road gobblers of its day. In it, I could knock off the 1500 miles from Key Biscayne, Florida, to Evanston, Illinois, in twenty hours and twenty minutes-an average of better than 70 mph overall, more than a third of it on two-lane blacktop-then zip out west as readily as skipping a stone across water. When a friend shared the driving, in which case I would catch a few winks on an air mattress deployed in the rear, with stars shining through the twin rear windows and a thicket of U-joints whirring inches under my head, we could pretty much nail any destination in North America with an alacrity approaching that of a twin Beech. The '63 had its faults-most notable a tendency to motorboat at triple-digit speeds, its skyward-pointing fiberglass hood adding to the illusion that one was streaking across Lake Havasu-but all in all, it was as thrilling to drive as it was to look at, and Chevy dealers serviced it as eagerly as Daytona pit crews. Decades later, when Bob Bondurant blew past my 928 Porsche in a full-race split-window coupe at Sears Point, the sight of it shrinking to a powder-blue dot in my windshield was almost as thrilling as if we'd swapped lap times.
On paper, the sixth-generation Corvettes uphold the noble tradition of diversity within unity exemplified by my '59 cream puff and my '63 street racer. You can specify anything from an easygoing, fun car to a giant killer, confident that you'll be making a cost-effective purchase of a genuine sports car that's relatively easy to service (or even self-service; the engine is pleasingly laid out and some of its parts generously labeled for the benefit of shade-tree mechanics). But how do they hold up in practice, and where-if anywhere-is the sweet spot between price and performance, between sheer speed and street smarts? To find out, I drove the entire C6 lineup on a racetrack and on country roads in rural Virginia, then compared a C5 to a C6 on the rough streets and real-world byways of San Francisco.
Arrayed on the tarmac at the Danville, Virginia, airport, the new Vettes-among them a red-on-red convertible, a blue targa coupe, and a race-yellow Z51-made for a stirring sight. General Motors tests Corvettes here (among other places, including the Nrburgring), and all these C6s had been fine-tuned to within an inch of their lives by a crew consisting of a brake man, an oil-engine-drivetrain specialist, a suspension developer, a data logger, and a "high-speed validation team." Still, the factory folks looked anxious. Part of their concern, no doubt, involved the question of whether we'd wreck one-only a few dozen C6s had yet been built-but it also had to do with what we, the first journalists to drive the new cars, would think of them. If you pulled in and a factory guy shyly asked what you thought of the engine, you knew he was an engine developer. If he asked whether you liked the look of the car's J.Lo-scale rear end, you knew he was a stylist.
I started with an entry-level automatic convertible and headed for the hills, rolling down the Blue Ridge Parkway and onto charming narrow roads through farmlands so rustic that the locals-sleepy-looking kids and parents in bonnets and calico aprons looking up from their gardening to smile and wave as we went by-were so in character as to occasion an ungenerous suspicion that GM had imported them from a casting agency. The engine-the latest incarnation of the classic small-block Chevy V-8, now so thoroughly worked out that it develops 400 horsepower sans gas-guzzler tax and can even get by on non-premium fuel if you're feeling frugal-felt strong and sprightly despite its somewhat retro pushrod and two-valve configuration. The four-speed automatic transmission, however, was barely competent; mating it with this engine is like playing a recent Mahler recording on a vintage boom box. Chevy says a new six-speed automatic is in the works, so if you must have a slushbox, wait for the next one. (Memo to GM: Shift paddles on the steering wheel would be a welcome improvement.)
The blue coupe with the standard six-speed manual made better use of the C6's ample power and brakes, quick steering, and nimble but pliant suspension, which combined to eat up country hairpins, washboards, and vaulting hilltops with an aplomb that some Ferraris and Lamborghinis would have trouble exceeding. It was pretty exhilarating, especially considering that you get all this for a starting price of only about $44,300 (for the coupe; $52,300 for the convertible), or roughly the sales tax on a high-end Italian exotic. My only complaint about this car was that its driveshaft tunnel generated more heat than a small Franklin stove, abetted, no doubt, by my habit of staying in lower gears to keep the revs near 4400 rpm, the summit of the engine's admirably broad, 400-pound-foot torque peak. But this happened to be the very first C6 ever built, and since the problem recurred in none of the other cars, I presume it could be written off to growing pains.
The really big fun commenced when I traded up to the yellow Z51 convertible. With its large (13.4-inch front, 13.0-inch rear) cross-drilled brakes, "more aggressive" dampers and springs, fatter anti-roll bars, and closer gear ratios (worth every penny of the $1500 cost of the Z51 option), this was easily the best Corvette I've ever driven. The tires, beautifully matched to the suspension, carved through turns like a fine set of skis, quickly inspiring the requisite confidence to throw the thing around, treatment to which this "tossable" car, as GM calls it, responded as readily as a rottweiler confronting a pork chop. Tucking in for the double yellow following a high-speed uphill pass, I was bemused to find that with the nose of the Z51 hovering a meter or two behind the ample behind of the blue C6 in front of us at 70 mph, I was as relaxed as if I were watching TV from the sofa despite knowing that contact could wash out something like five percent of all the 2005 Corvettes then in existence.
My love affair with the Z51 was renewed the next morning at the Virginia International Raceway, a charming old road track that had gone to seed before being restored recently. (Paul Newman, who drove a Porsche there, called VIR "heaven on earth.") Fairly long (3.27 miles) and quite fast, it features a sassy set of ess-curves that let the Vettes kick out their tails with the vivacity of fashion models prancing down the runway. Soon thereafter, you encounter the memorable Oak Tree Turn, a double-apex right-hander that rewards close attention. You can nail the first apex much faster than at first seems plausible, but if you are then emboldened to carry too much speed into the considerably tighter second apex, you're likely to make an unwelcome spectacle of yourself. Black-and-white photos on the clubhouse walls show many an able driver of old stranded in the tall grass past the Oak Tree after having made this mistake. All the C6s could handle this turn admirably-as well they might, since their suspensions were developed in part on this track-but the Z51 was the star of the show. Its mighty brakes required just a gentle, last-minute stab to set up at the mouth of the curve, and its suspension was nimble enough that you could throw the car sideways, false-apex it by aiming straight at the tree tucked inside the turn, and apply power to drift to the true apex for a gravity-defying launch onto the back straight.
Ah, that back straight. Nearly a mile long, it features a blind hilltop two-thirds of the way along that all but audibly dares you not to lift. The course worker in the roofed flag tower by the hilltop would deploy a yellow flag if a deer or a disabled car were waiting on the other side to put an end to your lap or your life, but it took me three tries before I could persuade my right foot to keep the pedal to the floor. The Corvettes' small-block, 6.0-liter engines got slightly breathless up the hill, and for all my ham-handed trickery, I was unable to clear the hilltop at much more than 130 mph-fully 56 mph short of the cars' claimed top end-but that was still plenty fast. Sure, a Ferrari 360 or a Mercedes-Benz SL55 might nail that hilltop at 150 mph or so, but that's what you get for an extra hundred grand on top of the Corvette's MSRP.
The standard suspension is available with Corvette's Magnetic Selective Ride Control (MR) package. Advertised as the world's fastest damping device, it employs a computer-controlled variable electromagnetic field that coagulates iron particles suspended in the fluid near the damper valves, stiffening an outside corner the moment it starts to deflect. But although Chevrolet has been refining the MR system since it debuted in 2003, it seemed to me to make the car feel heavy and to overcorrect on rough roads. To do it justice on the track, I asked Corvette chassis developer Mike Neal to let me ride shotgun with him for a couple of laps. As you might expect of an automotive engineer driving a car he helped build on a track he knows well, Neal was blisteringly fast, smacking the tires across the apex alligators with the force of a dropped piano, and by switching the MR on and off, he demonstrated that it does keep the car flatter, especially during rapid lane-changing maneuvers. But body roll isn't really an issue with C6 Vettes in the first place, and behind the wheel on the track, I again had the sense that the MR system was overcompensating a bit at high speeds, detracting from the car's inherent stability. So, unless you're after a fully loaded C6, I'd advise passing up this rather pricey ($1695) option.
Back home in California, I drove a C5 Z06 for five days, then switched to a stock C6 convertible for comparison. Packing 405 horsepower in a svelte (3140-pound) frame, the Z06 is most purists' favorite Corvette, and it wasn't hard to see why. Driving this Spartan street racer on freeways-with its snarling exhaust note, Calvinist suspension, and virtually enough torque to twist the tires off the rear wheels-was like saddling up a giant rabbit. But let's face it, folks, extreme cars are a lot more fun on racetracks than on public roads. Purposeful as a handgun and about as subtle, the Z06 was at its best smearing down crayon marks of tire rubber on smooth roads, but the undulating surfaces of San Francisco's elevated freeways could send it into a tizzy, throwing me around in the belts like a plastic action figure in a kid's lunchbox. Like many pseudo-racing cars, it was apt to shake at idle, emitting odd creaks and groans and oily odors, and its dark, dank interior-an eternal complaint about Corvettes-made it almost a relief to shut the thing off and get out.
The stock C6 convertible was a lot more pleasant. Cheerful with the top down and less claustrophobia-inspiring than its predecessors with the top up, it sports an interior that, while still undistinguished, is less oppressive than the C5's. And look at the numbers: With 400 horsepower and a curb weight of 3270 pounds, the C6 coupe delivers a horsepower-to-weight ratio only five percent inferior to the Z06's. A convertible with the Z51 package offers a performance envelope very close to that of the Z06, for a lot less money and without having to fret that you're wimping out if you don't whip it into a lather every time you drive it over to the convenience store. If you care only about having the fastest possible street Vette, a C6 Z06 is in the works, allegedly with 500 horsepower under the hood, but my preference would be to go with the Z51 ragtop. Not only is it cheaper and more likely to leave your fillings in your teeth where they belong, but in the real world, a civilized suspension is often faster anyway. The humble stock convertible glided up the undulating elevated roads with so little fuss that I checked the rearviews to make sure they hadn't been repaved overnight.
The C6 developers say they have worked hard to eliminate what they call the "imperfections" and "dissatisfiers" that have occasioned grumbles in the past, but in the best GM tradition, they have enjoyed only mixed success. The clunky popup headlights, which went from futuristic to obsolescent one night a decade or two ago, have been replaced by Plexiglas-enclosed lamps that won't be mistaken for a Ferrari's but do put a lively face on the car. The oft-criticized yellow running lamps are still there, but now you can program them off.
The $1400 DVD navigation system is a nice option, despite having to activate it by pressing an "Agree" button on its touch-sensitive screen at every start-up, as if a wrist-slapping little attorney were along for the ride. Another wrist slapper-the program that reaches in and pushes the stick from first gear directly to fourth if you try to shift at low speed-has been retained, alas, but it minds its own business so long as you keep a heavy foot on the throttle.
The interior is friendlier, if still resolutely unopulent, and can be tricked out with a $3000 fat-cat package that includes Bose audio, a CD changer, head-up display, heated seats, HomeLink, seat and mirror memory, auto-dimming mirrors, and a power telescoping steering wheel. (Memo to GM: Why not offer a lavish interior option, akin to the Mercedes Designo package, for those of us foppish enough to pay for it?) The gauges are gorgeous-cleaner and more legible than an SL500's-and the head-up display works well, although it would be nice to offer a big, bar-graph g-force meter in the head-up menu for those who have trouble reading small-font numbers while pulling a 0.9-g turn.
Most important, the Corvette's fit and finish have improved to the point that its designers courageously put a dolphin-gray Porsche Carrera coupe smack in the middle of the Vette lineup trackside at VIR. The Porsche is still the more elegant machine, of course, especially when loaded with options, but in that case, you're looking at nearly twice the Corvette's purchase price. If we were running for pink slips, I'd probably pick the Porsche, but a slightly better driver-and you could have found one of those at VIR by throwing a pebble into the crowd-piloting a Z51 probably would come out on top. Otherwise, it boils down to a matter of taste. Comparing a Porsche and a Corvette is like comparing Richard Wagner and Aaron Copeland-when the Copeland CDs are on sale at 40 percent off.
The Corvette team, in short, once again has done what it does best and has done it better than ever. It has crafted a fun, tough sports car that, although it neglects to swaddle you in unborn calfskin or yodel lieder in your ear, will run with all but the very best of them, from the Rockies to the Alps, at a sticker price and cost-over-ownership that won't leave you hating yourself in the morning. Good old American know-how is alive and well and about to thunder down a street near you.