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.