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.