2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Alex P

Corvettes, God love 'em, have always been as American as Mom, apple pie, and the 32-ounce Big Gulp that Mom drinks to wash her pie down. Yet while these sporting Chevrolets have long amused speed-obsessed Europeans as prime icons of Yankee muscle and style, they've never really been at home in Europe, a land of puny roads, micro-machines, and fermented grape beverages served in small glasses. To European tastes, the heavy Chevys were not unlike that Big Gulp: too big, too plastic, too sugary and sloppy.

Being 4.7 inches shorter than its predecessor, the new C6 Corvette is within an inch of a Porsche 911, and Chevrolet thinks that means there might be some new business to be done in the Old World. Chevy believes that being just that useful little bit more compact and even faster than the C5, the C6 now presents a performance bargain so undeniable that even the Continent's cheese-eating surrender monkeys will be forced to show respect.

The Chevrolet folks are so confident that the C6 will successfully engage the European Union, they've boosted employment on the line at Bowling Green, Kentucky, to build as many as 3000 extra Corvettes a year, a 10 percent hike.

To make the point of its newfound Euro-friendly trimness, while highlighting new and mighty performance of the sort that plays everywhere, the Corvette's wranglers invited a contingent of American journalists to drive and experience the 2006 C6 lineup-most notably, the all-new and keenly anticipated Z06 version-on two of Europe's historic racecourses and some of the Continent's finer roads. Our mission, which we chose to accept:

Fly to Frankfurt, hop into Corvettes, and follow the Rhine. Head for the short track at the Nrburgring. Test metal and get mettle tested by well-known racing drivers such as Jan Magnusson. (Magnusson bagged a GT1 class win at Le Mans this year driving the Corvette C6R racer, to which the new Z06 is more than slightly related. This makes class wins for Corvette in four of the last five races at Le Mans, which ought to impress some Europeans.)

Depart the 'Ring, blast through Luxembourg, and head to the almost equally legendary Belgian circuit at Spa-Francorchamps. Enjoy additional laps on the awesome course in the edifying company of pros. Grab further hang time with the chief engineer and architect of the last two Corvettes, Dave Hill, and his development team. Drive the base C6 coupe and convertible with the new six-speed automatic.

Eat heavy meals throughout, rich in heart-stupid cheese courses, custard desserts, and foie gras in its many and diverse preparations. Dodge magnums of red wine, unsuccessfully. Finish the trip with a triple-digit drive to Paris in the Z06, pitting along the way in Champagne country for a tour of a leading vintner's network of subterranean chalk tunnels and a (meager) taste of the bubbly. Fall into a catatonic stupor following an unusually large dinner at a superior Parisian Michelin two-star.

It sounded like an educational three days, and it was. My teeth turned purple, and I've begun to waddle. But I will never view Corvette performance the same way.

You may remember how we liked the Z06 of 2001 so much that we awarded it Automobile Magazine's coveted Automobile of the Year title. What could be better, we asked at the time, than a tricked-out version of the then radically new C5 Vette hardtop with 385 hp, straight from the factory?

The answer came in the form of the C6 Corvette, an evolutionary development of the C5 that would arrive four years later with an even steamier 400-hp, 400-lb-ft rendition of the classic Chevrolet small-block. That the Chevy small-block remains a huge player in America's arsenal of high-performance internal combustion is as remarkable as it is inarguable, what with the engine celebrating its fiftieth production anniversary this year. But longevity is no mystery when you consider the LS2-the direct descendant of Chevy engineer (later GM president) Ed Cole's 265-cubic-inch pushrod V-8 of 1955-in action. Always tractable, devastatingly fast, stone reliable. What could be better than that?

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