The road ahead twists and turns up into the hillside, its surface glistening with rain, the trees flecked with the first hints of autumn. On a bright, sunny day, this would be sports-car heaven, but we're approaching the road with trepidation. Of the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the Dodge Viper SRT10 coupe, and the Ford GT, only the Corvette has traction and stability control--and all have superwide tires and 500 hp or more.
The Corvette leads the way. As if 505 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque in these conditions weren't enough of a handful, we turn off all of the electronic aids. (OK, we're a little bit crazy.) This is what we discover: The Corvette is sensational on these roads, whether we're sliding around second-gear hairpins or blasting through fourth-gear sweepers. The 7.0-liter pushrod V-8 sounds amazing when you bury the throttle, emitting a deep, hard-edged growl that wells in volume with revs. There is plenty of thrust available in the seam of the torque mine, even though maximum power is developed at 6300 rpm and this ultimate small-block will rev smartly all the way to seven grand.
The Z06 is the most expensive and powerful production Corvette yet, with a base price of $65,800. It has eighteen-inch-diameter front and nineteen-inch rear wheels shod with 275/35 and 325/30 tires, yet the ride is well controlled and beautifully damped as we crest brows and plunge into dips. Traction is amazing, too, except when you goose the throttle in the lower gears in tight corners. Correct with the steering, relax the pressure on the gas pedal, and the car resumes a neutral path.
Everything gels in the Z06 once you're into its operating mode. At low speeds, it feels like a regular C6 Corvette, but once you get serious, this is a different animal--hardly surprising, because virtually every component has been changed. The vented and cross-drilled disc brakes are powerful and reassuring, even if the pedal is a little bit soft on initial acquaintance, and the steering talks to you the more you coax it. The shifter is a bit clunky, but you don't need to stir it that often.
With your pulse rate quickened and your senses working overtime, it's time to stop and gather your thoughts--and turn your attention to the car behind you, the sinister-looking black 2006 Viper coupe. The Dodge feels pretty darned big after the relatively compact Corvette. It also lacks traction control, has even wider 345/30YR-19 rear tires, and makes more torque.
Floor the throttle in second gear, even on the streaming road surface, and you'll realize that the Viper's huge 500-hp, 8.3-liter pushrod OHV V-10 has a softer, more gentle power delivery than the Corvette. Ninety percent of the peak torque of 525 lb-ft is produced between 1500 and 5600 rpm, and it's delivered in a very smooth and almost undramatic manner, an impression enhanced by the muted swoosh from the side pipes. The lack of fuss and bother is disconcerting, because you don't realize you're always traveling at 80 mph and more until you glance at the speedometer.
The Viper's shifter is so ponderous that you change gears when necessary rather than for pleasure. Although the car tends to wander a bit over surface imperfections, it rides big bumps pretty well, and the brake pedal has a wonderfully solid, fast response, as though the car were engineered for racers by racers. (Which, in truth, it was: Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology top brass likes to frequent racetracks, and Viper Club members asked for the coupe to satisfy their need for speed, which is denied by those track owners who won't let open cars run without a roll bar.)
The Viper gobbles up the short straightaways on these roads and is surprisingly deft around even the tighter corners. The steering, which is meatily weighted and full of wriggly feel, is excellent, while the car turns in sharply and obediently. Some 31 percent stiffer than the Viper roadster, according to SRT, the coupe feels sharper, more alive, more integrated.
As we round a long left-hand bend, we spot a suitable roadside parking space and stop the Viper, brakes sizzling, engine gently ticking after its exertions. Next up is the Ford GT. We have been working our way up to this one, because it has 550 hp, lacks stability aids, and is mid-engined. Just as we fire up the supercharged 5.4-liter DOHC V-8 engine, the rain starts to fall harder. Great! If ever there was a disaster looking for a place to happen, this is it.
Yet it doesn't. The GT, too, is user-friendly, although you need to be more watchful in it. It is more of a precision instrument than the other two, with quicker and lighter steering and more rapid turn-in. But with its mid-engined layout, this is the most tail-heavy of the three, and you sometimes feel the load transferring abruptly onto the outside rear tire. You still travel at warp speed across the hinterlands of Appalachia, but your palms are a bit sweatier at the end of the stint. It feels big, too, although not large enough to tackle the half-dozen cows that suddenly appear on the roadside as we crest a brow.