One Week With: 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Z51

Top down. Adrenaline up.

Arthur St. Antoinewriter, photographer The Manufacturerphotographer

Most of the time, if you were to say to me, "This car comes in coupe or convertible versions—which one do you want?" I'd answer "coupe." The undeniable pleasures of open-air motoring notwithstanding, generally I prefer the more rigid structure, lower weight, and better noise isolation of a fixed-roof car.

Ah, but when it comes to the C7 Corvette, I'll take the Convertible every time. I just spent a week driving one equipped with the Z51 performance package, and it was sunshine-soaked, California Dreamin' bliss. The C7 Vette rocks as a convertible: its wide, low, angular shape looks even leaner—positively exotic—with the roof down, the body-color "waterfall" spilling off the rear deck and down between the seats, the Jet Black leather and carbon fiber interior (the latter a $995 option) aggressively harmonizing with the black exterior accents and optional black-painted aluminum wheels ($495), the dual black-trimmed "pontoons" behind the seats all but screaming "race car." Finished off in dazzling Torch Red, the Corvette jerked heads around like a Lamborghini. When I pulled over on Pacific Coast Highway to snap the photos you see here, more than a few admiring motorists stopped to shoot a few Vette pix of their own.

With the Z51 package, what's already a powerful and exhilarating sports car goes straight to eleven: slotted brake rotors, electronic limited slip, multi-mode performance exhaust (which boosts output by 5 horsepower and 5 pound-feet), performance suspension, dry-sump oil system, and more. My test car also boasted the 3LT preferred equipment group ($9,745), which adds a long list of luxuries and conveniences—among them, Napa leather seat inserts, heated and ventilated seats, premium surround-sound audio, a color head-up display, front curb-view cameras, and Chevy's cool performance data and video recorder with navigation, which allows the driver to capture track laps in fascinating detail, then replay it all on the nav screen later. A la carte extras included magnetic-ride shocks ($1,795) and leather seats stitched in body-matching red ($395).

The last time I spent any quality time in a Corvette Stingray was when I drove a coupe from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Houston's Johnson Space Center in the company of Apollo 7 astronaut (and longtime Vette aficionado) Walt Cunningham for an online episode of "Epic Drives." That drive was Walt's first exposure to the then-new C7 edition, and promptly after our road trip he ordered a coupe of his own. Naturally, after I picked up the Z51 Convertible I emailed a photo of it to the legendary spaceman—and Walt's reply was essentially, "Man, maybe I should trade mine for one of those!"

Yes, Walt, maybe you should. With the soft top down (it folds away at the touch of a single button in about 20 seconds), all that Z51-amplified V-8 goodness floods the cockpit with a low-rpm boom and, at high revs, a crackling thunder that'll make you think you're riding a Saturn rocket yourself (when the exhaust ricocheted off the walls of a short Malibu tunnel, I nearly swooned). I don't recall even once turning on the sound system; my ears were plenty happy already. An added treat: my test car featured the seven-speed manual transmission, which had me gunning the big V-8 up and down the tach all through the mountain two-lanes high above the Pacific. I'll bet the echoes are still ringing through the canyons.

Frankly, I'd forgotten how sweet—and how fast!—a C7 Vette really is. With its oil drum-sized tires and track-perfected suspension, it corners so hard it warped my face into a Picasso. Yet the car is confidence-inspiring to drive hard—no untoward moves, no tricky manners approaching the limit. The chassis talks to you, and what it unfailingly says is, "I got this." Add the g-rush of 460 horsepower squashing you into the seat, and you have an afternoon that may well require a therapeutic post-drive massage. Me … I took a cold shower.

The C7 Convertible is a stunning affirmation of just how far the Corvette has come. It's not just fast in a straight line, it's blazingly quick around every degree of the friction circle. It's not just sporty-looking—it's striking, generating "wows!" wherever it goes. At the same time, it's beautifully well-sorted: comfortable (with a surprisingly decent ride in Comfort mode), accommodating (power everything, including that folding top), and refined at every turn, from the solid feel of the switches to the range of the high-output V-8—which will putter along in the worst L.A. traffic without hassle or complaint. This is a true daily driver and weekend getaway machine in one. Incredibly, given that 6.2-liter monster up front, it even squeezes out 29 mpg on the highway.

Driving a Z51 Corvette in the open air—especially in the warm, salt-scented evening breezes along the sparkling Pacific—is a powerful affirmation of what being an auto enthusiast is all about. You're in tune with the road and a bewitching machine, yet you're equally attuned to the earth—the gauzy heaviness of the ocean air, the coolness setting in with the fading sun. Another upshift, another crack from the V-8's exhaust, and you press on into the dusk, knowing that right now, right here, you wouldn't trade driving this Corvette Convertible for anything.

2016 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Z51 Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $65,395/$79,415 (base/as-tested)
Engine: 6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/460 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 465 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed manual
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 17/29 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 176.9 x 73.9 x 48.6 in
Wheelbase: 106.7 in
Weight: 3,400 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.0 sec (est)
Top Speed: 170 mph (est)
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