SEE ALSO: Chevrolet Buyer's Guide
With 1999, Corvette marks its 47th year of continuous production. The word corvette is a nautical term that describes a sailing warship that was small and quick. Later, it was used to describe a small, fast British sub hunter. The new Corvette is small and fast. Very fast.
This new fifth generation (hence the term C5) is a milestone vehicle. The first Corvette built in 1953 was a 150 hp inline six based on the old 235 cubic inch Blue Flame Chevy. It had a triple throat Carter sidedraft carb, higher 8 to 1 compression (7.5 to 1 was standard for the 1953 Chevy) and a high lift, long duration camshaft with dual valve springs to cope with higher rpms. You could get any transmission you wanted as long as it was a two-speed powerglide (we had and used many euphemisms that better described powerglide).
Even with such handicaps, it could muster 0-60 times in the elevens and had a top speed of about 105 mph. Price about $3,500. Total production was about 300 units.
The 1954 "Vette" was virtually the same car with a lower price of about $3,000. At the end of the 1954 model year nearly 1,500 of the 3,640 built remained unsold. If it wasn't for the competition and rivalry of the Ford T-Bird, the Corvette program might have been canceled.
But in 1955, things changed. The same car was fitted with the first small block Chevy V-8 (265 cubes) with 195 hp and late in the year a few came with a three speed standard transmission out of the floor instead of the Powerglide. It was capable of 0-60 in 8 seconds and 120 mph. About 35 years ago, I had a chance to drive a '55 Vette with a three speed manual. It was a very sweet ride.
I have owned three Corvettes, a '66, 327 cubic inch, 350 hp, 4 speed Sting Ray Nassau Blue coupe (a C2), a '87 L98 4+3 (a 4 speed manual with true overdrive on the top three gears) convertible (C4) and I now drive a '92 C4 LT1 6-speed convertible. The LT1 produces 300 hp from the 5.7L small block pushrod V-8. I am familiar with and have driven every generation of Corvette from C1 to C4. This C5 is the best Corvette ever.
The late model C4 (92 and later) were great cars in performance (with the standard LT1 engine), had good looking, functional interiors and great style. They were state of the art automobiles capable of doing 0-60 in 5 seconds flat with a six-speed manual and had top speeds approaching 170 mph. That's all history now.
The C5 Vette is absolutely all new: new frame design, new body, new engine, new interior, new transaxle and an 8.5 inch wheelbase stretch. The frame is now hydroformed with huge outside box section rails and a stout backbone down the center. The rigid and strong body is more curvaceous and gorgeous. It's roomier and much tighter. This is not a car for babies because there are no more built in rattles. In the coupe, luggage space has nearly doubled to 25 cubic feet. Even the convertible has a trunk that's big enough for two sets of golf clubs with bags. Foot well space is larger and so are the seats. It's easily as beautiful as any current Ferrari.
The engineers didn't stop at the new body. The new small block V-8's only similarity with the old small block is the bore spacing of 4.4 inches. Otherwise it too is all new. Displacing 346 cubic inches (5.7L), this pushrod, overhead 2 valve V-8 produces a whooping 345 hp at 5,600 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. Redline is 6,000 rpm.
How fast? My beautiful Nassau blue test vehicle was equipped with a four speed automatic and 0-60 mph times averaged 5.3 seconds (6 speeders are as quick as 4.72). Passing is instantaneous. Launching from 50-70 mph takes 3.2 seconds. Going up hill has little effect on the car's performance, with 50-70 mph times going up a 6% grade averaging 3.6 seconds. The forces of gravity (pulling G's) never felt better. This definitely competes with the Space Shuttle at liftoff. These are the quickest times (by a large margin) I have ever encountered in any test car and these numbers will probably stand for years to come.
It does all this performance while making a melodious exhaust note like no other car (a Cobra Mustang, Camaro or Firebird sound pretty good too). It's smooth, powerful and a wonderful noisemaker. Top speed is supposed to be in excess of 170 mph.
There is even more good news. The EPA rates the Corvette at 17/25 mpg city/highway. During my test, with a very heavy right foot, I still obtained over 19 mpg. In normal driving I would expect at least 22 mpg in El Dorado County. The tach only indicates about 1850 rpm at 70 mph and the trip computer indicates about 30 mpg. My 92 C4 6 speed averages about 22 mpg day-in-and- day-out with my trip mileage approaching 30 mpg. I'll bet you didn't know that the Corvette was an economy car.
The fully independent suspension has aluminum upper and lower "A" arms at all four wheels with transverse composite monoleaf springing. My test vehicle had the optional Z51 performance-handling package which includes stiffer springs and thicker stabilizer bars. Needless to say it handles as if it were on rails. Adhesion in corners is as if the tires were wrapped in velcro. It's that good.
Part of that ability stems from the wheel set-up. The C5 sports all business 5 spoke alloys, 8.5 x 17 inches in front and 9.5 x 18 inches in the rear. The Goodyear Eagle Fl tires are P245/45ZRx17 in the front and 275/40ZRx18 in the rear. These are run-flat tires. They don't need air to operate because the extra stiff sidewalls are able to support the car at speeds up to 50 mph for 50 miles or more without any air pressure. The Corvette comes with no spare tire.
Part of the drawback with these run flat tires is a little more tire noise, especially on coarse roads. However, Ponderosa Road wasn't nearly as jarring or noisy as I expected even with the extra stiff suspension. It was actually tolerable and reasonably smooth and went around the corners at speed with all four wheels remaining firmly glued to the road surface.
In my few days of testing, I found any twisty could be straightened by this car. Green Valley Road, Carson Road, Bass Lake Road were absolutely non-events. No other car I have driven goes around corners like this Corvette.
Tar strips on the freeway were no problem either. The Corvette is smooth without harshness. There is a better suspension set up offered for this car called continuously variable real-time damping (order code F45). It retails for $1,695 and comes with three suspension selections, tour, sport and performance. This is one of the two best options for the car, the other being the leather sport bucket seats ($625) which my test car had.
The F45 option actually makes the car ride smooth and somewhat soft. My current 92 C4 has this adjustable option and I use the tour setting (softest) at all times. The ride is remarkably smooth and definitely not harsh. If you want a little more stability in the corners, just dial it up to sport or performance on the rotary switch located on the center console as to what degree of shock dampening you desire. It does work great.
With the transmission now located at the rear axle, weight distribution is nearly 50/50. The balance of the car around corners is near perfect. It reacts exactly as you would expect and the steering is the most accurate and gives more feedback than any other car I have driven. It's as if the front wheels were directly connected to your brain. With or without air conditioning this car will almost never make you sweat, with a little respect for the road and your ability. This is a most controllable car.
The Corvette comes standard with four very powerful ventilated disc brakes with standard ABS which is also tied into the Corvette's switchable traction control system. Its stopping ability is about as good as any car including Ferraris, Porsches, and BMWs. The binders are very sure and stops are absolutely straight.
The interior is surprisingly roomy. The seats offer generous fore and aft adjustment and the footwells are much larger than before. The optional great looking sport leather buckets in my test vehicle offered two electric lumbar supports and adjustable side bolsters. They are sublime. The door paneling is simple and padded with the controls for the windows, mirrors, locks and memory system at your left hand.
The dash pod in front of the driver is the best Corvette dash yet. There is a 200 mph speedo with an equally large tach just to the left. The tach, however is set back about a quarter of an inch creating a relief within the dash. The rest of the four ancillary gauges, fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, and voltmeter also have some relief and are not on the same plain. Just above the steering column is a driver information center which is not only a trip computer, but gives digital readouts of tire pressure, oil temperature, coolant temperature, transmission temperature and probably my SAT score from high school. Did I tell you I love this car?
The center console vertical section contains the great radio with single play C/D ($100) and dual zone electronically controlled A/C ($365). An optional 6 disc changer is available for $600. The standard sound system comes with Bose speakers.
Now for the price. Not as bad as you would expect. The base price for the coupe is $38,591 plus $580 for destination. My test vehicle had $2,609 in options bringing the total to $41,780. One option I haven't discussed is the active handling system ($500) which senses adverse yaw and vehicle instability and helps the driver self correct. The performance handling package I would delete and save the $350 and spend the $1,695 for the real time adjustable dampening system. I am getting a little soft in my old age.
The other item I would get would be the 6 speed manual transmission. It is an $815 option. It was a no-charge option in the C4 but now you have to pay to shift a Corvette.
There are two other models available, a hardtop which is supposed to come in at $38,197 with the 6 speed manual and a convertible which lists at $44,999. I am partial to the convertible. The coupe has a very easily removable center section (about 15 seconds) but I found when remove there was a lot of wind buffeting which would not occur in the convertible. But the coupe is available with a tinted glass panel. I am going to try that soon. The coupe does have the advantage of having luggage space like a small station wagon.
Take your pick, it is America's best ever sports car and one of the best in the world.
SPECIFICATIONS Price $38,197 to about $48,000 Engines 5.7L, 2 valve head 345 hp @ 5,600 pushrod V-8 350 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm Redline 6,000 rpm (fuel shut off at 6,250 rpm) Transmissions 4 speed electronically controlled automatic transaxle 6-speed manual transaxle DIMENSIONS Wheelbase 104.5 inches Length 179.7 inches Width 73.6 inches Height 47.8 inches Weight 3221 pounds Fuel Capacity 19.1 gallons PERFORMANCE 0-60 5.3 seconds 50-70 3.2 seconds 50-70 uphill 3.6 seconds Top Speed about mach .23 at sea level (faster than alot of lightplanes) Fuel Economy 17/25 mpg EPA city/highway. I estimate about 21-22 mpg in El Dorado County and near 30 mpg at a steady 65-70 mph