SEE ALSO: Chevrolet Buyer's Guide
Few automobiles have reached the legendary status of the Chevrolet Corvette. It is an icon of American automotive performance. In its 46 years of production, the Corvette has had little domestic competition and performance parity with foreign sports cars costing far more. Over the years it has become increasingly civilized without losing its edge. When the fifth-generation Corvette, nicknamed "C5", was introduced in 1997, it heralded further refinement, to the point that some potential customers worried that it would sacrifice performance to luxury. There was a demand for a more basic, and seriously performance-oriented, C5 'Vette.
With the recent introduction of the Corvette Hardtop, that demand has been answered. The first fixed-roof Corvette since the Sting Ray in 1967, it is the lightest, quickest, and fastest version of the current 'Vette. The six-speed manual gearbox and Z51 sports suspension are optional on the C5 Coupe and Convertible. They are the standard equipment on the Hardtop, with no substitutions.
This is not to say that comfort has been neglected. All C5 Hardtops come with leather upholstery, air conditioning, and a full complement of power accessories. Only about six dyed-in-the-Harris tweed purists will be disappointed by the lack of cloth upholstery and side curtains. For anyone else, the Hardtop does what Corvettes have always done best - give exotic sports car levels of performance and handling at a relatively affordable price. It is the least-expensive 'Vette, with a base price of just over $38,000.
I discovered how much performance the C5 Hardtop has during a recent week with a bright red example. In one word: plenty. The "extra weight" of the civilized accoutrements has little impact. Sixty mph comes up in less than five seconds, and cornering and stopping abilities are just as good. Top speed is reputed to be in the neighborhood of 170 mph, although I missed that by about 100 mph. Despite the extreme performance envelope, the C5 Hardtop is completely civilized in everyday use. It may not be absolutely the quickest and fastest car available today, but a little extra performance elsewhere is significantly more expensive.
APPEARANCE: The C5 is unmistakably a Corvette, and has a similar profile to the previous generation. It's rounded where the C4 was angular, but the pop-up headlights remain. The Hardtop looks much like a Convertible with a hardtop, but the top is not removable. What appear to be air intakes in front are styling features; the engine breathes from under the long nose. The Hardtop's passenger cabin is set well back, for classic long-hood, short-deck sports car style.
COMFORT: The Hardtop is definitely not a "bare-bones" sports car. It has all of the comforts expected of a car in its price range, including leather seats, power windows, mirrors, and doorlocks, and a good climate control system. Low door sills and wide doors make access much easier than was the case with the C4. It's a driver's car, with snug bucket seats, a thick-rimmed, leather covered steering wheel, and good instrument and control layout. The Hardtop's luggage capacity is minimal, but a real trunk lid helps access.
SAFETY: The 1999 Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop has crash avoidance features including quick acceleration, excellent handling and maneuverability, and 4-wheel antilock vented disc brakes. A safety cage around the passenger compartment, front and rear crush zones, three-point safety belts, and next-generation airbags protect occupants in case the crash is not avoided.
ROADABILITY: All C5 models have the stiffest chassis ever found in a Corvette, and the Hardtop is the lightest current model. Much like the previous generation, a perimeter-and-backbone frame supports a fiberglass body. But the new frame is lighter and much more rigid than that of the C4, allowing a more compliant tuning of the fully- independent suspension. A rear-mounted transaxle gearbox, unusual for a front-engined car, improves weight distribution. The Z51 sports suspension is firm, but nowhere near as harsh as the suspension of early C4s. That compliance allows the tires to stay in contact with the road, and the huge contact patch of the P245/45 ZR17 front and P275/40 ZR18 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 tires ensures excellent cornering and stopping power, aided by the optional "active handling" electronic stability control system. Its abilities are far, far beyond what can be used sanely on the street, but a C5 Hardtop should make an excellent autocross and time trials car even with the leather seats and power windows.
PERFORMANCE: The newest Corvette is mild-mannered and easy to drive around town, with a light clutch and steering, and smooth shifting. The 345-horsepower, 5.7-liter aluminum LS1 engine has the lumpy idle of a high-performance V8, and just enough vibration reaches the cockpit to let it be known that serious power is available. It's fairly quiet around town. But, wide-open throttle on a highway onramp clears any cobwebs out quickly. The subdued low-speed exhaust note turns into a ferocious bellow, the scenery blurs, and 60 mph comes before second gear is used up. Because of the extreme overdrive of both fifth and sixth gears, the 'Vette can be remarkably frugal with fuel at highway speeds, but that does miss the point.
CONCLUSIONS: The newest Corvette does what 'Vettes have always done best and looks to be the best yet.
SPECIFICATIONS 1999 Chevrolet Corvette Hardtop Base Price $ 38,197 Price As Tested $ 40,622 Engine Type pushrod overhead valve V8, 16 valves Engine Size 5.67 liters / 346 cu. in. Horsepower 345 @ 5600 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 350 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 104.5 in. / 179.7 in. Curb Weight 3153 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 9.1 Fuel Capacity 19.1 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires front: P245/45 ZR17, rear P275/40 ZR18 Goodyear Eagle F1 run-flat Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent unequal-length arm with transverse monoleaf spring / independent 5-link with transverse monoleaf spring Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 28 / 19 0 to 60 mph 4.8 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 13.3 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES 6-way power driver's seat $ 305 Color-keyed front floor mats $ 25 Active handling system $ 500 TR9 Lamp group $ 95 AM/FM/CD stereo $ 100 Bose speaker & amplifier system $ 820 Destination Charge $ 580
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As you sit, perhaps contemplating the return of the Ice Age, the question of appropriateness may come to mind. In particular, the appropriateness of a Corvette in a snowy climate. Is the new 'Vette an all-season car?
Well...yes, if you live in Hawaii, Southern California, lowland Arizona, or some equally temperate locale. No, if you live in the snow zone, at least not as an every day car. The front spoiler, designed for stability at triple-digit speeds, would probably shovel any loose snow on the road right into the radiator. Clearance under the important parts - engine, transaxle, and suspension - is more appropriate to the race track than a dirty, slime-packed road. And the ultra-wide Goodyear F1 tires, so tenaciously grippy in the dry, are not designed for mud and snow or chains. Antilock brakes and the "Active Handling" stability control system need at least some traction to work (a lesson that applies to ALL vehicles, including 4x4 SUVs).
So, the C5 is not a winter toy. That should surprise no one. A Corvette is an only vehicle for very few owners. It's a lousy snowmobile, but one of the best values going for a high-performance sports car. Don't ski on dry pavement; don't drive a 'Vette in the snow.