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1997 Corvette - When It Was New Review

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Chevrolet Corvette hatchback(shown)

SEE ALSO: Chevrolet Buyer's Guide

by Ted Laturnus

Since its introduction, in 1953, the Chevy Corvette has evolved into an American icon. It’s had at least a couple of movies and TV series built around it and its name has been used on everything from hair dryers to guitars. It is the quintessential American sports car and is as much a cultural symbol as Elvis or Babe Ruth.

But none of the previous versions can match the new 1997 ‘Vette for sheer power, handling, braking and all-around driveability. This is the fifth generation of America’s sports car and is the best one yet. It looks wonderful, goes like stink, handles like an Indy Car, and is completely civilized in every way.

Corvette stylists have completely revamped the familiar two-seat hatchback design, smoothing the corners, streamlining the front end, and cleaning up the back. To my eyes, the result is a combination between the Ferrari 348 and Acura NSX. An exceptionally handsome automobile, in other words. The new Corvette lacks the somewhat brutal styling flavour of its predecessors, and wouldn’t look out of place in a European design studio.

It also features a perimeter frame with side rails manufactured from seamless tubular steel….what engineers call a “hydroformed” frame. According to General Motors, these are the largest single parts of their kind being used in an automotive application anywhere. The floor is made from two layers of fibreglass composite wrapped around a balsa wood core. High-tech tubular steel perimeter chassis, plywood floor. Looks like Morgan had it right all along.

This is a much more tightly assembled Corvette than the last version. I can remember hearing stories about the targa roof popping out at highway speeds on the former generation, which was the easiest way to remove it, actually. That won’t happen here; the roof can be taken out and stowed in a special rack in the hatchback area in less than a minute, and you won’t need of an hour, two sets of wrenches, and three helpers to do it. There’s also plenty of room back there for groceries or golf clubs.

Unlike the last version, this Corvette is easy to get in and out of and is a comfortable car to spend time in. The seats are as comfy as anything you’ll find in this market. Definitely easier to get along with. Standard equipment level is very high; dual airbags, anti-locking brakes, leather interior, power windows, tilt steering, traction control system, passenger grab handle, all-glass hatchback, and on and on.

Power is amply provided by a tried and true small block pushrod V8 code-named the LS1. GM engineers decided not to fool around with an overhead cam, multi-valve set-up because the LS1 is proven, virtually indestructible, and powerful. It develops 345 horsepower at 5600 rpm, which is enough to send this 3218 lb. (1448 kg.) speedster from a dead stop to freeway speed in just over four seconds, and it’ll make wonderful noises while it’s at it. There’s nothing quite like the anti-social bellow of a well-tuned American V8 at full song.

One notable engineering highlight of the new Corvette concerns the gearbox, which has been moved to the back of the car. It’s still a six-speed Borg-Warner unit, with an automatic shift override that takes you directly to fourth if you shift from first below 2500 rpm. The torque output is so prodigious, this engine can handle the load no problem. It also cuts down on fuel consumption, which is the general idea. Although, I would hazard a guess that for most typical Corvette drivers, fuel consumption is the last thing they’re concerned about. A four-speed Hydra-Matic is optional.

Thanks to a slightly longer wheelbase and 4.3-inch wider track, the new ‘Vette also handles better than before. In fact, handling and performance are about on a par with the formidable ZR-1 limited edition version that Chevrolet discontinued two years ago. Minus the buckboard-hard suspension. I can honestly say this new version is one of the best-handling high-performance cars I’ve ever driven. Tossability and stickability is remarkable. No drama or setting up for high-speed turns, no back end wildly breaking away, no body roll; just point and steer.

I had the opportunity to put the new Corvette through its paces at Road Atlanta in Georgia. This is a truly intimidating high-speed road course, with four elevation changes, a 150 mph (240 km/h) straightaway, and at least three blind turns. At no time did I feel that the car was being pushed to anywhere near its limits, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything else in the under $50,000 price bracket that can match the new Corvette’s combination of responsiveness, awesome acceleration, world-class braking, and sense of balance.