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Fifty grand isn't exactly pocket change, but the Chevrolet Corvette is one of the best performance values on the market today. This fifth-generation Corvette, called the C5, delivers a combination of acceleration and handling performance matched only by the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 Carrera and various exotics, all of which are far more expensive. Sports cars in the C5 price range, such as the Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster offer an entirely different driving experience and performance characteristics.
More power is on tap for the entire Corvette lineup this year. Most of this power comes in the form of more torque at lower rpm; and torque is what makes the Corvette go like stink. Even bigger news for 2001 is the introduction of the Z06, a powerful new model based on last year's hardtop.
The LS1 V8 engine is potent. It produces 350 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque (with the six-speed, 360 pound-feet with the automatic; that's a significant increase in torque over 2000 models (345 and 350, respectively). More important, the torque is available at much lower revs in 2001, thanks to revised intake runners.
Automatic or stick, the Corvette is fast traffic. It's quick at the starting gate, beautifully balanced, surprisingly comfortable, and built to a far higher standard than any Corvette in history. While we prefer the 6-speed, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there's enough muscle in the LS1 V8 to cover the small performance penalties associated with auto-shifters.
Unlike most ragtops, the Corvette convertible weighs the same as the coupe, which means its acceleration performance is undiluted: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5 seconds with the 6-speed manual transmission, about 0.4 seconds slower with the automatic. The only performance penalty that goes with the convertible version is top speed. The ragtop doesn't share the coupe's aerodynamic efficiency, so it tops out at a mere 162 mph versus 175 mph for the coupe. Of course, when the top is down there's more drag and a correspondingly lower top speed. Still, that's speed that'll get you to the drive-in in a pretty big hurry -- and the local slammer even faster.
From a handling and acceleration standpoint, it's tough to perceive any performance distinctions between coupe and convertible. Corvette's chief engineer said the structural design for the new Vette began with the convertible, and as a consequence no shoring-up measures were required for the soft-top chassis. You hear the same song from almost every purveyor of convertibles, but in this application it seems to be true. If there's any distinction to be made between the agility and stability of the Corvette coupe and the new convertible, it would be all but impossible to discern on public roads.
Significantly, we haven't seen a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles wherein the dashboard and exterior oscillate at differing rates. Ride quality is decidedly stiff. You don't get a sports car's ability to change directions without snubbing body roll and limiting up and down suspension motions, and when you do those things you're obliged to accept some tradeoff in comfort. Potholes in and around Washington, D.C., were easily identifiable in the Corvette. Yet they were not uncomfortably harsh. We heard them and felt them, but they weren't jarring and did not unduly upset the handling balance.
Even with the basic suspension package, responses are surgically precise, if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 350 horsepower and great gobs of torque. The Corvette offered sharp reflexes while driving down rural roads in Maryland. It provides a superb blend of muscle and finesse, with a much higher tolerance for mistakes of the enthusiastic variety, complemented by brakes that are nothing short of raceworthy. Chevrolet's second-generation Active Handling is standard equipment in 2001; it's a magical system that gets you out of slides before trouble strikes, by applying braking to the individual corners as needed. It utilizes on-board sensors to measure yaw, lateral acceleration and steering wheel position, then brings into play the capabilities of Corvette's standard ABS brake and traction control systems to smoothly assist the driver in maintaining vehicle control in oversteer or understeer situations. Some such systems have been getting criticism lately, for their hair-trigger qualities, their eagerness to aggressively assist before the driver wants or often needs such assistance. Corvette engineers say that this 2001 system has been carefully calibrated to limit such intrusiveness. Aside from an "Active Handling" message on the instrument panel, drivers might not even realize they've been assisted.
Much to our relief, and even
A number of great sports cars are in this price range, but the Corvette does not really have any direct competitors. Similarly priced BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK models operate at a more modest pace. When it comes to pavement-ripping prowess per dollar, nothing can match the Corvette's power and grip.
Dodge Viper rivals and surpasses the Corvette's dynamic capabilities, but it is a more highly focused car and costs considerably more. When it comes to civilization and comfort, the Corvette wins hands down. To get a similar blend of comfort and true sports car performance, you'll find yourself in a Porsche store looking at 911s, but the 911 can't compete with the Corvette's price.
The Corvette is no longer this country's only sports car. And it has evolved well beyond what we would call affordable. But coupe, convertible or hardtop, there doesn't seem to be much question that the latest generation of this all-American is a world-class GT.
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