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It's hard to believe, but Chevrolet's fiberglass flyer turned 50 this year. That's half a century as America's premier sports car. Many Corvette owners have been attending events to celebrate. For most of those 50 years, the Corvette has been America's only true sports car, that is, the only U.S. production two-seater capable of real race-track performance.
The Corvette has endured because it has always represented real performance value. We realize "value" may not be the first word that springs to mind when looking at a $50,000 sticker. But this fifth-generation Corvette (sometimes called the C5) delivers a combination of acceleration and handling matched only by the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 and various exotics, all of which are far more expensive.
There's really nothing quite like the Corvette. Sports cars in the C5 price range, such as the Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3, and Porsche Boxster, offer an entirely different driving experience.
For 2003, the Corvette celebrates its longevity with a special 50th Anniversary Edition, featuring unique dark red paintwork and a "Shale" (gray-beige) interior color scheme. All 2003 Corvettes wear the 50th Anniversary logo and come with even more standard equipment than before. A new option called Magnetic Selective Ride Control promises better ride quality with the same handling precision that made the Corvette a legend.
Even the base-level LS1 V8 engine is potent. It produces 350 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque with the six-speed transmission, and 360 pound-feet with the automatic.
Automatic or stick, the C5 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 six-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 performance penalties associated with auto-shifters. Miss one shift with the manual the and the automatic in the lane next door will clean your clock.
Unlike most ragtops, the Corvette convertible weighs about the same as the coupe, so its acceleration is undiluted: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5 seconds with the six-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. Put the top and there's even more drag and a correspondingly lower top speed. Still, that kind of speed will get you to the drive-in in a pretty big hurry, and in the local slammer even faster.
From a handling and acceleration standpoint, it's tough to perceive any performance distinctions between the coupe and convertible. Chevrolet claims that the structural design for the C5 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. Significantly, we didn't see a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles (wherein the dashboard and the outside of the car oscillate at different rates). If there is any distinction to be made between the agility and stability of the Corvette coupe and convertible, it would be all but impossible to discern on public roads.
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 are easily identifiable in the Corvette. Yet they are not uncomfortably harsh. You hear them and feel them, but they aren't jarring, and they don't unduly upset the handling balance.
Even with the base suspension settings, responses are surgically precise if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 350 horsepower and great gobs of torque. The Corvette offers sharp reflexes while driving down rural roads. It provides a superb blend of muscle and finesse, with a high tolerance for mistakes of the enthusiastic variety. Its brakes are nothing short of race-worthy.
Chevrolet's second-generation Active Handling is standard equipment; it's a magical system that gets you out of slides before trouble strikes by applying braking to the individual corners as needed. It uses on-board sensors to measure yaw, lateral acceleration and steering wheel position, then brings into play the capabilities of Corvette's standard ABS and traction-control systems to smoothly help the driver maintain control when the chassis would rather oversteer or understeer. Some such systems have been criticized lately for their eagerness to aggressively assist before the driver wants or needs assistance. Corvette engineers say that they've carefully calibrated this system to limit such intrusiveness. Aside from an "Active Handling" message on the instrument panel, drivers might not even realize they've been assisted.
This remains true on the racetrack. We found the Z06 to be rock-steady, precise, consistent, and fast at a 2.2-mile circuit near Las Vegas. This car proved to be an absolute joy to drive fast. The brakes didn't fade. The transmission and shift linkage were sol
A number of great sports cars sell in this price range, but the Corvette really does not have any direct competitors. The similarly priced BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK all 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 whether you choose the coupe, convertible or hardtop, there doesn't seem to be much question that the latest generation of this 50-year-old American is a world-class GT.
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