1999 Chevrolet Corvette Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
World class performance, world class quality.
Chevrolet's Corvette Convertible offers one of the most formidable blends of performance, panache, and price on this planet. (Or, as far as we know, any other.)
Granted, the Corvette Coupe can put the wind in your hair. The one-piece removable panel (body colored or translucent) that makes up the middle of the roof lifts out easily when it's time for motoring al fresco. And it costs about $7,000 less than the Convertible.
But there's an essential difference in style here, a carefree brio that no coupe can match, no matter how many roof panels are removed. And in this case, the brio is not only carefree, it's also hair-raising, literally, as well as figuratively.
Unlike most convertibles, the new Corvette ragtop weighs the same as its coupe counterpart, 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 automatic is standard in all Corvettes, the six-speed an $815 option. But automatic or stick, the new Vette is fast traffic--quick at the starting gate, beautifully balanced, surprisingly comfortable, and built to a far higher standard than any Corvette in history.
Introduced in early 1997, the new Corvette is generation number five in the line--thus the C5 designation--and the first complete redesign since 1984. The Convertible version came along about six months later, and the new car immediately started collecting honors, including the 1998 North American Car of the Year award.
While the basic concept is the same as it was back in 1953--a two-seat plastic-bodied all-American sports car--the C5 shares almost nothing with the previous-generation Corvettes. The wheelbase is longer, the track is wider, structural rigidity is far higher, and there are far fewer pieces in the whole assembly, which improves rigidity and quality.
The LS1 V8 engine is potent. It produces 345 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque.
With its aerodynamically inspired broad hindquarters, the styling of the Corvette has been controversial. The convertible version looks a bit more graceful, particularly when the top is down. If stares of envy are part of your sports car enjoyment, it's hard to imagine a better choice than the ragtop Vette.
This year, Chevrolet introduced the Corvette Hardtop to the lineup. With its fixed roof, the hardtop offers drivers a basic Corvette that is pure in performance. It presents a slightly different profile than the Corvette Coupe. The Hardtop comes standard with the six-speed manual gearbox, Z51 suspension, a 3.42 limited-slip rear axle and Goodyear Eagle F1 tires.
The new hardtop retails for $38,777, the coupe starts at $39,171 and the convertible goes for $45,579. (All prices include $580 destination charge.) Two suspension options are available for coupe and convertible: Electronically controlled damping adds $1,695, the Z51 performance handling package adds $350. Leather seats add $625.
There are several new options available for 1999 Coupe and Convertible models: A $375 Head-Up Display projects key instrument readouts onto the windshield. Twilight Sentinel provides delayed shutoff of the headlights to help you find your way to your front door. A $350 power telescoping steering column allows better positioning of the steering wheel for drivers of different heights; as on all models, the steering wheel also offers a manual tilt adjustment.
The Corvette offers a comfortable cabin, something that wasn't always true with previous-generation models. Low door sills and narrow side rails make getting in and out far easier than in the old days and there's more room for the driver and passenger. There's also a real trunk, something that's been absent from Corvettes for a long time. The other major element of improvement is the elimination of the rattles and stress squeaks that have haunted Vettes for so long. Wind noise is noticeably absent from the convertible. Handsome analog dials have replaced the old digital displays.
The convertible top is simple to flip up or down and it stows neatly under a flap that folds flat at the forward edge of the trunk lid. The top is made of high-quality material with a glass rear window. The top seals well--there were no leaks in our car wash test or our high-speed wind test.
There is more interior noise in the convertible than the coupe and the coupe isn't exactly quiet. However, this is a sports car and noise--particularly the calculated growl of that terrific new V8 --is part of the deal. If you want quiet, go to the library.
While we prefer the 6-speed, which was part of our test car's inventory, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there's enough muscle in the new V8 to cover the small performance penalties associated with auto-shifters.
In fact, the only performance penalty that goes with the convertible version is top speed potential. The ragtop doesn't share the coupe's aerodynamic efficiency, so it tops out at a mere 162 mph versus 174 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.
Aside from this one small disparity, it's tough to perceive any other performance distinctions between the topless Vette and its coupe counterpart. Chief engineer Dave Hill and all the rest of the Corvette kids insist that 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.
We admit to some pre-test cynicism on this issue, because you hear the same song from almost every purveyor of convertibles. But in this application, at least, 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.
Even with the basic suspension package, our test car's responses were surgically precise, if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 345 horsepower and great gobs of torque. Just as important, there wasn't a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles wherein the dashboard and exterior oscillate at differing rates.
Another part of the deal is stiff ride quality. 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. Any suspension so conceived isn't going to be very good at sopping up small bumps and holes, and that's true of the Corvette.
On the other hand, the combination of the superb new chassis and continuing improvements in shock absorber technology make this Corvette substantially more supple than its predecessor, and far from unpleasant.
And in the basic sports car mission--carving up switchbacks, or attacking an autocross course--the new Vette has the reflexes of an Olympic gymnast. It's 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.
Although there are a number of very good sports cars in the same price range as the Corvette, it doesn't really have any direct competitors.
The similarly priced Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 2.8, and Porsche Boxster are all delightful and competent players, but they play at a more modest pace. When it comes to real pavement-ripping prowess, none can match the Corvette's sheer power and corner-gobbling grip.
The Dodge Viper does rival the Corvette's dynamic capabilities--indeed, it's even faster--but it requires a single-minded focus on brutish performance to enjoy it. 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's certainly evolved well beyond the realm of what we call affordable. But coupe, convertible or the new hardtop, there doesn't seem to be much question that the latest generation of this all-American is also world-class.
Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Options As Tested
6-speed manual transmission ($815).
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