2003 Chevrolet Corvette Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
50 years young.
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.
The Corvette lineup consists of the coupe, the convertible, and the Z06 hardtop.
Powering both the coupe ($41,680) and convertible ($48,205) is the 350-horsepower 5.7-liter LS1 V8, which meets California's Low Emissions Vehicle standards. An automatic transmission is standard; a six-speed manual ($915) is optional.
The LS6 V8 in the Z06 hardtop ($50,043) displaces the same 5.7 liters, but produces an amazing 405 horsepower and 400 foot-pounds of torque.
The coupe comes with a body-colored removable roof panel as standard equipment; a translucent plastic panel is an option. The coupe's rear window opens like a hatchback. The hardtop and convertible have trunks. The Z06's top is fixed, for maximum rigidity.
Standard equipment includes dual-zone climate controls, fog lamps, sport seats, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS, a driver information center, remote keyless entry, stainless steel exhaust with chromed quad outlets, retractable headlights, Bose speakers, 6-way power seats with leather upholstery, extended-mobility (run flat) Z-rated tires, traction control with Active Handling, and cast alloy wheels. The coupe comes with a parcel net and luggage shade. Child Restraint Attachment System (CRAS) hooks have been added to the passenger seat for 2003. Don't forget that the passenger-side air bag must be manually shut off while carrying children.
The Z06 hardtop adds a head-up instrument display, titanium exhaust, a tire inflator kit for its Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, and forged alloy wheels. The six-speed manual is the only transmission offered.
In addition to its special colors, the 50th Anniversary Editions feature a color-coordinated instrument panel, Champagne-painted wheels, embroidered badges on the seats and floor mats, padded armrests and grips on the inner door panels, and a Shale top for the convertible. Race fans may recognize the package, which was previewed on the 'Vette that paced the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
Standard on the Anniversary Edition, and optional on coupes and convertibles, is Magnetic Selective Ride Control, which provides continuously variable suspension damping without electro-mechanical valves or any small moving parts at all. Instead, the system relies on Magneto-Rheological (MR) fluid in the shock absorbers and an electromagnetic coil inside the shock-absorber pistons. Varying the current to the coil instantly changes the viscosity of the MR fluid. This in turn allows the system to continuously adjust the shock rates, providing a quieter, flatter ride with more precise, responsive handling, particularly during sudden high-speed maneuvers. On bumpy or slick surfaces, Magnetic Selective Ride Control integrates with the Corvette's standard traction control to maximize stability; it also communicates with the anti-lock brakes.
Changes made last year (2002) included revised rear shock valving and new high-performance front brake pads. New aluminum front stabilizer-bar links were added for Z06s, and coupes and convertibles with the Z51 suspension package. All Corvettes with automatics got a new aluminum transmission cooler case.
A CD-capable stereo is standard on Corvette coupes and convertibles; a 12-disc remote CD changer costs $600 extra.
The fifth-generation Corvette, or C5, made its debut in 1997; it was the first complete Corvette redesign since 1984.
While the Corvette's basic concept remains the same as it was in 1953 (a two-seat plastic-bodied all-American sports car), the C5 shares almost nothing with previous-generation models. The wheelbase is longer, the track is wider, structural rigidity is far greater, and there are far fewer pieces in the whole assembly, which improves rigidity and quality. The C5 rides vastly better, and performs far better than any previous Corvette, including the fourth-generation (1984-96) Corvette.
With its thick hindquarters and Acura NSX-like front fenders, the styling of the C5 Corvette has been controversial. We find the rear end reminiscent of the IMSA GTP Corvettes of the late '80s, and we think the flowing front fenders are handsome when viewed either from outside or behind the wheel. The convertible version looks graceful when the top is down.
The Z06 is more than a hopped-up model; it's a vastly different animal. It was intended as a street racer with track capabilities, Chevrolet's one-up response to Ford's Mustang Cobra R. The designation Z06 has a rich history, dating back to the 1963 split-window Sting Ray, when the Z06 was a pure road-racing package. (The Z comes from Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette's famous first chief engineer.) Chevrolet has revived the Z06 designation for this more-than-worthy successor. Only now it's a separate model, not an option package.
The hardtop presents a different profile from the coupe. The hardtop roofline is actually more coupe-like than the coupe's, whose hatchback glass slopes more steeply. Other visible differences between the coupe and hardtop are subtle, starting with tidy Z06 emblems on each side of the hardtop.
The Z06 hardtop has modest mesh air intakes in the nose and wedge-shaped mesh cooling inlets for the rear brakes, located on the rocker panels just aft the doors. It also has open five-spoke aluminum wheels affording a view of big red brake calipers, and four 3.5-inch exhaust tips under the center of the rear bumper. The 17-inch-diameter front wheels are 9.5 inches wide, while the 18-inch rears are 10.5 inches wide. They carry massive and exclusive Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber, P265/40ZR up front, P295/35ZR out back. There is no spare, nor are the tires run-flat units; instead, you get an emergency tire-inflator kit. So take your cell phone and try not to run over any nails.
The Z06 weighs 128 pounds less than the C5 coupe, even though it offers similar creature comforts, including leather, air conditioning, carpeting, a premium sound system, traction control and stability control. Using thinner glass, a titanium exhaust system and less insulation saves the weight. Don't bother arguing that insulation is a creature comfort; with a car like this, noise and spiritual comfort level are intertwined. Ask anyone who's driven a noisy racecar.
The LS6 treatment of the trusty 5.7-liter V8 yields 405 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 400 foot-pounds of torque at 4800. It was overhauled for 2002 with hollow-stem valves, a higher-lift camshaft, a low-restriction mass-airflow sensor and a low-restriction air cleaner. (And it still has those big, bright red valve covers!) The aluminum block is designed to improve lubrication and reduce back pressure, while the heads feature refined porting and reshaped combustion chambers, fed by larger fuel injectors through a massaged composite intake manifold. The pistons are cast from stronger alloy, and their special shape helps increase the compression ratio from 10.1:1 to 10.5:1.
Corvette engineers revised the Z06 suspension last year as well, with a larger front stabilizer bar, stiffer rear leaf spring, and new camber settings, all calibrated for maximum control in high-speed operation. New rear shock valving provided a more controlled ride, and new front brake pads improved durability and fade resistance.
C5 Corvettes come with comfortable cabins, something that wasn't always true of previous-generation models. Low doorsills and narrow side rails make getting in and out easier than before, and there's more room for both driver and passenger. There's also a real trunk; arriving at the airport after a trip halfway around the world, we were able to cram two huge duffel bags into a coupe. The other major improvement is the elimination of the rattles and stress squeaks that have haunted Corvettes for so long. The C5's handsome analog gauges are easier to use and more satisfying than the old digital displays.
The convertible top stows neatly under a flap that folds flat at the forward edge of the trunk lid. You'll need to read the owner's manual to figure out how to use it, however. The top is made of high-quality material and the rear window is glass. The top seals well; we found no leaks in our car-wash test, nor in our high-speed wind test.
We did notice more interior noise in the convertible than in the coupe, and the coupe isn't exactly quiet. Even more noise comes through in the Z06, as we mentioned. However, this is a sports car, and noise, particularly the calculated growl of that terrific V8, is part of the deal.
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.
Coupe ($41,680); Convertible ($48,205); Z06 Hardtop ($50,430).
Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Options As Tested
Z06 Hardtop ($50,430).
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