1997 Chevrolet Corvette

BOWLING GREEN, Ky.—If a car goes better, stops better, handles better, gets better mileage, has more room and more features, is better built, weighs less and costs no more than the model it replaces, you have to like its chances for success.

That, in a nutshell, is the 1997 Chevrolet Corvette.

The C5, only the fifth all new generation in Corvette's 44-year history had its world premiere this past Monday at the Detroit auto show (officially, North American International Auto Show).

But we had a sneak preview two months ago, in the countryside near this town where the Vette factory is located, followed by an all morning thrash around the deeply scary Road Atlanta racetrack.

Note that among the above attributes I didn't include "looks better." I'm not saying the C5 doesn't look better than the C4, let's just say it's a moot point.

I think the C4 was brilliant. To still turn heads after 12 years on the road is remarkable. (Okay, the Porsche 911 is 34 years old, but there are a lot more Vettes around than 911s; you know what familiarity breeds . . .)

Some Corvette fanatics felt the C4 was too effete, not macho enough, too smooth, too (gasp) European. The move from straight crisp lines to more rounded shapes in the C5 is an attempt to resurrect some voluptuousness.

Too much? Maybe. Some critics say the C5 is too (double gasp) Japanese. There's no denying some similarities to the Acura NSX.

There's also no denying that the car it is most reminiscent of is a Corvette. Wedgy profile. Long, low hood. Short rear deck.

Jet fighter canopy upper body, tapering to the rear. Thick rear roof pillar. Popup headlamps. Quad tail lamps historically round, sometimes squarish, oval in this case.

John Cafaro, chief exterior stylist on the car, says the chance to do a Corvette is "the Super Bowl of design assignments." Fortunately, the C5 is nowhere near as boring as

NFL football. I think it looks fine, not earth shattering, but good enough.

On every other count, the C5 is a marked, in some cases dramatic, improvement.

When we talk about engineering advances, we prefer to talk about innovative design, exotic materials, technological leapfrogs in the science of motion. The bald faced reality is that most engineering effort on any new car is more mundane.

Packaging: figuring out how to cram all the mechanical stuff in, and still leave room for people and luggage. Legalization: ensuring the car meets all emissions and crash standards. Cost reduction: no point building a car nobody can afford, or which doesn't earn make a profit.

"Well built" was the top priority on Corvette enthusiasts' wish lists for the new car. Chief engineer Dave Hill realized this meant structural stiffness to reduce squeaks, rattles and panel shake.

Step one is a perimeter frame with conventional rectangular section bumper beams welded to two full-length side rails.

These latter pieces begin as straight seamless steel tubes, are bent to shape, then "hydro-formed" filled with hydraulic oil under extreme pressure and blown into proper cross-section, like the clown making balloon animals at your local supermarket opening. These rails have vastly greater strength and reduced cross-sectional area than conventional frame members, and are one piece, versus the 14 welded bits used in the C4's rails.

Step two is a central backbone tunnel surrounding the drive train, fabricated from tubular and sheet steel pieces, and enclosed at the bottom by a bolton tray. To optimize its shape and strength, the transmission was relocated to the rear, which synergystically creates ideal 50-50 weight distribution and drastically improves interior space, making one wonder why every sports car doesn't do it this way.

Three suspensions are offered. The base configuration will be just fine for 90 per cent of the driving that 99 per cent of Corvette owners will do. A stiffer Z51 option is aimed at

auto cross participants, and a real time variable damper setup, with three driver selectable programs (touring, sport, performance) gives techno freaks a toy to amuse their friends.

A notable aspect of the suspension is the Goodyear tires. The stiff side walls supply up to 320 km of run flat capability. The degradation of performance is so unnoticeable that a tire pressure monitoring system is standard to alert the driver in the event of air loss.

Chevrolet is so confident of these tires that a spare tire and jack are conspicuous by their absence. The corollary benefit is a near doubling of cargo space.

Second generation magnetically controlled variable assist Magnasteer rack and pinion steering governs directional change.

Braking is amply handled by massive four wheel discs with ABS.

You're going to hear a lot about the legendary small block Chevy V8 engine in conjunction with this car. Don't believe it.

Yes, it's still a 90 degree V8, of 5.7-litre (350 cubic inch) displacement (but different bore and stroke) and the same bore centres. Otherwise, this is an entirely new engine.

The engine team examined all possibilities, including multi-cam, multi-valve designs. They came to the same conclusion any sensible person, apart from the techno snob, must: when engine size isn't restricted by taxation (most foreign countries) or regulation (most racing series), there is no replacement for displacement. Bore the sucker out, and use the

simple, compact, light and cheap overhead valve/pushrod layout.

Who's going to complain about 345 horsepower, 350 pound feet of torque, better fuel economy, and outstanding emissions performance? Not me.

The base transmission is actually the four-speed auto, whose electronically controlled internals are the only major carry over pieces on this car (the rear transaxle case is, of

course, all new). The optional six-speed manual is not the beefy ZF box of the C4, but a Borg Warner from the Camaro.

The C5's more user friendly interior is evident before you even get in: the doors open easier and wider, there's 25 mm more head clearance, and the step over is lower and narrower, thanks to the hydro formed side rails.

Ensconced in seats upholstered in soft arm chair like leather, you'll enjoy a hugely better view: the lower hood means you see the road 5.5 metres closer to the car.

There's more interior space everywhere, the most significant gains being in the footwells: 7.5 cm more for the driver, enough for a proper dead pedal (thank you!), and a sensational 15.0 cm more for the passenger, who no longer arrives at the end of a long trip in need of orthopedic surgery.

The Gee Whiz instrumentation of the C4 is replaced with clean, simple and legible, white on black, electronically driven analogue gauges. Turn the dash mounted ignition key and the red needles sweep full right, then return to normal, like recent Pontiacs.

The new Corvette has a right side steering column wiper stalk when, oh when, is this most logical of designs going to migrate to other GM cars?

Driving the new Corvette is an absolute revelation. The C4 was an awesome performer, on road or track. But it was an intimidating car. Confining cockpit. Lousy visibility.

Frighteningly fast. Ultra light steering with video game feel, i.e., no feel. Shakes and rattles, if very little roll.

The C5 is more accessible, in both literal and metaphoric senses. The steering is still fast, but you can intuit what's going on at the pavement. The perfect weight distribution is

felt with very quick turning. It's never twitchy, but be prepared for it the first time you bend into a corner with a head of steam.

Despite the car's massive handling prowess, ride is excellent.

The Z51 suspension is firmer, but not uncomfortably so. With the variable damper system, you can sense the differences between the three settings, but they're not dramatic, either in ride quality or in handling. Your best bet: stay with the base system.

A subliminal contributor to ride quality is the absence of road noise and rattles. The structure's stiffness is evident to the naked, or at least lightly clothed bum, as well as the ear.

With those power and torque values, acceleration is a given.

The engine is responsive at any rev point; lots of bottom end, but decent top end too. Great care was taken not to make it too quiet; the noise is part of the fun.

The clutch is light but precise, engaging rather closer to the top end of its travel than I like. The shifter is lighter than before, and allows quick but not lightning-quick shifts; working a high torque capacity gearbox with long, spindly rods and levers isn't easy.

The automatic shifts nicely, as GMs always do, although there's still a tendency to up shift prematurely when feathering the throttle in a quick bend.

The removable roof panel is held on by three over centre clamps no more losing the ratchet handle that undid those four horrible Torx fasteners in the old car. The panel, now with a lightweight magnesium frame, is easily stashed in the cargo hold.

Currently, the C5 is available only as a hatchback coupe. A stripped model destined to further enhance Corvette's competition legend is coming soon; a roadster joins the roster

next year. Prices haven't been released, but the C5 will at least be in the suburbs of the $50,000 neighborhood of the C4.

While the C5 Corvette will retain the title, "the world's best sports car for the money," it need not hide behind that "for the money" qualifier.

The new Corvette shines in comparison with any sports car you can buy, at any price. The fact that's it's cheap is enduring testimony to the cleverness of Dave Hill and his team.

The Corvette arrived too late to qualify for any car of the year accolades this year, for which the cars that did win should be eternally grateful. If this car doesn't sweep the

boards next year, the judges should be forced to take a urine test.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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