2003 Chevrolet Corvette

Gold. The colour associated with 50th anniversaries is gold.

But the 50th Anniversary special edition 2003 Corvette dispenses with that tradition. According to Corvette chief engineer Dave Hill, the colour just didn't work on the car.

The exclusive Anniversary Red that was chosen instead definitely does work. Not so much a conventional red as a rich maroon, in the right light it has all the nuances of a candled Burgundy wine, its tinted clearcoat top layer giving it a liquid depth that looks as if it could be stirred.

This car breaks from Corvette tradition in another way as well. Unlike many past special edition models, which were festooned with garish graphics, it is a paragon of good taste.

Instead of nose-to-tail checkered flags, it is distinguished visually only by its unique colour, exclusive champagne-tinted, five-spoke alloy wheels and discreet 50th anniversary badging on the front fenders.

Those badges comprise the Corvette's trademark crossed flags overlayed on a silver number 50, inlaid with a gold colour.

The same emblem is reprised inside, on the seatbacks and the floormats that, like the rest of the interior, are finished in an exclusive gray-beige tone GM calls "shale." An attractive complement to the rich exterior hue, it is the first new interior colour offered since the C5's (fifth-generation Corvette's) introduction.

Such attention to colour and trim details is not the usual thrust of a Wheels review, but in this case it is primarily those visual identifiers that make this car special. Otherwise it is, for the most part, standard-isssue Corvette, which means it is already something special.

As its many awards attest, including one from the Society of Automotive Engineers naming it the Best Engineered Car of the 20th Century (tied with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class), the C5 is an exceptional car. It is remarkable not just because it excels in one or two areas but because of its overall balance of attributes.

Prominent among them are sheer performance. Its LS1, Gen-III small-block (5.7-litre) V8 produces 350 hp at 6000 rpm and 360 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm (375 at 4400 with manual transmission) – more than twice the output of the inline six that powered the first Corvette in 1953.

That car was available only in white and only with a two-speed automatic transmission. My 50th Anniversary test car featured a four-speed automatic, but a six-speed manual is also offered.

It was a hatchback coupe that brought back fond memories of a cross-continent trip, on U.S. Route 66, and return, in a '97 C5.

That adventure proved the Corvette to have among the most comfortable seats I have ever experienced, as well as being an extremely practical touring car with an incredible capacity for stuff in its ample cargo area.

Slipping into – okay, squirming into – the '03 model reinforced those cozy memories. With its multiple seat and steering-wheel adjustments, the car fits me like the proverbial old shoe.

There is nothing old about the way the Corvette drives, however. In fact, the '03 is noticeably different than the '97, the first year of the current model, in one important respect: Six years of continuous development have paid huge dividends in its level of refinement. My test car was all but devoid of unwanted noises and vibrations.

The hills and vales of Northumberland County, one of Ontario's overlooked treasures in terms of driving roads, were the perfect venue for testing the 50th Anniversary Corvette's mettle. Their varied road surfaces highlighted the other feature, beyond paint and trim, that distinguishes the anniversary model from other '03s.

That is its Magnetic Selective Ride Control suspension (RPO F55 on other models). It is a further evolution of the previous F55 ride-control system, which uses a microprocessor to monitor the vertical position of each wheel and adjust its damping accordingly.

The difference is, the new system employs a damper fluid containing magnetic iron particles in suspension that react to an electromagnetic field. When more current is applied to a coil in the dampers, under computer control, they tend to bond together, effectively increasing the fluid's viscosity, thus increasing the damping rate at that wheel – in as little as one millisecond.

Conversely, reducing current decreases the damping rate. In that way, the suspension characteristics are continuously adjusted to suit the road conditions, as frequently as every 25 mm of distance travelled at 100 km/h.

The net effect is a remarkably compliant ride on rough roads, especially considering the Corvette's considerable cornering ability. A manual switch permits selection of either Tour or Sport modes, so you can adjust the relative firmness of the ride to suit your own taste.

As in all new C5s, the anniversary model features standard Active Handling, a vehicle dynamics control system that can be fully or partly disengaged to give the driver more control when desired. Great fun for slalom racing, but in the everday world the security provided by leaving the system on is reassuring.

In addition to the hatchback model I tested, the 50th Anniversary edition is available as a convertible with the same features and colours. It is not offered in the higher-powered Z06 coupe form.

Unlike most other special editions, no arbitrary limits have been placed on its production, and GM anticipates as many as one in three '03 Corvettes will be a 50th Anniversary model.

Given its tasteful appearance, special features, and modest price premium over the hatchback's $68,120 and the convertible's $74,120 MSRPs, it may well be the most special Corvette special edition ever.

Freelance journalist Gerry Malloy (mgmalloy @ prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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