It’s been 44 years since the very first Corvette, a convertible, rolled off Chevrolet’s production lines. Now the latest 'Vette soft-top, based on the fifth-generation coupe launched earlier this year, has arrived, and it looks set to keep this American legend alive well into the next millennium.
The coupe, we already know, is a major improvement on its predecessor. But in the past, 'Vette soft-tops have been plagued by severe cowl shake and a general lack of refinement that has bordered on the unacceptable.
This time it’s a different story. The newest Corvette was designed from the outset to be a convertible, so the car’s structure is far stiffer than ever before. In fact, the soft-top is only slightly less rigid than the coupe and, being manually operated, weighs only a few pounds more.
That’s good news for the car’s performance, which remains the key attraction of the Corvette. There is a real sense of occasion every time that big 5.7-liter pushrod V8 fires up. The motor’s deep, meaty rumble is more pleasing to the ear than the raucous note of the Viper, America’s other current muscle car. And with the top down, the 'Vette lets you enjoy the V8 symphony even more clearly.
Select the first of the six forward ratios in the manual box, floor the throttle, and the V8 rumble swiftly turns into a satisfying roar. Shift up fast through the surprisingly slick gearbox, and 60 mph arrives in less than five seconds. Charge on to faster speeds, and it’s best to put the side windows up to curb wind noise. With its steeply raked windshield, the cabin remains pleasantly free of turbulence. But you will notice the wind howling through the seat-belt strap at ear level and the clamor of the 40-series rear Goodyears.
1998 Chevrolet Corvette
Deliberately, we aim for a rough, broken section of road, expecting to feel the body shake and the steering column vibrate. Neither happens. There is some bump-thump, occasionally pronounced, as the suspension tries to cope with the uneven surface, but hardly a quiver from the wheel. Top up or down, the new 'Vette displays the same sort of structural soundness found in the best of Germany’s convertibles.
While the top is a manual one in a class where a powered version might be expected, it operates smoothly and easily. After two windshield header latches are released and the tonneau cover is raised, the roof — including a glass back window — folds neatly just behind the seats. The button that releases the tonneau also automatically lowers the electric windows into the doors. With the tonneau back in place, the clean, flowing profile of the Corvette is shown off to its best advantage. Though some aspects of the design, notably the chunky rear end, are less successful than others, the overall effect is striking.
An undeniable benefit of the car’s extended rump is the size of the trunk. Even with the top down, there is generous luggage room. With the roof up, the trunk’s 14 cubic feet of space is unmatched by any other convertible.
Equally, cabin space is much improved over the last Corvette convertible. Chevrolet widened the ’98 model by 76 millimeters and increased the wheelbase by a substantial 210 millimeters. But overall length, at 4,561 millimeters, is upped by just 30 millimeters. Cockpit access is improved by door sills that are now much lower and narrower. And the driver footwell is so much wider that there is room for a dead pedal for the first time.
Besides the longer wheelbase, a key factor in the car’s newfound cabin comfort is the adoption of a rear transaxle. This allows the center tunnel to be much narrower behind the engine.
1998 Chevrolet Corvette
From inside, the car’s scalloped and lowered hood line gives excellent forward visibility. With the top in place, however, rear vision is limited by the size of the B-pillar area. A more troublesome aspect of our test car was the way the top of the passenger-side window failed to seat properly, creating an annoying wind rush at speed.
Even without this quality problem, the 'Vette convertible is not a quiet car at any time. Over coarse surfaces, road noise enters the cockpit whether or not the roof is raised. In this respect, the Corvette is left well behind by top-notch ragtops like the Mercedes SL or Jaguar XK8, although the Chevrolet is far less expensive.
As with the coupe, the 'Vette soft-top benefits from a completely redesigned instrument panel, equipped with a combination of clear analog dials and a digital systems display. The instrumentation is far superior to the garish electronic display found in the previous-generation Corvette. And the digital section includes useful features such as individual tire pressure readings, necessary to warn of problems with the run-flat tires. In the center console, the stereo system and climate controls are simple to use, but their LCD displays are hard to read in direct sunlight.
The Corvette’s driving position is excellent, with a good relationship to the wheel and pedals, which are well arranged for heel and toeing. The steering itself is a variable effort rack-and-pinion system, crisp and responsive, except for a slight vagueness on center. Despite its steamroller-profile tires, the 'Vette refuses to tramline or become darty on uneven roads. Overall handling is quite neutral, although with the traction control switched off, boisterous but manageable oversteer is readily available.
The convertible’s powertrain has the same 345 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque as the coupe’s, so performance is comparable. At higher speeds, acceleration in the soft-top is blunted slightly by its inferior aerodynamics — a drag coefficent of 0.32 versus 0.29. As a result, top speed is down, by around 10 mph, to a still impressive 165 mph. Despite its prosaic pushrod, two-valves-per-cylinder specification, the engine’s solid torque delivery and willingness to rev make it one of the most entertaining sports-car motors on the market.
And at a price of just $44,990, the latest Corvette soft-top offers great value for the money and a thrill factor matched by few rivals. --John McCormick
Performance: 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds; top speed 165 mph
Fuel consumption (manual): city 18 mpg; highway 28 mpg
Weight (manual): 3,246 pounds
Engine: V8, 5,680 cc; max power 345 hp at 5,600 rpm; max torque 350 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual/four-speed automatic
Final drive ratio: 1.71
Suspension: front double wishbones, transverse composite leaf spring, antiroll bar; rear dou