SPEEDWAY, Ind. - What better place to try out the new great American ‘Vette than at the greatest of American races – the Indy 500. This fifth generation Corvette was once again the pace car and leads all other nameplates in starting the race. For that matter, few other nameplates have survived 45 years to even have a chance to be a repeat pace car.
Not only did a venerated car lead the racers, behind the wheel of the Corvette pace car was the most exciting driver in this half century: Parnelli Jones. He is renowned for being the first to exceed 150 mph at the Speedway, and now we are discussing the likelihood of the new Corvette achieving that lap speed in stock form - a remarkable indication of the state of art of modern suspensions and tires.
'Vette has balanced blend
This fifth generation ‘Vette has such an excellent blend of balanced handling, wonderful tires, refined anti-lock brakes and traction control that I could push the car as far as any person who valued his skin would consider while maintaining full control and composure.
The first 1997 Corvette version was a hatchback coupe with a removable one-piece roof panel, followed last year by the Corvette Convertible. Now comes the fixed-roof hardtop version for ’99, which is the lightest and most performance-oriented version - with some neat extras.
Among them is "head up" display. While we’ve seen this before, this is by far the best thought out and executed. The numbers are clear in the brightest light, and it includes a thoughtful flashing light as a turn signal reminder. Another welcome change is a steering wheel that both telescopes and tilts. I'm really impressed with the stability control system, which not only will save you in unexpected slippery spots but will extend the range of control in high performance driving. A talented driver can go beyond the limitations of the system, but it has a performance driving mode that will enable the rear end to slip out a bit.
With careful attention to the door opening and changes to the extruded perimeter frame, the ‘Vette is no longer a challenge for women with short skirts. This is the most spacious Corvette ever. More foot space results from the relocation of the transmission, shoving the front wheels forward, plus relocation of the clumsy catalytic converters. This car has a long-needed dead pedal, a result of the three-inch gain in foot well width. We now have regained the lockable, lighted glove box in the dash that was lost when the right side airbag was added.
Styling traditions maintained
Among the traditional cues maintained is the twin-pod instrument panel, with an analog gauge display that rivals the best the Japanese have ever offered. More slope in the hood and a lower cowl allows full view of the road, a full 18 inches closer to the front bumper.
The body now uses sheet-molded compound (SMC) that is inserted into a mold, then injected with a catalyst to set the reaction. The result is more exact dimensions for the body panels, which allows the quarter panel to be bolted, not bonded, for lower repair costs.
Traditional styling lines are maintained, however, including the distinctive side coves from the mid-‘50s, yet the 0.29 CD is the lowest ever for a U.S. model, rivaling that of many race cars. A higher tail creates more storage room and improves high-speed rear aerodynamics without reducing rearward visibility.
Remarkably, the frame is so stiff and stable there is no difference in structure between the coupe, convertible and hatchback. This rigidity determines the success of the new car and benefits handling, fit and finish and interior space due to its uncompromising design. I credit the stiff chassis and long wheelbase for this generation Corvette's improved road manners.
Lengthening the track and widening the wheelbase over that of the previous car improve the ride and interior room but only add 1 inch to the car’s overall length. The suspension is a basic short-arm, long-arm configuration in both the front and rear. No longer do half shafts act as locating elements. In a move that proves the wisdom of past suspension designers, transverse composite leaf springs are used on both ends. The last time I saw a similar front suspension was on the early ‘60s AC-based Shelby Cobras.
One car, three suspensions
You can order three suspensions: the base tuning; the F45 option with three adjustable settings; and the performance-oriented Z51 version. I tried all three at a race course and, from the softest to the solid Z51, I only had about 3 mph difference at key reference points around the track.
Engineers based the platform on hydroformed seamless steel side rails, plus a central sheet steel backbone linked by forward cowl and aft rear bulkhead frames. The front section is a welded cage of aluminum castings and extrusions, while the rear is a steel bulkhead welded to the roll hoop.
In order to box these open structures, designers reached into the aerospace box of tricks and used a sandwich of composite sheets bonded to end-grain balsa wood for the floor panels. These are stronger, lighter and more sound absorbing than steel, aluminum, foam or honeycomb materials in similar applications.
Of all the Corvettes, this is the first one with all new components. Nothing, repeat nothing, larger than a bolt comes from the existing GM parts supply. Even the first 1953 model was largely built from existing sedan components.
For the first time ever, Chief Engineer Dave Hill was given almost carte blanche with this car. Concepts sacred to sports car sophistication such as overhead cam valve gear and mid-engine layouts were examined and found to be too restrictive to the overall appeal of the Corvette and to add little in the way of better performance.
Small block V-8 finally redesigned
During my time behind the wheel, I really grew to love the aluminum LS1 engine - which gains 45 horsepower. While the increase in torque is not as dramatic, the power curve is so flat that it always responded vigorously, even when left in the wrong gear. Amazingly, this is the first redesign of Chevy's small-block V-8 engine in 42 years. When the basic dimensions are scanned, it could be mistaken for the previous engine now executed in aluminum.
Outside of the bore, stroke and cylinder bore center spacing, everything is new. Many of the p