So much of the praise surrounding the C5 Corvette concentrates on how quick and fast it is, that its virtues as an everyday car are lost in the fog. The truth is that, regardless of price, the Corvette is probably the easiest sports car there is with which to live day in and day out. And every year, while Chevy seems to introduce some new ever-higher performance version of the C5 that gains even more press, the regular Corvette gets better and better while getting almost no attention.
So familiar, so good
Since the introduction of the C5 in ’97, the essential elements of the car have remained intact. There’s a perimeter frame with hydroformed side rails, a thick central spine and a floor made from a sandwich of balsa wood between composite panels. To that frame are bolted cast aluminum crossmembers, which in turn mount double A-arm and composite transverse leaf spring suspension front and rear. The most radical innovation of the C5 was moving the transmission (either Borg-Warner’s T56 six-speed manual or Hydramatic’s 4L60-E four-speed automatic) to the rear for better weight distribution, and the most satisfying development has to be the sweet-natured all-aluminum, 5.7-liter, OHV, LS1 V-8 which was rated at 345 horsepower in the ’97 version of the car and, in 2002, is rated at 350 horsepower. The tires are familiar too, P245/45ZR-17 front and P275/40ZR-18 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 GS run-flats that obviate the need to carry a spare.
The ‘Vette is big in sports car terms. At 179.7 inches, it’s about five inches longer overall than a 911, its wheelbase is a full foot longer and it’s almost four inches wider than that Porsche. In fact the Corvette is almost exactly the same size as Ferrari’s V-12-powered 575M Maranello, which is 179.1 inches long. But compared to some of the high-velocity behemoths out there, the ‘Vette’s not particularly porky. The fiberglass-and-mostly-steel Corvette Convertible weighs in at 3248 pounds, which is just 51 pounds more than Ferrari claims for the smaller, more exotic, all-aluminum 360 Modena Spider and is almost 600 pounds lighter than the mostly steel Maranello.
Of course the four-wheel disc brakes still carry the same anti-lock system, the “Magnasteer II” variable-ratio power steering is unchanged and little has changed about the C5’s interior. And that’s all more-or-less for the good, but the car itself has still grown better over the years.
Tweaking toward perfection
When the C5 arrived, the looks were often derided as too slavishly derivative of previous ‘Vettes, but over time the shape has become almost iconic as the car’s reputation has swelled. Under the skin the car has been evolving steadily, but to call any of the changes revolutionary is to overstate the materialistic dialectic involved (stick with me: this review is part of my Poli-Sci doctoral dissertation).
The most welcome change came in 2001 with the LS1’s horsepower bump to 350 ponies. The increase in horsepower was itself quite modest, but improved torque production was the real goal of the refinements. Toward that end the intake manifold’s plenum volume was bumped up, the intake runners were made to flow more smoothly and the cam grind was changed to moderate lift and overlap. So even through peak torque output only increased from 350 lb-ft at 4400 rpm to 360 lb-ft at 4400 rpm on automatic-equipped Corvettes (and to 375 lb-ft on manuals), the already friendly torque curve became downright giddy. In the automatic transmission Convertible we drove, each pound-foot felt eager from idle to the 6000-rpm redline. It’s a shame these revisions to the LS1 came alongside the LS6 in the Z06 – the changes are significant and went almost unnoticed amid the Z06 hysteria.
Maybe a move up in transmission specification would have allowed Chevy to maintain the LS-1’s torque rating between manual and automatic models, but otherwise the behavior of the 4L60-E automatic is above reproach. With five-speed automatics becoming ubiquitous and six-speeders emerging, four forward gears seems almost quaint. Yet the LS-1’s chunky torque curve works well with the relatively wide spread of the 4L60-E’s gear ratios: the upshifts are firm without being harsh, the downshifts are solid, quick and reassuring. The 4L60-E, whether mounted in the rear of the Corvette or under the floor of a full-size pickup or SUV, continues to be one of the world’s finest automatic transmissions.
In 1998 the “Active Handling” system was added to all Corvettes as standard equipment, and this second-generation traction control scheme is significantly less obnoxious than previous systems and in normal driving a nice backstop against stupid driver inputs. For hero work, the system can be turned off and the true limits of the car’s ability explored. Those limits are very high indeed.
Apply tweaks here next
While the Corvette’s mechanical package has evolved nicely, the interior lags somewhat behind. The instrumentation is easy to read and the seats are both comfortable and adjustable, but the power window switches are indistinct to the touch, many dash buttons operate flimsily, hitting a door panel with a knee will oil-can the speaker grille, the leather upholstery feels overprocessed and there’s no apparent coherence to the design theme. This isn’t a bad interior by any measure, but it’s not as good as most of the rest of the car. However the optional head-up display works well and is useful even in harsh sun light.
There’s little to complain about how the Corvette handles; it reacts quickly, remains stable unless inverted, and sticks to the road like a Botts’ dot. But the ride can be jiggly over some surfaces, impact harshness is sometimes profound, and some of the blame has to rest with the run-flat tires. The Z06 (which doesn’t have run-flats) has spoiled us; the C5 works better on less disaster-resistant tires. Having said that, this is by far the best riding Corvette ever.
Lowering the convertible top means first undoing two inside latches along the windshield header, then getting out of the car to unlatch and lift the hard plastic tonneau and stow the top itself. The top is high-quality with a real glass rear window, it’s quiet at speed and how it stows so elegantly is sweet, but the retraction process is too complex (it can’t be done from the driver’s seat) and relies on muscle instead of electric motors. Full automatic operation may add unnecessary weight and complexity to the car, but a design that allows operation while seated would be a definite improvement.
Niggling faults are expected of any car, that the Corvette has so few of them indicates how solid a product it is.
On the road, in the parking lot
On California’s epic Highway 1, the Corvette Convertible feels as its purpose made. With the sweet, but not loud, sound of the exhaust behind the driver and the winged fender view ahead, there’s a real magic about the car. And it’s not just quick, but thick with grunt the way a distinctly American car should be.
But this is also a good car in general commuting and even easy to park. Poking through town, the LS-1 rarely has to stretch itself past 2000 rpm as it burbles amid traffic. It’s so understressed that it’s almost calming. Cruising on the freeway, the engine is again barely more than idling and yet is ready to pounce with the drop of accelerator through a traffic opening. The low engine speeds in daily driving help the automatic Corvette Convertible maintain an almost unbelievable EPA mileage rating of 18 in the city and 25 on the highway. Those are mileage numbers that would have been considered the province of cruddy econoboxes a couple decades ago. And they make the single-digit mileage ratings of cars like the Ferrari Modena and Maranello seem ludicrous (though those cars are more powerful, and if you’re shopping for a Ferrari you’re likely pumping more oil up out of the ground than you are putting in your car).
Previous Corvettes have often challenged drivers to park them without dinging a nose, scraping the front spoiler on a marker, or scraping the vulnerable wheels along the curb. The C5’s nose will still scrape on a steep driveway, but it’s a much more infrequent occurrence now. The nose is never an issue and the wheels are deep enough in the tires to remain protected. Opening the big doors in a space can still lead to a ding on some-other-guy’s car, but even there the C5 is livable. Thanks to a convoluted fuel tank design and the lack of a spare tire, this car even has a decently sized, if very shallow, trunk.
Lutz’s ray of sunshine
Coming to GM, Bob Lutz must have driven all the current cars and trucks and wondered how the Corvette could be so defiantly better than any other passenger car the corporation produces. This is a car that’s a plausible competitor with everything from the evergreen Mazda Miata and almost somnambulent Ford Thunderbird, to the implacable Mercedes SL and on to exotics like the BMW Z8 and, yes, that Ferrari Modena Spider. It doesn’t look cheap in comparison to the much slower Miata or less thrilling T-Bird, but it’s a raging five-figure bargain ($47,530 to start) against six-figure exotics.
If Lutz can hold all of GM’s cars up to the same standards to which the Corvette is built, his job will be done.
2002 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible
Base Price: $47,530; as tested: $53,300
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8, 350 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 104.5 inches
Length: 197.7 inches
Width: 73.6 inches
Height: 47.8 inches
Weight: 3248 pounds
Fuel economy city/hwy: 18/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction and Active Handling control
Standard equipment: Leather seating, AM/FM/in-dash CD player, power windows/mirrors/locks, air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles