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[Press - AutoWeek] Leaner and Meaner: The sixth-generation Corvette really delivers


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[font=Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif](08:30 Aug. 09, 2004)
[/font][font=Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif]Leaner and Meaner: The sixth-generation Corvette really delivers [/font]

[font=Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif-serif]By WES RAYNAL [/font]

[font=Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif-serif]
All photos by Jim Fets.

BASE PRICE: $44,245
POWERTRAIN: 6.0-liter, 400-hp, 400 lb-ft V8; rwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3179 pounds
0 TO 60 MPH: 4.2 seconds (mfr.)

Virginia International Raceway is a hidden gem. Located in Alton, Virginia, it opened for business in 1957. Over the years the legends ran there-Penske, Donohue, Foyt and Shelby. The track fell into disrepair in the early '70s and was turned over to farmland. In 1998 real estate developer and vintage racer Harvey Siegel revived the track and it re-opened for business in 2000. Today it is a beautiful and challenging 17-corner, 3.27-mile road course that keeps busy 52 weeks a year hosting vintage events, SCCA races, Grand-Am and motorcycle races. VIR is also a place—in addition to Germany's Nürburgring and autobahn—where GM engineers toiled day after day developing Chevrolet's latest sports car, the 2005 C6 Corvette, and where GM chose to let us drive it for the first time.

Chief engineer Dave Hill, who calls replacing the C5 a "daunting task," likes to remind us that by weight, 85 percent of the car is brand-new. He says the goal in developing the C6 was to take the C5's customer complaints (he calls them "dissatisfiers"), some 100 in all, and address them one by one. Refinement was the key: He and his crew expect the C6 to be world-class competitive against the Porsche 911s and Dodge Vipers of the world. After finally driving it, we think the car has more than a shot at it.

Hill's refinement mantra really came into play both on the Southern Virginia rural two lanes around VIR and at the track. The C6 proved easy to drive hard and fast. The 6.0-liter LS2 V8 develops a stout 400 hp and 400 lb-ft. That's enough to propel the car to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, on up to its 186-mph top speed, a speed that makes it the fastest production Corvette in history. The engine felt like a big block, which was the intention. Acceleration was right-now, and the engine pulled and howled beautifully up to the 6500-rpm redline. And there was just gobs of torque-you could probably get away with a two-speed manual instead of the six-speed: One gear to get off the line, another to take you to 186 mph.


That six-speed is a Tremec transaxle, again mounted in the rear. The gear lever has been shortened an inch and the throw travel has been reduced. There's also a four-speed automatic available as an option. GM anticipates a 50-50 sales mix, manual to automatic. The shorter-throw shifter is a welcome improvement and worked much better than the C5's. The shifts came easier and more quickly, compared to the more bulky feel of the C5, which sometimes could remind you of a '67 Chevelle bracket racer. Clutch takeup in the C6 was also quite a bit smoother, and with a lot less pedal effort.

Besides more speed and a smoother gearbox, more improvements in the way the car drives can be credited to Corvette suspension engineer Mike Neal. He revised the C5's four-corner independent suspension with a new suspension cradle and control arms. Thirteen millimeters of suspension travel has been added to the front, 20 mm to the rear. There are three suspension choices: The base, called FE1; magnetic ride control; and the Z51 package, which now includes not only stiffer springs and dampers, but a quicker steering box, more aggressive rubber and bigger brakes, plus its own set of gear ratios for faster acceleration off the line.

In addition to being one of the lead suspension engineers, Neal is an ex-road racer and did a big chunk of the C6 development driving. So that's why when we arrived at VIR having never even seen it, let alone driven on it, we turned to Neal to take us around on some familiarity laps.

"We [the Corvette group] do a lot of track testing," Neal said. "Tracks are good for setting shock valving, antiroll bar work and brake work. We tested here, and at Grattan [a road course in Western Michigan] and the Nürburgring.
The C6's interior is all new. Build quality looks better than the C5's interior, and controls and switches are more logically arranged. There is anodized aluminum trim throughout. Composite sport seats are available as an option and for the first time in Corvette history, you can order heated seats.

"If you want to play with the best, you have to track test. And if you want to sell cars to enthusiasts in Europe [C6 goes on sale in Europe in October]," he continued, "you have to run the 'Ring. The other automakers such as Porsche and Mercedes, as well the European general public, sit up and take notice when they see you running there. We go a couple times a year. They take us seriously now."

As well they should-this is as serious a track car as it is a road car, and the suspension choices offer something for everyone.

First we tried the base-suspension version since Hill said it's the one most customers order. Driving on the road hinted that the C6 is a far more agile, more tossable car than the C5, and the track really drove the point home. If you're planning on racing and/or autocrossing your C6, the base suspension probably shouldn't be your first choice. It was the most pleasant on the road, but on the track you'll want to go with either the magnetic ride control or Z51 package.

The magnetic ride control has tour and sport modes, and on both road and track the car body stayed remarkably level, while the magneto-rheological dampers soaked up the road's bumps and lumps and the track's curbs as we tried to clip the apexes tighter and tighter. In tour mode the magnetic ride control-equipped car felt like the base car with better body control. Flicking over to sport mode tightened things up considerably.


The Z51 package, though, was the ticket for the track. Hill said the C6 with the Z51 package will get you "three-fourths of the way to Z06 performance levels." Indeed, of the three suspension choices it offered the quickest turn-in, most grip and best brakes. The ride was harsher, but in no way was it unbearable. The C6's run-flat tires are new, developed to cut road noise and improve the car's ride. Neal also took part in the taping of our television show, AutoWeek on Speed at GM's Milford, Michigan, road course and on rural Michigan roads. Frost heaves and other road imperfections are more frequent than in Virginia, yet the Z51-equipped car was perfectly acceptable here as well.

On both the road and at VIR the C6's ride was noticeably softer, more relaxing than a C5 Z06, thanks to the longer wheelbase, stiffer structure, longer suspension travel and new tires. The LS2 has been moved forward a couple of inches in the chassis but is 15 pounds lighter than the LS1, so the 51-49 weight distribution stays about the same as the C5. GM engineers said wind and road noise have been cut dramatically-overall the car feels a lot faster, but also more comfortable, less fatiguing.

Road noise was still an issue in the C6s we drove, or maybe we should say the rest of the vehicle's noise has been cut to the point where tire noise was still dominant. The C6 still has no real sound-deadening wall between the cargo bay and the cabin, so there was quite a bit of pass-through noise from the rear. When you want to hear the exhaust, that's pretty cool. When you want to hear a soft-spoken Corvette engineer riding shotgun, not so good.


Any disappointments? Well, yeah; steering feel. It's not world-class quite yet, which is disappointing only because the rest of the car is up to that standard. The steering felt okay-precise, nicely weighted. But there is a lack of feedback. Especially on the track, we didn't really sense anything worthwhile through the fingertips in terms of road texture or how the tires are gripping. The more laps we did, the more the driving became like a video game: Understeer until we got the visual cue of running wide, rather than letting the steering wheel or the seat of your pants do the talking. The steering on the C6 is like the shifter on the C5, though to a lesser degree, in that it's the one thing you can point to and say "Detroit iron" rather than "best in class." GM could fix it by simply dumping Magnasteer and going to work on it the way engineers did the shifter.

That's about it though.

The C6, first shown to the masses at the North American International Auto show in Detroit (AW, Jan. 5), has a composite body that was honed in 400-plus hours in the wind tunnel. Designers drew their inspiration from the '63 Sting Ray as well as lessons learned on the Le Mans-winning C5R racer. The most obvious changes are the exposed headlights, the sharper fender edges and the grille opening beneath the headlights that makes the car look like it is grinning at you. The overall length is five inches shorter and an inch narrower than the C5, making the new car the same size as a Porsche 911, and the C6 looks a lot tidier as a result-like a 911 is tidy. The drag coefficient was cut from the C5's 0.29 to 0.28. The C6 looks evolutionary compared to the C5 Corvette, but in reality the C6's leaner, tighter profile is a pretty big advance.

The C5's balsa-wood sandwich floorboard and hydroformed frame rails are back underneath the C6 because Hill's crew couldn't find a better way to keep the chassis ultra stiff and the road noise minimal. To stiffen the chassis even further, the windshield frame has been reinforced and a crossbar added under the dash.

The interior is new and looks better-the C5's contained plenty of Hill's dissatisfiers. The new car is brighter inside and the materials and plastics are richer and softer compared to both the C5 and the early C6 prototypes we looked at last fall. The switches and components are better organized inside as well. Even with the shorter overall length the interior stays the same size as the C5, and feels airier thanks to the slightly more upright windshield.


The C5, the car that put Corvettes back in the game, came out in late 1996 as a '97 model, and some say eight years is too long between Corvettes, some say it's exactly long enough. Whatever your thoughts on the timing, know that the C6 is a big advance. It addresses the C5's major issues (too big, clunky shifter), and updated it as needed to keep pace with what has happened industry-wide in those eight years: When Chevy was developing the C5, there was the Mazda RX-7 and Nissan ZX Turbo to worry about, the Acura NSX to wonder about, the Porsche Boxster chasing. Today, the Boxster is the only alternative on price point, and the big-block-like 400 lb-ft, 400-hp performance of the new car means the little Porsche is not really a direct threat anymore. Viper? Maybe. But GM will go after it with the Z06, which will be launched at January's Detroit show (along with the C6R race car). Besides, the Dodge is already more money for less refinement-not to mention it would take a hell of a driver to use all the Viper's power edge to stay ahead of a moderately talented wheelman in a Corvette over a real-world twisty road.

C6 prices were announced a few weeks ago, starting at $44,245, $52,245 for the convertible. We say the C6 is worth the wait. Now bring on the Z06. Kevin A. Wilson contributed to this report


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