When the second-generation Chevy Corvette debuted in 1963, there was no mistaking it for its predecessor. One look at the Corvette Sting Ray and you knew it was leaving the past behind in a cloud of smoke. Ditto for the ’68 "Mako" and the fourth-generation model that debuted in ’84. The fifth-generation model (1997-2004) wasn’t a dramatic styling departure, but its substantial leap forward in refinement was enough to define it as a distinct generation.
It however retains trademark Corvette styling cues. With that kind of historical framework in mind, the introduction of the all-new sixth-generation 2005 Chevrolet Corvette (or C6 as it’s otherwise known) was cause for great anticipation.
It is clear that Chevrolet has done an admirable job of endowing the new car with “more power, more passion and more precision,” in the words of Dave Hill, chief engineer. The 400-horsepower V-8 has a huge chunk of its power available just past idle, and consequently it responds like a thoroughbred that jumps from the slightest touch of the whip.
The new styling, with exposed headlamps and a slimmed-down rear end, is the first thing people notice. But what makes the C6 great is its improved handling, performance, refinement and comfort. It’s substantially shorter and lighter than the previous model, the wheelbase is slightly longer, and it gets a new engine, new transmissions, new suspension, new brakes, a new interior and extensive refinements throughout. Chevrolet set out to eliminate every imperfection and complaint in the C5 and says 85 percent of the content in the C6 is new.
Like their racing counterparts, the Corvette road car has become one of the best sports cars in the world, on par in performance with European sports cars from Italy, Germany and England that cost a great deal more. Providing the primary motivation for the C6 is a 6-liter pushrod V8 that pumps out 400hp and 400lb-ft of torque at 4,400rpm. This is mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox, with the option of a 6-speed automatic, though we can’t imagine too many serious drivers checking off that option. Our test car had the optional Z51 performance package, with brakes that measure 13.4 inches in the front and 13 in the rear, compared to the standard car’s 12.8 front and 12 rear discs. The Z51 package also adds larger stabilizer bars, stiffer springs and shocks, and more aggressive gear ratios, and both models have independent double-wishbone suspension front and rear.
The C6 Corvettes numbers on paper translate into impressive performance on road and track, with 0-60mph coming in 4.1 seconds and the quarter mile going by in 12.5 seconds on its way to a top speed of 186mph, making it the fastest production Corvette ever. On the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany, the C6 joins the short list of cars that can run the ’Ring in under 8-seconds with a lap of 7:59, putting it ahead of such cars as the Ferrari 550, Lamborghini Diablo SV and the Dodge Viper GTS. This all sounds great, but I was anxious to spend a week in the car to see how good it is in the real world, as well as how it compares to the European sports cars that I am more used to driving.
Dynamically, the 2005 Corvette offers more power in a slightly smaller size. It was hard to judge road behavior on wet roads, but it was easy to discern that the ride is more supple and less harsh. The new chassis is similar to the one used for the Cadillac XLR. which is built in the same plant in Bowling Green, Ky. It has a perimeter frame with an enclosed center tunnel, cored composite floors and an aluminum upper cockpit structure.
From a design standpoint, the new C6 Corvette looks great, with a design that is instantly recognizable as a Corvette, even with its exposed headlamps. It’s a wide car, but looks taut and muscular, and I really like the familiar quad exhausts, as well as the air vents aft of the front fenders. Inside, the C6 has a good driving position and decent ergonomics, but is not without its faults. For one thing, some of the plastics used feel a bit on the cheap side compared to the European competition, and the fit and finish also needs some work. For example, on our test car, the door panel on the driver’s side didn’t line up well with the dash when it was closed (though it did on the passenger side), and some of the switchgear didn’t have the quality feel that it should for a car that costs over $40,000. Being tall, I also found the gear lever was too close to my right leg and tended to bump into it when shifting from first to second. On the plus side, the C6 has a full range of gauges, which are becoming scarce in newer cars. I also like the targa roof, which is light enough to easily remove without help, and stows neatly into its holder in the trunk. It gives you the open-air feel of a convertible without giving up the stiffness of a coupe, which is the best of both worlds.
The C6 Corvette is surprisingly comfortable on the highway, even with the Z51 package, and soaks up bumps pretty well. It’s also an easy car to drive around town, and could easily be driven daily if necessary without too much of a problem. One problem however, especially in hilly areas, is that the front end scrapes quite a bit on crowned driveways or roads, which probably sounds far worse than it really is. Anyway, you tend to forget about the electric doors and any niggling design issues when you get the C6 moving on the road. The 6-liter V8 provides an absolutely thrilling rush of acceleration that puts you firmly back in the seat when you get on the throttle, accompanied by a sound that is pure American muscle car, with an exhaust note that is not unlike the C6 race car when you get above 5,000 rpm. The manual gearbox has very short throws and is accurate for the most part, though it does tend to sometimes go into fourth gear when trying for second, as the gates are a little too close together and not as precise as maybe they should be.
Seat comfort is an issue as well, as the Corvette’s buckets proved mediocre at best during our week with the car. "After two hours behind the wheel I had to get out and walk around to ease my back," one editor wrote. "Take a short trip to slice up a local canyon and the seats feel fine, but any longer than that and their comfort starts to fade quickly," wrote another. Cheap materials are one thing, but average seats are unacceptable when you’re paying this kind of money. Additional complaints were lodged against the Chevy Corvette for its lack of auto up-down windows and manual reclining seat backs.
Ridiculing a sports car for seemingly trivial issues might seem like we’re missing the point, but in this case it is the point. If there was one area in which the Corvette C6 could have made a name for itself, it was in the details. With unassailable performance credentials and an evolutionary shape, there wasn’t much room to work with, but there was room nonetheless. After eight years of waiting, we expected something dramatic, but the 2005 Chevrolet Corvette remains a first-class performer hitched to a second-class cabin. Oh well, there’s always the C7 to look forward to — in 2012.