The 2004 model year is the swan song for the fifth-generation Chevrolet Corvette, and will mark the best year for the C5s. A new Corvette, or C6, is expected for model year 2005. (We're expecting an evolutionary model that builds on the C5, with advances in aerodynamics and interior refinement.) In the meantime, we have the C5.
About 3,000 Corvettes will be sold for model year 2004, some of which will be special editions designed to commemorate C5-R victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance races. Le Mans Blue paint and polished wheels distinguish the 2004 Corvette Commemorative Edition models. Their interiors are Shale-colored, with a matching top on the convertible.
The high-performance Z06 benefits from suspension tuning for 2004 based on extensive testing at Germany's fabled Nurburgring racetrack and General Motors Milford Proving Grounds. The goal was improved ride quality, but the revised Z06 suspension also feels more tied down, more glued to the road, according to Chevrolet. Sporting a C5-R Le Mans stripe, the Z06 Commemorative Edition gets a lightweight carbon fiber hood.
For the past 50 years, the Corvette has been America's sports car, a U.S.-production two-seater capable of real racetrack performance. The Corvette endures because it has always represented a performance value. The C5 does this in a big way, boasting performance and handling matched only by the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 and various exotics, all of which are far more expensive.
But some of that misses the point. There's really nothing quite like the Corvette. Driving each of the C5 models, whether it's a coupe, convertible, or the Z06, is always a visceral experience. Most powerful is the Z06 hardtop, with 405 horsepower on tap. The coupe is the most practical, offering nearly twice as much trunk space as the convertible or hardtop models. The convertible is sometimes the most enjoyable, however. Motoring along on a warm summer night in a Corvette with the top down can be a peak experience.
Corvette Coupe ($43,735); Convertible ($50,735); Z06 Hardtop ($51,585)
The Corvette's flowing front fenders are handsome when viewed either from outside or behind the wheel, while the bulging rear end is reminiscent of the IMSA GTP Corvettes of the late '80s. The Corvette sits low to the ground and has a fair amount of front overhang; pull forward in a parking space until your tires touch the curb and you'll damage stuff.
The convertible version looks graceful when the top is down. Putting the top down exposes body-colored trim behind the seats that reminds us of an open-cockpit racer. It looks really cool.
The Z06 hardtop presents a different profile from the coupe. The hardtop roofline is actually more coupe-like than the coupe's, whose hatchback glass slopes more steeply. Other visible differences between the coupe and hardtop are subtle, including tidy Z06 emblems on each side of the hardtop. Modest mesh air intakes in the nose and wedge-shaped mesh brake cooling inlets are visible on the rocker panels just aft the doors. Four 3.5-inch exhaust tips under the center of the rear bumper hint at more power. Special five-spoke aluminum wheels afford a view of big red brake calipers and are fitted with massive Goodyear F1 Supercar rubber, P265/40ZR up front, P295/35ZR out back. There is no spare, nor are the tires run-flat units; instead, you get an emergency tire-inflator kit. So take your cell phone and try not to run over any nails.
The Z06 is more than a hopped-up model; it's a vastly different animal. It was intended as a street racer with track capabilities, Chevrolet's one-up response to Ford's Mustang Cobra R. The designation Z06 has a rich history, dating back to the 1963 split-window Sting Ray, when the Z06 was a pure road-racing package. (The Z comes from Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette's famous first chief engineer.) Chevrolet has revived the Z06 designation for this more-than-worthy successor. Only now it's a separate model, not an option package.
The Z06 weighs 128 pounds less than the C5 coupe, even though it offers similar creature comforts, including leather, air conditioning, carpeting, a premium sound system, traction control and stability control. Using thinner glass, a titanium exhaust system and less insulation saves the weight. Don't bother arguing that insulation is a creature comfort; with a car like this, noise and spiritual comfort level are intertwined. Ask anyone who's driven a noisy racecar.
Corvette's lever-style door handles seem a bit dated, harder to grab than other designs.
C5 Corvettes come with comfortable cabins, something that wasn't always true of previous-generation models. Low doorsills and narrow side rails make getting in and out easier than before. The seats are comfortable and there's plenty of room for driver and passenger, though there isn't a lot of space for stuff. Front seat space in the three models is pretty much the same. The power seats have a memory function and the handsome analog gauges are easier to use and more satisfying than the old digital displays.
The manually operated convertible top stows neatly under a body-colored cover that folds flat at the forward edge of the trunk lid. The soft top is very nice. It's made of high-quality material and the rear window is glass. You'll need a demonstration or a trip to the owner's manual to figure out how to lower the top the first time, then it's quick and easy. We've seen no evidence of leaking in hard downpours nor at the car wash test, though we did notice some wind noise at the top of the driver's window at super-legal speeds. Riding in the convertible with the top down is very pleasant and lots of fun with much aural feedback. There's very little buffeting at speed.
The Corvette is not a quiet car, but the rattles and stress squeaks that have haunted Corvettes for so long have largely been eliminated. We noticed more road noise and engine noise in the convertible than in the coupe, and even more comes through in the Z06. However, this is a sports car, and noise, particularly the calculated growl of that terrific V8, is part of the deal.
Rearward visibility is a little limited. The rear window is a narrow slot. The side mirrors are wide, but not tall, and work fairly well. Put the top down and the convertible offers the best visibility, as if you needed another reason to drop the top on a spring day.
The coupe comes with a real trunk. Arriving at the airport after a trip halfway around the world, we were able to cram two huge duffel bags into a coupe. The coupe's trunk can hold 24.8 cubic feet of cargo, considerably more than the convertible's 13.9 cubic feet and the hardtop's 13.3 cubic feet. The convertible's trunk sits on top of the rear deck. It's an efficient space with a flat load floor. It's easy to pack the trunk, though you need to lift high and over to load baggage. You can get your clothes dirty leaning over the rear body work on rainy days if you're not careful. Thankfully, the convertible top doesn't seem to take up much of the trunk space when lowered.
The C5 is beautifully balanced, surprisingly comfortable, and is built to a far higher standard than any Corvette in history. The C5 handles great on a road course, but still reminds us of a muscle car when cruising along or accelerating down a straight stretch. The Corvette is a beast.
The standard Corvette engine, the LS1 V8, is potent. Stand on the throttle and it's fast traffic. It produces 350 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque with the six-speed manual transmission, and 360 pound-feet with the automatic.
The Corvette is quick out of the gate, whether equipped with the automatic or manual. While we prefer the six-speed, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there's enough muscle in the LS1 V8 to cover the performance penalties associated with auto-shifters. Miss one shift with the manual and the automatic in the lane next door will clean your clock. The automatic does not have a manual-shift mode, but it doesn't need one.
Unlike most ragtops, the Corvette convertible weighs about the same as the coupe, so its acceleration is undiluted: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5 seconds with the six-speed manual transmission, about 0.4 seconds slower with the automatic. The only performance penalty that goes with the convertible version is top speed. The ragtop doesn't share the coupe's aerodynamic efficiency, so it tops out at a mere 162 mph versus 175 mph for the coupe. Put the top down and there's even more drag and a correspondingly lower top speed. Still, that kind of speed will get you to the drive-in in a pretty big hurry, and in the local slammer even faster.
Ride quality is decidedly stiff. You don't get a sports car's ability to change directions without snubbing body roll and limiting up-and-down suspension motions, and when you do those things you're obliged to accept some tradeoff in comfort. Potholes are easily identifiable in the Corvette. The Corvette shutters over bumps, yet they are not uncomfortably harsh. You hear them and feel them, but they aren't jarring, and they don't unduly upset the handling balance. Handling is not as precise as a Porsche or BMW, there's a bit of a dead spot in the steering, but it's much less of a hammer than a Viper. The Corvette offers sharp reflexes on rural roads. It provides a superb blend of muscle and finesse, with a high tolerance for mistakes of the enthusiastic variety. Its brakes are nothing short of race-worthy.
There aren't any significant performance distinctions between the coupe and convertible. Chevrolet claims that the structural design for the C5 began with the convertible, and as a consequence no shoring-up measures were required for the soft-top chassis. You hear the same song from almost every purveyor of convertibles, but in this application it seems to be true. Significantly, we didn't see a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles (wherein the dashboard and the outside of the car oscillate at different rates). If there is any distinction to be made between the agility and stability of the Corvette coupe and convertible, it would be all but impossible to discern on public roads.
Active Handling, which comes standard, gets you out of slides before trouble strikes by applying braking to the individual corners as needed. It uses on-board sensors to measure yaw, lateral acceleration and steering wheel position, and uses ABS and traction control to correct oversteer or understeer. Corvette engineers calibrated the system to limit intrusiveness, however. Aside from an Active Handling message on the instrument panel, drivers might not always realize they've been assisted.
The Z06 is an absolute joy to drive fast. We found it rock-steady, precise, consistent, and fast at a smooth 2.2-mile road course near Las Vegas. The brakes didn't fade. The transmission and shift linkage were solid and tight, shifting perfectly each time, whether up or down. The handling is balanced: The Corvette didn't un
The fifth-generation, or C5, Chevrolet Corvette is said to have been the newest Corvette in the history of the model, sporting more changes than all previous models, including the original, which shared some parts with other Chevrolets. The C5 is by far the best Corvette to date. And with continuous refinements aimed at improving performance and ride quality, the 2004 Chevrolet Corvette is the best of the C5 models.
The Corvette is no longer this country's only sports car. And it has evolved well beyond what we would call affordable. But whether you choose the coupe, convertible or hardtop, there doesn't seem to be much question that the latest generation of this 50-year-old American is a world-class GT. Nothing can match the Corvette's pavement-ripping prowess per dollar.