The Chevrolet Corvette is the best bang for the buck when it comes to serious performance. For the price of a midsize luxury sedan, the Corvette delivers supercar performance. It's easy to drive on a daily basis and maintenance costs are not exotic.
We love the Coupe, with either the manual or Paddle Shift automatic. It's blazingly fast yet it quickly infuses the driver with confidence. Its brakes are fantastic. The 6-speed automatic transmission works great and lives up to the advanced technology in the rest of the car; it can be shifted manually with levers on the steering column.
The Convertible on the other hand is plain wonderful. Drop the top on a nice day, pop in your favorite CD, and you might have what psychologists call a peak experience, a moment where you revel in being alive. It's a fantastic feeling, and at those moments the Corvette more than justifies its price. The aural sounds of the burbling V8, the body-colored trim that surrounds the cabin, the feel of power beneath, it is automotive heaven.
The Corvette can be a reasonably comfortable daily driver in most locales, for at least three of the four seasons. The latest-generation Corvette is a sophisticated car, and its performance does not exact a painful toll on driver or passenger. And, with all that performance, it still gets better fuel economy than most SUVs. The standard Corvette with 6-speed manual gets an EPA-rated 16/26 mpg City/Highway, 15/25 mpg with the 6-speed automatic.
The Z06 version is a true supercar for a price that's merely expensive, as opposed to insanely expensive. The Z06 is powered by the 7.0-liter 505-horsepower LS7 V8, has a lightweight chassis and is fitted with upgraded brakes. If any $75,000 car can be called a bargain, this is the one, at least in terms of raw performance. The Corvette Z06 accelerates faster, grips better and stops shorter than European sports cars that cost twice as much. And we find it easier to drive than a Viper. Indeed, it takes an expensive machine, well driven, to compete with a Z06. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 15/24 mpg with the manual, 14/20 mpg with the automatic.
Moving even further upward is the ZR1, a limited-production extremely high performance iteration that boasts a 6.2-liter V8 that's supercharged and cranks out 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque. It is the most powerful, quickest, fastest, most capable and highest-performing production car ever built by General Motors, which also makes it the highest-performing Corvette ever built, and carries a hefty price tag.
For 2011, Chevrolet has improved the Corvette with some modest changes. Most significantly, the Z06 has been upgraded with standard Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar Gen 2 tires and revised exhaust tuning. A new Z07 option adds Brembo ceramic brakes, Magnetic Selective Ride Control, larger Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, and Competition Gray 20-spoke wheels (19-inches in front and 20 on the rear). A new Carbon Fiber package (code CFZ) adds a black carbon fiber splitter, rockers, and roof panel; plus a body-color, ZR1-style full-width rear spoiler. Larger, cross-drilled brake rotors are now offered on base models (and come standard with the Magnetic Selective Ride Control suspension). A handsome new five-slim-spoke wheel design distinguishes the 2011 Corvette from last year's. Contrasting-color headlamp housings (in Cyber Gray, Black or Blade Silver) and color-stitched interiors are available across the board, and all navigation-equipped Corvettes now come with a USB port.
Chevrolet Corvette Coupe ($48,950); Convertible ($53,600); Grand Sport Coupe ($54,790); Grand Sport Convertible ($58,600); Z06 Coupe ($74,305); ZR1 Coupe ($109,800)
Low and sleek, today's Corvette shows a bit of Italian flair. This sixth-generation Corvette, called C6, was introduced as a 2005 model.
From some angles, it's almost pretty. However, functional elements dictate the design and the result is a forward motion that implies performance. The lines of the bulging hood, the shape of the fenders, and the cat's-eye headlights all point forward to a subtle beaklike shape. A pair of fog lights flanks a wide air intake below.
Vents behind the front tires let hot air out of the engine compartment. The sculpted fenders, with sharp creases that sweep dramatically up to the planed rear deck, call to mind race cars as well as jet fighters. At the back, four round taillights recall Corvette's past and make the car look like an F-18 taking off in full afterburner mode. On the functional side, the optics of the reverse lights magnify the light they throw out to help when backing up in this beast. To move weight from the front to the rear, the transmission is mounted behind the seats and connected to the differential, rather than being attached directly behind the engine.
In the Z06, this quest for front-rear balance extends to the weight of the battery, which is relocated in the rear cargo area.
The Z06 is distinguished from other Corvettes by lots of subtle appearance tweaks, starting with the roof. It's fixed rather than removable, adding an extra element of structural stiffness for track driving. You'll never see a transparent roof panel on a Z06: it would add weight and increase the height of the center of gravity.
In front, the Z06 has a wider, lower grille and a separate, unique air scoop above the bumper to shove more intake air under the hood. Its fenders are wider front and rear to cover massively wide tires and rims (the front wheels are 9.5 inches wide and the rears are fully 12 inches wide, or two inches wider than those on the standard Vette). In back, brake scoops are located in front of the rear wheels, the Z06 spoiler is slightly more prominent, and its exhaust outlets are wider, too (four inches in diameter at the tips).
Several Z06 body and chassis changes are not visible. The frame is made entirely of hydro-formed aluminum (the standard Vettes have steel rails), with a magnesium engine cradle, and its fenders are formed from ultra-light carbon fiber. As a result, and despite a heavier engine and drivetrain, the Z06 weighs only 3,175 pounds.
Take the Z06 and move the theme further along and you arrive at, generally, the ZR1, which has some of its own distinctive features. Chief among them is probably the transparent section in the hood, which allows the proud owner to show off the engine without having to actually do anything except point, as if even that will be required, once one of these things gets parked in a crowd of Corvette enthusiasts.
The Corvette cabin features premium soft surfaces, nice grain in the materials and elegant tailoring. The dashboard is finished in a soft material that feels rich to the touch. Real metal accents are used, but they don't generate glare. The electronics displays serve the driver without getting in the way.
The steering wheel is relatively small. It feels good in the hands and affords a good view of the instruments.
The seats are comfortable and fairly easy to adjust, though moving the manually operated backrest forward is a problem because your weight is invariably resting on it when you want to adjust it. Sitting in the Corvette evokes that feeling of sitting deep down in a massive machine. There's plenty of headroom and the windshield doesn't seem too close to the driver's face. Hefty side bolstering on the optional sport seats, even more so with those in the Z06, makes it more difficult to slide in, but the bolsters squeeze around the thighs and torso and hold the driver like Velcro.
The Corvette is available with a special two-tone leather package that adds leather upholstery to the top of the instrument panel, upper door panels, and console cover. The effect is a more elegant, higher end look than the Corvette has had in the past.
The instruments are big analog gauges, easy to read at a glance. The Z06 gets a unique cluster with more gauges, and the ZR1 has a supercharger boost gauge. The Corvette is, thankfully, devoid of a lot of digital readouts. One exception is the head-up display, which projects speed, rpm and even g-forces onto the windshield, a handy and entertaining feature. The upgrade Bose stereo system includes redundant controls on the steering wheel hub for most functions.
Cubby storage is decent. The glovebox is roomy and, in the Coupe, there is 22.0 cubic feet of storage space under the glass behind the rear seats. That's more than the trunk space in a sedan, with plenty of room for golf bags. You need to be careful when loading to avoid scratching the bodywork, however, and the liftover height is high; this is not a sedan or everyday hatchback.
There's no need to take the key out of your pocket to unlock the Corvette or start its engine. Simply walk up and pull the door handle. With the keyless start feature, sensors detect your key and unlock the door. Climb in, buckle up, and press the starter button. We're not sold on the benefits of keyless starting, however.
The Convertible's five-layer fabric top is available in three colors, and it offers power operation. The power top operates with a single-button control and completes its cycle in 18 seconds. An easy-to-operate manual top is standard. The Convertible looks good with the top up, and it looks terrific with the top down, with body-color trim that gives it a racy appearance.
The Convertible gives up some cargo capacity. It offers 11 cubic feet of storage with the top up, which isn't bad for a roadster, and 7.5 cubic feet with the top down.
The Chevrolet Corvette is a lot of fun to drive in any iteration. The LS3 V8 engine sounds great, and its low, throaty roar is accompanied by thrilling acceleration. Stand on the gas and even the automatic will chirp the rear tires when it shifts into second.
To put the Corvette's performance in perspective, understand that the least-powerful engine available makes 430 horsepower. The Corvette can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and cover the standing quarter-mile in 12.5 seconds. There's lots of torque at all engine speeds, and throttle response is very willing. This thing goes, and it boasts a top speed of 190 mph. We haven't experienced 190 mph, but on a tight racing circuit we found this latest-generation Corvette much easier to drive than older models. Today's Corvette is easier to drive hard into the turns, braking hard, then powering out under hard acceleration.
The Corvette is happy cruising around, as well. With all the impressive performance it gets an EPA-rated 16/26 mpg City/Highway with the manual, 15/25 mpg with the automatic.
The 6-speed automatic and 6-speed manual are each appealing in their own right, so choosing between them comes down to priorities and personal preference.
We're here to tell you the manual is a viable option as a daily driver. It shifts easily and the clutch is easy to operate smoothly. For fuel economy purposes, Chevrolet includes a mechanism that forces you to shift from first to fourth gear when accelerating slowly. We find this annoying, but adjusted to it. This fuel-economy strategy can be avoided by revving higher and waiting longer to shift. Fifth and sixth gears are both overdrives, again to improve fuel efficiency. Shifting through the gears is a lot of fun and it's easy to brake and downshift using the racer-style heel-and-toe method when approaching a corner (actually by braking with the ball of the foot and blipping the throttle with the right side of the foot). In short, it's a modern, easy-to-operate manual; we'd own one. Launch Control optimizes performance for full-throttle starts for all manual-transmission Corvettes by monitoring engine torque 100 times per second and maximizing available traction. As such, the system is capable of approaching a skilled driver's very best efforts, and does it with consistency.
The automatic is best for commuting in stop-and-go traffic, however, and it gives up little to the manual in performance. The Paddle Shift automatic offers manual shifting via steering-wheel levers and an electronic controller with more computing power than the typical PC had 10 years ago. The relatively close ratios offer good performance and smoothness by allowing the engine to run at optimal rpm more often. First gear delivers impressive acceleration off the line. Yet both fifth and sixth are overdrive gears, allowing quiet cruising and good highway mileage. If ever a sporting car were suited for an automatic transmission, it's the Corvette, with its big, torquey V8. The automatic does not sap all the fun out of driving the way automatics do in small sports cars with small engines. It's responsive to the driver's intent, shifting hard and fast when you're accelerating quickly, but shifting smooth and soft when cruising.
In the handling department, the Corvette is agile and easy to toss around, benefits of its light weight, trim proportions and refined suspension. The Coupe weighs a trim 3,208 pounds.
We liked the standard suspension and would not hesitate to order a Corvette so equipped. Ride quality is firm but quite pleasant, not harsh. It offers great handling, even on a racing circuit. There's almost no body lean when cornering hard. In short, the cheapest, most basic Corvette is a great car. No need to step up any further.
The Grand Sport package makes the Corvette more fun on a race track. It uses the standard powertrain, but has wider-body styling, a wider track and a racing-tuned suspension. It also has wider wheels and mounts 275/35ZR18 tires in front and 325/30ZR19 tires in the rear, and has 14.0-inch brake rotors with six-piston calipers in front and 13.4-inch rear rotors with four-piston calipers. The manual transmission has specific ratios, and, with the automatic transmission, the rear axle ratio is specific. This combination delivers excellent grip in fast sweepers, with just the right amount of body lean. You will feel and hear bumps more, but it's quite livable. Around town, it will handle bumpy neighborhood streets well and not feel terribly harsh. For 2011, Grand Sports are now available with Magnetic Ride Control, and the package includes Goodyear F1 Supercar Gen 2 tires when ordered with a manual transmission.
For competition or hard driving on back roads, a serious enthusiast would prefer the Grand Sport, but most drivers will be perfectly happy with the standard suspension and will never feel like they're missing out. Still, Chevrolet reports that in 2010 half of all base coupes and 70 percent of Convertibles sold were Grand Sports.
The F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control covers both ends of the spectrum, offering the best of both worlds; a very similar setup is used on Ferrari's most expensive models. The driver can switch between Touring and Sport modes, each of which adjusts shock damping automatically according to driving conditions. In the Touring mode, the suspension varies damping from very soft when poking along to something close to the Grand Sport's stiffness when driven hard; these adjustments in damping happen very rapidly. Touring mode felt a little softer to us than the standard suspension on a country road. It filters vibration well, but it verged on feeling a tad floaty in some situations. Switching to Sport mode raises the floor (but not the ceiling) in terms of firmness, so you feel road vibration more. Still, it's not harsh. All in all, Magnetic Selective Ride Control is a great setup. It comes with fade- and moisture-resistant cross-drilled brake rotors. Choosing between the standard and electronic suspensions is problematic only because it gives us a choice. If they gave us one or the other, we'd be perfectly happy, but true performance junkies will probably prefer the Grand Sport setup.
The brakes are smooth, progressive and easy to modulate. The Corvette is very stable under hard braking and it doesn't get unsettled when braking and turning at the same time. Be advised, however, that the engine has so much power that the rear end can break loose if the gas is applied too hard in a turn.
The Z06 has 505 horsepower from its LS7 V8, which displaces 7.0 liters, or 427 cubic inches, just like the famous 427 Vettes of the late '60s. Yet the original 427s were big-block engines. While the LS7 generates big-block torque (470 pound-feet), it's actually a small block V8, so it's lighter and much more compact than the original 427s. Yes, it's still an overhead-valve engine (as are all Corvette powerplants), and in certain respects it has more in common with a heavy-duty Silverado pickup than a Ferrari. Yet the LS7 is impressively tuned and highly refined. The Z06 features a host of racing technologies that enhance durability, including dry-sump engine lubrication and separate cooling systems for the oil, power steering, rear axle and six-speed manual transmission.
The Z06 is a great supercar value in high-performance automotive history: Zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, 11.7-second quarter mile, top speed in the neighborhood of 200 mpg, and 1.04 g constant lateral grip, according to Chevrolet. These numbers surpass those generated by European sports cars that cost twice as much as the Z06 during clearance sales, and all but a handful of low-volume, $500,000-plus specials built in small workshops around the world. And here's the real stunner: The Z06 does all that with nothing more than a slightly stiff ride on really bad roads when driven around town. There's nothing finicky in this monster. Yet, with impressive EPA mileage numbers of 15 mpg City and 24 Highway, the Z06 doesn't even get a Gas Guzzler Tax.
On the other hand, driving the ZR1 hard has been likened to an exercise in trying to stay about two corners ahead of the thing. Chevrolet says it will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, from 0 to 100 mph in 7 seconds, with a quarter-mile acceleration time of 11.3 seconds at a speed of just over 130 mph, and continue on from there to a top speed of 205 mph. Perhaps most impressive is a claimed time for the somewhat-well-known exercise of 0-100-0: From a standing start, to 100 mph, and back to a dead stop. Chevrolet claims it will make that little endeavor in 12 seconds flat, which is far, far better than any ride you're going to find at an amusement park.
The ZR1 is extraordinarily quick from point-to-point on a race track, or getting down a curvy road. In all probability, the number of drivers in the world who could use up all that a car like this has to offer is not a very big number, and would not include anyone what has either not had some serious racing experience, or some serious car-testing experience. The problem is that if you use a car like either the Z06 or the ZR1 (or even the regular Corvette, for that matter) to anywhere near the edges of its capabilities, you are going very, very fast. The corners come up very quickly, the requirement for saving the situation becomes a very difficult thing to do and the consequences of a mistake are enormous. The ZR1 is not a car for the faint of heart or for those without the highest of skill levels.
However, it is possible for the ZR1 to be driven in a more sensible manner and, in this way, it behaves quite civilized. It's comfortable and fairly quiet.
Still, the standard Corvette is far easier to live with every day than either the Z06 or ZR1, with a smoother ride on rough roads and a lighter clutch pedal. And it has 430 horsepower.
The Chevrolet Corvette is the great American sports car. It's thrilling to drive and delivers breathtaking acceleration performance and exceptionally tenacious grip for braking and cornering. Yet it's fairly easy to live with and relatively easy to drive. The ultra-high-performance Z06 and Grand Sport models push the envelope for off-the-shelf production cars to incredible limits. For everyday driving, our choice is for one of the standard models.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Los Angeles; with Jeff Vettraino in Detroit, and Kirk Bell in Chicago.