And for all its performance, the Corvette does not exact a painful toll on its driver or passenger. Chevrolet has eliminated nearly all the cruder, less desirable traits that characterized Corvettes of yore. The 2006 Corvette could be a reasonably comfortable daily driver in most locales, for at least three of the four seasons.
Known to sports car enthusiasts as the C6 (for sixth generation), the current-generation Corvette was all-new for model year 2005. It's much better than the C5 it replaced, which was a solid sports car in its own right. What makes the C6 better is everything: performance, refinement, ease of operation. It's more comfortable and easier to drive, not only on the road, but also on a race track. It quickly infuses the driver with confidence. It feels like it has more grip than the C5, and it does. It's more agile than before yet more stable. Its new brakes are excellent and, yes, it's faster. If you believe the best time to buy a car is in its second year of production, then the 2006 Corvette is the one to buy.
The standard Corvette coupe and convertible are powered by Chevy's 6.0-liter LS2 V8. This engine sounds great and intoxicates with its acceleration. New for 2006 is an optional six-speed Paddle Shift automatic transmission. With either the manual or automatic, the coupe is awesome, and the convertible is really wonderful. Drop the top on a nice day, turn on the stereo and you'll likely have what psychologists call a peak experience. It's a wonderful feeling and at those moments the Corvette more than justifies its price.
The headline for the 2006 model year is a new, ultra-high performance Z06 model. The Corvette Z06 is a true supercar for a price that's merely expensive, as opposed to insanely expensive. This ultra-high-performance coupe features a new 7.0-liter LS7 V8, high-tech, weight trimming chassis features and upgraded brakes. If any $66,000 car can be called a bargain, this is the one. The Z06 Corvette accelerates faster, grips better and stops shorter than European sports cars that cost twice as much.
Chevrolet Corvette coupe ($44,190); Convertible ($51,890); Z06 coupe ($65,800)
The exposed headlights usually draw the first comments. Since the early 1960s, Corvettes used hideaway headlamps to complement their sleek designs, but advances in optics and lighting technology now enable designers to achieve those goals with exposed headlights. From an engineering standpoint, the new headlamps are better than the old hideaways: They are lighter, which means less weight hanging out over the front wheels, a critical area in terms of overhang, polar moments of inertia and all that engineering stuff that does affect handling. Trimming weight in front is always difficult in a high performance front-engine car, so this is an important reduction. The new lights also eliminate a lot of mechanical complexity and allow a higher-quality lighting setup. On top of all that, they offer better performance: Chevrolet says lighting is improved 85 percent. So the exposed headlights are good thing.
More important than the headlamps, however, are the Corvette's smaller proportions. The C6 is fully 5 inches shorter than the C5 (3 inches shorter in front, 2 inches shorter in the rear), and the standard models are one inch narrower. Smaller size and lighter weight improve agility. The C6 also cuts a tighter profile, and it does all that without eliminating usable interior space. In addition to the handling benefits, the more diminutive dimensions make the Corvette more appealing on the tighter roads found in other parts of the world, particularly Europe.
The C6 body work is smoother aerodynamically and generates less lift in front than the C5, which results in better grip and increased stability at high speeds. The sculpted fenders, sharp creases that sweep dramatically up to the planed rear deck and other aspects of the design call to mind race cars as well as jet fighters. The narrower rear end is the biggest improvement from a styling standpoint, offering more pleasing proportions. The four jeweled taillights make the new Corvette look like an F18 taking off in full afterburner mode.
The optics of the reverse lights magnify the light they throw out, helpful when backing up in this beast.
The headlights are only one part of Chevrolet's efforts to trim weight from the front of the Corvette. Rather than being attached directly behind the engine, the transmission is mounted behind the seats and connected to the differential. In the Z06, this quest for front-rear balance extends to the weight of the battery, which is relocated from under the hood to the rear cargo area.
The Z06 is distinguished from other 2006 Corvettes by lots of subtle appearance tweaks, starting with the roof. The Z06 roof is fixed rather than removable, to add an extra element of structural stiffness for track driving. So you'll never see a transparent plastic roof panel on a Z06.
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 rear wheels are fully 12 inches wide, or two inches wider than those on the standard Vette). In back, the Z06 spoiler is slightly more prominent, and its exhaust outlets are wider, too (four inches in diameter at the tips). There are also several Z06 body and chassis changes that aren't apparent to the eye. The Z06 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 much heavier engine and drivetrain, the Z06 weighs 50 pounds less than a standard Corvette coupe.
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. Sensors detect your key and unlock the door. Climb in, buckle up, and press the starter button.
The cockpit in this sixth-generation car is much improved over past Corvettes. It no longer looks like an upgraded Camaro inside. The two-tone leather treatment no longer makes us feel that a black leather jacket is required attire. The 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, and they no longer resemble something from a movie-prop space ship.
The seats are comfortable and easier to adjust than those in past Corvettes. Sitting in the Corvette still evokes that feeling of sitting deep down in a massive machine, but there's more headroom than ever, and the windshield doesn't seem as 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 instruments are big analog gauges that are easy to read at a glance. The Z06 gets a unique cluster with more gauges. 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 Convertible's five-layer fabric top is available in four colors, and it features an option not offered in a Corvette since 1962: 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 the racy appearance of an open-cockpit Le Mans prototype. Naturally, the convertible gives up some cargo capacity. It offers 10.5 cubic feet of storage with the top up, which isn't bad for a roadster, and just 5.1 with the top down.
The coupe offers 22.4 cubic feet of trunk space, more than most sports cars.
The automatic's six forward gears have smaller steps between them, which enhances the feeling of performance and smoothness and allows the engine to run at optimal rpm more often. First gear has a much higher ratio than that in the old four-speed automatic, delivering even more impressive acceleration off the line. Yet both fifth and sixth are overdrive gears, allowing quiet cruising and good highway mileage. In short, the six-speed automatic delivers an even better balance of exciting acceleration and good 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 Vette 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 getting with the program, but smooth and softly when cruising.
The six-speed automatic would be news enough for a given model year, but for enthusiast drivers it pales in comparison to the big event for 2006: the return of the mighty Corvette Z06 after a one-year hiatus.
The Z06 is the most powerful production Corvette ever, boasting 505 horsepower. Its new LS7 V8 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. However, it's still an overhead-valve engine, 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 springs and shocks in the Z06 suspension are about 15 percent stiffer than those with the optional Z51 performance suspension for the standard Corvette. The cross-drilled brake rotors are larger, with high-performance six-piston calipers in front and four-piston calipers in the rear. The Z06 has a fixed roof, rather than a removable panel like the standard coupe, for a bit more overall structural stiffness. Its frame is made entirely of lightweight aluminum and magnesium, rather than high-strength steel, and its fenders are lightweight carbon fiber rather than fiberglass. As a result, the Z06 is substantially lighter than the standard Corvette coupe, even though its engine, transmission and other super high-performance components are substantially heavier.
Bottom line? At $65,800, the 2006 Corvette Z06 is easily the best supercar value in high-performance automotive history: 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds, 11.7-second quarter mile, 200-mph top speed and 1.04 g constant lateral grip, according to Chevrolet. Those numbers surpass the Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari F430, 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. With impressive EPA mileage numbers of 16 mpg city and 24 highway, the Z06 doesn't even get a gas-guzzler tax.
The 2006 Chevrolet Corvette is the best ever. It's easier to live with, easier to drive and more fun than past models. Of course, it should be. More to the point, it offers an excellent performance value when measured against other sports cars, and generates many grins per mile. The new Z06 raises the ante a good $20,000, but it borders on amazing. Its performance meets or surpasses that from cars that cost many times more. It pushes the envelope to limits hard-core enthusiast drivers wouldn't have imagined just 10 years ago from an off-the-shelf production car, at any price. If you've always wanted a Corvette, this is a great time to get one.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Detroit; Jeff Vettraino contributed to this report.