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What I'm Driving At: For Crying Out Loud

When a carmine-red Chevrolet Corvette convertible showed up for an evaluation last fall, I just didn't feel like the timing was right. Not that I didn't exploit the heck out of it, braving miles of windburn and dry-eye in the frosting air, all in the pursuit of test-driving duty. My buddy DeeBee III even helped me out with the little boy's perspective: "My knees are still shaking," his fifth-grader admitted between nervous grins that followed a spirited lap around the block. Still, I couldn't bring myself to glory this car in print at the onset of winter.Now we find ourselves at the threshold of premature spring, and against their better instincts blooms are bursting out of dormancy in yards and gardens all over Middle Tennessee. At first, I thought, "This can't be happening" as my driveway effloresced into deep purple and bright yellow last week. But there it was: Chevrolet's '98 Corvette Convertible, decked out in blatant "Indy 500 Pace Car" livery, with yellow wheels offset by purple metallic bodywork and screaming black-and-yellow leather seats. What with flaming scrolls of pin-striping swirling from hood to trunk, and the clarion headline "Official Pace Car, Indianapolis 500, May 24, 1998" superimposed on each door, the car openly flouted every conceivable loudness ordinance-even with the ignition off. On the other side of our winter-that-never-was (but frosted by the same 40-degree mornings that chilled last fall), I suddenly found I had no alternative but to answer the call of the wild behind the wheel of America's latest, greatest-and now most conspicuous-sports car. Like the immoderate crocus that presses its headlong rush into spring, I could resist temptation no longer: Top down, driving gloves on, face to the breeze, I hit the road in this most flagrant of cars, ready to roar it, floor it, toss it, pose in it. It was time to go roadstering.There are really two approaches one must take to a car like this-a bicameral exercise, actually. Last fall's more subdued, mono-colored Corvette convertible is actually the more fitting symbol for the car's left-brain, technical qualifications. This fifth-generation Corvette roadster (or C5 in code-speak) represents a culmination of the technologies and design innovations that appeared first in the '97 coupe. The list of notable performance features is ample: an all-new LS1 V8 that may well be the apotheosis of traditional pushrod engine design; rear-mounted gearboxes (in 6-speed manual or 4-speed auto versions) that balance handling and free up interior space; central sheet-steel backbone architecture that raises platform rigidity to world-class performance standards.This last accomplishment, in fact, is what the new convertible showcases best. Because the car's frame owes its integrity primarily to the central backbone, to exotic hydroformed side rails, and to a floor pan that sandwiches end-grain balsa wood between sheets of polymer composite, the roadster pays no structural penalty for its lack of a roof. Accordingly, it is virtually flex-free on the road, with no cowl shake to disturb either handling or aesthetics. As a package, the C5 convertible is the easiest, most predictable, best-balanced, lightest-feeling Corvette ever made. As a totem, the C5 convertible is the first Corvette to make a legitimate bid for the world-class laurels guarded so covetously by Euro-marques costing three and four times the 'Vette roadster's base price of $44,425.It's just a short drive over Broca's Bridge, however, into the right-brain personality of such as the '98 Pace Car Replica. With all the subtlety of a feathered boa and stiletto heels, this deep-purple/chrome-yellow bon-bon displays the hysterical passions of a flamboyant cross-dresser. And indeed, one's first reaction to all the frou-frou is to sit stone-faced-behind the wheel and behind dark sunglasses-despairing of being spotted by close friends or under-quota gendarmes. Then come the wolf whistles and the solicitations: "Got time for a quickie?" Suddenly you're pandering between this tarted-up roadster with a heart of gold and every red-blooded all-American with an itch in his accelerator foot and a lust for speed in his heart.In short, I spent the week regaling old friends and new acquaintances with 345-horsepower nickel dances. Beneath the heavy makeup, this replica pace car cuts an impressive rug. As one of just 1,158 limited-edition models, this instant collectible is no mere gaud. Thanks to a comprehensive "mandatory" option package that adds $5,754 to the sticker, the car incorporates a technological first: Chevrolet's sophisticated Active Handling chassis control system, which "learns" a driver's driving style and "revises" handling maneuvers when they push the limits of control.In a nutshell, Active Handling integrates the Corvette's anti-lock braking and traction-control systems into a fast-thinking network of steering, yaw, and lateral g-force sensors. When sports car adepts-or wannabes-tread right up to the line of the car's handling capabilities, Active Handling will subtly compensate for oversteer (when the rear end begins to break loose) and for understeer (when the front end pushes wide). Unnoticed by the driver, the appropriate brakes nudge first this wheel, then that one, to maintain traction and tracking stability. For those accustomed to high-speed performance driving, the sensation is positively uncanny: The car seems to reset its equilibrium instantaneously and progressively as conditions change.Far from fighting the driver for control, Active Handling gives a proficient driver an even wider array of tools for sporting competently about. More importantly, perhaps, for the tyro who overestimates his appetite for 345 horsepower in a 3,200-lb. projectile, Active Handling may spell the difference between "once-had" and "still-have" for a sports car that suffers fools inhospitably. By midyear, Active Handling will find its way onto the option lists of all new Corvettes, both convertibles and coupes.Meantime, the Indy Pace Car convertible is the only Corvette configured in such precocious fashion. Indeed, it may well be this particular 'Vette's most fashionable accouterment. It is not the most conspicuous one, however. Not even the passion purple-yellow blare of this car's outlandish frocks earns that claim. Judge for yourself: What's first and foremost noticeable about every Corvette convertible on the road is the irrepressible smile gilding the face of every driver behind the wheel.

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