What I'm Driving At: Yankee Doodle Dandy

It doesn't necessarily follow that every epiphany is pleasant. Sometimes what gets revealed might better have remained submerged, as I wish had been the case with a venomous spew of vituperation directed at me, ad hominem, by partisans of Chevrolet's fourth-generation, or C4, Corvette. When a reporter for the enthusiast television show I was then producing dared to wax lukewarm about the '96 Grand Sport Corvette, I received such a spate of detailed instructions for inserting assorted protuberances into various orifices that I had to resort to a dog-eared copy of Gray's Anatomy to confirm all of the esoteric possibilities. The episode was instructive not for what it revealed about Corvette but for what it said about the lunatic determination of certain intemperate auto buffs to worship America's only bona fide sports car. Corvette's homegrown status is, of itself, perennially noteworthy; but in the last year of the car's previous generation, the world's legitimate automotive community spent a lot of time and tact just tolerating Corvette's outdated shortcomings. Substantially unchanged since its debut in 1984, the C4 was fast to accelerate but also taxing to drive, harsh to ride, cramped to inhabit, and a handful to handle. By world-class standards, the '96 Corvette had wizened into something of an ill-mannered brute, and its like-mannered partisans did little to disabuse that notion. It is only fitting, then, during the week of Independence Day 1997 to celebrate the liberation of Chevrolet's newest-generation Corvette from the encumbrances of its past. Despite exterior styling that too little distinguishes this sports car from its predecessor, the C5 is the most dramatic expression of Corvette's essential sporting ethos since the original concept debuted at the 1953 Motorama auto show as General Motors' "Dream Car." Ironically for a car so visibly svelte in every drape and fold of its flowing body panels, the new Corvette is positively bristling with cutting-edge technology. For technical purists, the engineering advances in motor, gearbox, chassis, and suspension may well outweigh the thrill of C5's refined driveability. For starters, Chevy may have retained a small-block, pushrod, 350-cubic-inch V8 for the new 'Vette, but that summary description is all the new LS1 motor shares with its LT-designated forebears. It's a ground-up redesign, fabricated entirely in aluminum and featuring "deep skirt" racing architecture. Making monster 345 horsepower, the LS1 is nevertheless 100 pounds lighter than the 300 HP mill it replaces. A lower overall profile lets it snug beneath a sleeker, more aerodynamic expanse of hood. Exploiting race-tech even further is the C5's rear-mounted 6-speed gearbox (with an optional 4-speed auto available). Corvette is the world's only production vehicle so equipped, and the resulting improvements in weight distribution and handling are significant, considering the car's inherently nose-heavy, front-engine layout. More exotic yet is the C5's frame, composed of super-stiff hydroformed tubing. Using super-heated, hyper-pressurized water, the hydroforming process essentially "inflates" structural tubing to form it into complex, rigid shapes. The new Corvette is the auto world's most ambitious use of this sci-fi technology to date, and its chassis is the stiffest 'Vette yet (with obvious ramifications for good handling and a pleasant ride). It's a bit quaint, then, that the car's flooring is a space-age composite of two fiberglass-type layers sandwiching a mundane slab of balsa wood. The material is uncannily strong, obviously light, and especially proficient at deadening sound. Indeed, the new Corvette is so comprehensively new, it risks inspiring a trance-like worship among the technically minded. Driving the car, though, is guaranteed to break the spell. There is simply no substitute for experiencing the dynamic, aesthetic thrill of the C5 at speed. Unlike the 'Vettes that came before, the C5 coddles and coaxes the driver to do more: accelerate faster, corner deeper, brake harder. It's polite where its ancestors might often have been rude; it's forgiving where its predecessors could often be heartless. This new 'Vette manages to weave driver and passenger seamlessly into the experience of motion. And when that obligatory moment comes to slam down the biggest burnout you can muster, it's fitting that both rear tires roil silently, seemingly ad infinitum, midst billows of smoke, as if initiating the launch of a time machine. Some creature comforts in the '97 'Vette are especially indicative of its newfound manners. While removing and stowing the targa top on last year's coupe required a special wrench and a good 10 minutes, the C5's pop top unlatches 1-2-3 and glides into molded holders under the fastback window. A ticker-tape-style readout in the dash is the key to all manner of clever customizing options for driveability and comfort. "How may I be of service?" the C5 seems to ask--in marked contrast to the C4's "My way or no way, bub." As authentic and appropriate as they appear, the perforated, bare-metal pedals in the C5 are a little slippery for aggressive footwork at speed--they could stand a rougher, more textured finish. And a helpful word of warning: If you like to get off by flicking the rear end around in controlled power slides, switch off the traction control. (Duh.) Otherwise, the car will cut off its powerband at the knees in an attempt to save you from your ostentatious self. By maintaining the 'Vette's sticker at the low- to mid-$40,000 range, Chevrolet has accomplished at least two laudable goals. It has succeeded in ratcheting up the overall sophistication of its performance flagship without sky-balling the price. And it has preserved the psychological advantage that lets middle-class buyers reward their egos without bankrupting their finances. Keep in mind there are certain hidden costs, like specialty tires and "designer" synthetic oil (Mobil 1), that make a 'Vette more expensive to feed than other cars. But if you successfully run the gauntlet of insuring the thing, the higher-priced consumables will look like an afterthought. The new C5 Corvette preserves Chevrolet's reputation as sole keeper of this country's high-performance flame. This is a Yankee Doodle Dandy of a car that will stand up to any rival in the world without betraying its quintessential, all-American character. It has opened a new chapter for the sports-car driving experience in this country; perhaps it also closes the book on misguided loyalties in the process.

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