Lifestyle

The No-Sweat 'Vette


Corvette_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

If you’re looking for a Corvette experience without the demands of a manual tranny, check out the easier, though by no means wimpy, automatic version

There are people who would compare driving a Corvette with an automatic transmission to going surfing in a raincoat. Why bother to get behind the wheel of one of the great performance cars on the road, the enthusiast argues, and let a microchip take over one of the most exciting elements of driving?

We wouldn't necessarily disagree with that viewpoint.

The fact is, however, that manual transmissions are disappearing from the American market, even on performance cars. The folks at Chevy say that about 70% of all buyers of the basic Corvette—as opposed to the even speedier Z06 (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/9/05, "Corvette Z06: Fast Wheels for Strong Hearts"), which only comes with a stick shift—now get the car with an automatic. If you're one of those people, read on.

As any lover of performance cars knows, the sixth-generation Corvette came out in the 2005 model year to near-universal acclaim (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/24/05, "Going Topless in the Best Vette Yet"). The big innovation in the '06 model is a new, far more refined automatic transmission: six forward speeds (versus four before), with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow the driver to shift gears manually without using a clutch. The new shifting apparatus is matched with a new rear transaxle that, among other things, helps give the 'Vette an even weight balance between the front and rear of the vehicle.

Whichever transmission you choose, the sixth-generation Corvette is hardly a milquetoast. It's shorter and more European-looking than the previous version and has exposed Xenon headlights rather than the open-and-close ones Corvettes had become known for. It comes standard with a six-liter, 400-horsepower engine that delivers 400 foot-pounds of torque. The owner's manual gives you an idea of its speediness: Do not try to downshift into fourth gear at speeds greater than 168 mph, the manual warns, or into third at more than 124 mph. Any car that can do 130-plus in fourth gear without seeming to strain has real moxie.

The Corvette's interior also is much improved. The ragtop is multilayered and very well made; there were no air leaks in the top on my test car. The glovebox and center console seemed cleaner and more solid than on the '05, though the materials used aren't fancy. The instrument panel and doors are clad in what GM describes as “cast-skin foam-in-place trim.” It ain't leather, but it looks good and the company says it's very durable. The shiny metal rear wall in the passenger compartment with the Corvette logo in the middle is another inexpensive design solution that works well. Made me want to eat some red meat.

The new Corvette is a winner in business terms, too. In an otherwise disastrous year for General Motors (GM), sales were up 13.4% to 16,125 through the end of May. The popularity of the new automatic is one reason for the car's continuing success.

Behind the Wheel

How does this car do on the road? Anyone who has watched a new Corvette snake down the road can probably intuit what it's like to drive one. The car is very light (under 3,200 pounds), but also very low to the ground and stable. It sits on big, 18-inch wheels up front and 19-inchers in the back. Wide, road-gripping Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires are standard—8.5 inches wide up front and 10 inches wide in the rear for added traction and braking power.

Out back are four intimidating chrome tailpipes, and even with the automatic transmission, the exhaust note is fear-inducing. As with the Cadillac XLR-V, you hit the pedal and it sounds like hurricane-force winds are gathering behind you.

Still, the Corvette ragtop automatic I tested isn't as fast as the stick shift Coupe, which is rated to jump from zero-to-sixty in 4.2 seconds, or the Cadillac XLR-V, which has a bigger, supercharged 443-horsepower Northstar V-8 (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/28/06, "$100,000 Cadillac") and can do zero-to-sixty in under 5 seconds.

I did some zero-to-sixty trials on the same deserted blacktop road on which I tested the XLR-V. Using the paddle shifters, my fastest zero-to-sixty time in the Corvette was 5 seconds, a tick faster than the 5.1 seconds it took with the automatic doing the shifting on its own and the transmission set to “sport” mode. I found it hard to juggle shifting and using the in-dash stopwatch, so it took numerous attempts to achieve those times. Putting the car in sport mode, by the way, activates something called “performance algorithm shifting,” which senses when the driver is pushing the car and emulates the firmer shifting pattern of a performance driver.

The Corvette's new six-speed automatic is far more refined than the previous one. At lower speeds, there are smaller steps between shifts, making it smoother than the old automatic. Fifth and sixth speeds are overdrive gears, which is why the Corvette can go well over 100 mph in fourth gear—and also part of the reason why it gets such fantastic mileage in highway driving. The Corvette with automatic transmission is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, which is amazing for such a powerful car. In a stretch of 293 miles of mixed driving, I got 19.3 mpg. Premium gas is recommended, but not required.

The car's paddle shifters, however, leave a lot to be desired, especially when compared with the Tiptronic system on a Porsche (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/17/06, "Grand Cayman"). And they definitely aren't as lightning fast as in the Ferrari F430 (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/8/05, "Ferrari's Fire-Breathing Stallion"). The Corvette felt a bit sluggish to me; there was a slight lag before the car responded to a shift. Ergonomically, the paddles are harder to use than the ones on a Porsche and Ferrari—or the far cheaper Mazda Miata, for that matter (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/30/05, "The MX-5: A Gripping Experience"). The engine also shuts down when it hits the redline (6,600 revolutions per minute), which is annoying. Why buy a Corvette if you can't redline the engine once in a while?

There are three suspension choices with the new Corvette. In addition to the standard suspension, there's an optional Magnetic Selective Ride Control ($1,600), in which magneto-rheological dampers read road conditions and adjust damping rates accordingly. It's hard to tell how much difference this makes without driving the car side-to-side against the standard transmission, but putting the car in “sport” does seem to harden up the ride. If you're really into fast driving, you can go with the Z51 Performance Package ($1,695), which adds larger cross-drilled brakes, enhanced engine-cooling, bigger stabilizer bars, and sportier springs and dampers.

I love the Corvette's head-up display, which projects the speedometer and other instrument readings onto the windshield so they seem to hover over the windshield. As with the BMW 650i, the 'Vette's head-up display is integrated with the navigation system, which is a major improvement. It tells you, for instance, the name of the street when you're coming to a turn, and counts down the distance to the corner as you approach, making it much harder to get lost.

Downsides? Headroom in all model Corvettes is only 38 inches and legroom is surprisingly tight, so if you're tall you're going to have to tilt the seat way back. Also, while the Coupe and Z06 have a huge, 22-cubic-foot trunk, luggage space is tight in the convertible: A mere 5 cubic feet with the top down, as opposed to 11 cubic feet with the top up.

Buy It or Bag It?

The basic Corvette is an incredible value. It has a five-star quality rating from J.D. Power. Yet, the basic coupe with a manual transmission starts out at just $44,490, and fuel economy is so good that you don't have to pay the gas-guzzler tax. If you can just stick with that base model—in, say, a nice bright Victory Red exterior with an ebony interior like my test car—you're going to be getting a very sexy car for a relative song.

But you won't. You'll probably want to consider getting the convertible, which raises the base price to $52,190, and another $1,995 if you want a power convertible top. And, as mentioned above, a majority of all buyers go with the automatic transmission, which costs an extra $1,250. I'd also consider going with the $3,395 preferred package, which includes the head-up display, heated seats, auto-dimming mirror, an upgraded, MP3-capable Bose sound system, XM satellite radio, a telescoping steering wheel, and sports seats. I'd also want the navigation system, which adds $1,600 but is so well integrated into the head-up display it seems worth it. Personally, I'd skip the power top on the convertible but the price will top $58,000 even without it, and hit $60,000 if you add sports suspension.

It's still a bargain. Arguably, the new Corvette isn’t quite as refined as rival models from Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes. But it's close. You're getting the best version yet of an American icon, and it costs tens of thousands of dollars less.

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