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Starship Corvette

AFTER 52 years in production, the Chevrolet Corvette is a legend, an institution, an American icon, which is reason enough to be suspicious of it. The fact is, until recently (1997), the Corvette wasn’t a particularly good car. Those of early 1990s vintage handled like the thin end of a 10-pound ax and had the “that’s-close-enough” build quality of a Monday-morning British Lister. The cars shivered like wet Chihuahuas over rough asphalt, and its unyielding suspension thrashed more backsides than Helga, she-wolf of the SS.

Enthusiasts (you will know them by their Corvette Club bomber jackets) have been willing to forgive the Vette its excesses and inadequacies -- for much of its history it wasn’t even that fast -- because Corvette meant something to them. It’s always been a big, audacious slab of a car for an audience that can be fairly described likewise. It’s always been America’s Sports Car, for those who would sooner down a wine-tasting spit bucket than drive a foreign-nameplate car like Porsche 911 or Acura NSX.

And it has always looked cool. That’s where I get on board.

The new Corvette (model year 2005) is known by those who know such things as C6 -- that is, the sixth generation of Corvette. Though the car is still raked and sloe-eyed, low and ornery, the latest redesign is the least dramatic and maybe the least compelling. The changes include shorter front and rear overhangs, a slightly longer wheelbase, underbody faring at the rear, sharper creases in the composite-fiber fenders and a general lipo-sculpture around the gluteal area.

While in the eyes of experts these changes are of cosmic significance, the general public may have trouble telling at a glance a C5 from a C6. The biggest cosmetic change -- and far overdue -- are the fixed high-intensity headlights under polycarbonate lenses, replacing the retractable headlamps. This is not the stuff of grand ambition.

To me, the new car looks pinched and compressed, like a C5 seen through an anamorphic lens. Since the Larry Shinoda-designed split-window coupe of 1963, one of the formal properties of Corvette has been its galling, luxuriant length, a look that suggested a steaming rocket sled laying its own tracks ahead of it. Something about the C6’s foreshortened proportions don’t add up.

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Truth is, I like the C5 better from the outside, but from the inside, I’ll take the C6 every time. Instantly comfortable and accessible, the cockpit derives much of its technical jewelry from its platform-mate, the Cadillac XLR -- bits like the electronic door latches, push-button start and electro-luminescent instrument panel. Our test car -- a coupe -- was equipped with a DVD-based navigation system ($1,400) and the “preferred equipment group” ($4,360), including heated sport seats and a rib-rattling seven-speaker audio system with in-dash CD changer.

If I were a sports car fundamentalist, I suppose I might object to the optional nav system -- extra weight and distraction. But this clever, easy-to-learn system makes the Corvette much more livable as a daily driver, especially in Los Angeles, and generally rounds out the Vette’s portfolio as a grand touring car, a starship for the interstate.

What worked about the C5 interior -- the ample rear compartment storage, the easy-off targa top, the generous foot wells and well-placed dead pedal to the left of the clutch -- have been retained, and everything has been anointed with a slick, smarter-than-thou competence. Build quality is excellent. Compared to Corvette interiors of a decade ago, which chirred and rattled like Ricky Ricardo’s percussion section, the new Corvette is as solid as a steamer chest.

Under the front-hinged hood is the latest edition of Chevy’s small-block, overhead-valve V8, bored out from 5.7 liters to 6.0 liters, equipped with lumpier cams, less-restrictive exhaust plumbing, higher compression and higher redline (6,500 rpm), all of which bumps output up 50 horsepower to 400 hp and 400 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. As before, a manual swizzle stick pokes up through the central console, connected to the rear-mounted Tremec six-speed transmission.

By the numbers, the Corvette is hideously powerful -- 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds. It’s got hot green gobs of passing power at just about any point on the tach, and top speed is a very creditable 186 mph, should your commute include a dry lakebed. Yet the 3,200-pound car doesn’t feel edgy or over-amped. The power just pours into the frame as if the car has deployed some magic spinnaker.

It does have peculiar, warbling exhaust notes, though, like the beating rotors of a military helicopter. Or that might just be my post-traumatic stress kicking in.

Our car was equipped with a Z51 performance package, an anabolic cocktail costing $1,495 and including whacking-big cross-drilled brake rotors; high-performance Goodyear tires; stiffened and shortened sport suspension (anti-roll bars, springs and shocks); shorter gear ratios; and special coolers for the oil, transmission and power steering. That’s a lot of go-fast for a grand-and-a-half.

Does it make a difference? Oh yeah. In November, in order to see the Leonid meteor showers, I drove the car high into the Angeles National Forest on California Highway 2, a famous, snared piece of asphalt that clings to the mountains like a primordial high-water mark. Instead of the usual gear-jamming and late braking, I just stuck the Corvette in third gear and drove at a, well, spirited pace, arcing through the corners with the tires singing, never touching the brakes.

In the brilliant blue-white light of the new headlamps, the rock-shrouded corners rose up, stark and seemingly nonnegotiable, swiveled and receded out of view. These new tires -- Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar EMT’s -- are as stubborn as a rogue electoral voter; the grip is ferocious. This is the most light-footed, pitch-able Vette I’ve driven.

Our test car came equipped with a lateral g-force meter, a kind of bar-graph readout indicating the cornering force as the car maneuvers (a “g” is equal to the force of gravity).

The lateral accelerometer providing the data is part of the car’s Active Handling system. I don’t know how accurate the readout is, but it was routinely registering 1g of cornering force, which is world-class cornering by anybody’s reckoning.

By the time my carsick wife and I stopped to look for meteors, the stars were swimming of their own accord.

The new Corvette is an Ivy League education in driving at state college tuition: The test car priced out at $52,795, which puts it in a class of exactly one. Nothing can touch it at anywhere near that price. For another 20 grand or so you can own a Viper; should you feel such a masochistic impulse, seek professional attention.

The Vette is venerated in song and film. It’s the only sports car nameplate I know of that has its own museum, the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky. There are scores of fan clubs worldwide and dozens of annual Corvette shows, including the Lollapalooza-like Bloomington Gold in Bloomington, Ind.

All of which bores me silly. I don’t want the commemorative hat. I don’t need to know the secret Corvette handshake. I don’t want to watch your DVD collection of “Route 66" episodes.

But the car ... I’ll take the car.

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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2005 Chevrolet Corvette (Z51 package)

Price, as tested: $52,795

Powertrain: Naturally aspirated 6.0-liter, overhead-valve V8, six-speed, rear-mounted manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential.

Horsepower: 400 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 400 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm

Curb weight: 3,200 pounds

0-60 mph: 4.1 seconds

Top speed: 187 mph

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches

Overall length: 174.6 inches

Wheels/tires: Five-spoke aluminum wheels, 18-by-8.5-inch front, 19-by-10 rear; Goodyear Eagle F1 Super car EMT (Extended Mobility Tires), 245/40ZR-18 front, 285/35ZR-19 rear.

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/28 highway

Final thoughts: If loving you is wrong ...


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