For the money, there isn't a better sports car than the latest 400-horsepower Chevrolet Corvette. Simple as that.
Road & Track magazine's March issue compared a 2005 Corvette coupe with eight top sports cars that don't cost "more than a house'' (spell Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc.) in a "Best All-Around Sports Car'' feature and found the 'Vette finished No. 1. It beat the BMW Z4 3.0i, Dodge Viper SRT-10, Honda S2000, Lotus Elise, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Nissan 350Z 35th Anniversary model, Porsche Boxster S and Porsche Carrera S Coupe.
The biggest news for the 2006 Corvette line is a new, oh-my-gosh 505-horsepower Corvette Z06 hardtop. It has an astonishing 470 pound-feet of torque and is the fastest Corvette since the car's debut in 1953. It's visually distinguished by such things as wider rear fenders with flares to cover massive rear tires and a brake cooling scoop in front of the back wheels, along with Z06 badging.
The $65,000 Z06 comes only as a coupe with a manual transmission. It seems vastly overqualified for road use -- unless you live in the middle of nowhere and want rocket-sled acceleration (0-100 mph in 7.7 seconds). Or unless you're a fairly affluent gearhead or showoff. The Z06 is a steal for the money, but so is any 2006 Corvette.
Why the Z06? Mainly because DaimlerChrysler's rival Dodge Viper has a 510-horsepower V-10 engine, and Chevrolet thus also wants a 500-plus-horsepower Corvette. Also, Chevy has had recent, successful major race wins with the Corvette, and the Z06 showcases that success.
The regular 2006 Corvette has no earthshaking changes because it was totally redesigned for 2005. That C6 (sixth generation) 'Vette replaced a model introduced in 1997. It got slicker styling without the retractable headlights Corvettes had since 1963, trimmer dimensions, 50 extra horsepower, improved interior and keyless entry and ignition. It also was the first Corvette convertible to have a power top since 1962.
That top is costly at $1,995 and really isn't needed, unless occupants want to open or close the top without getting out of the car.
The major new feature for the latest 400-horsepower Corvette is a $1,250 six-speed (up from four-speed) automatic transmission with Ferrari-style steering wheel paddles for manual shifting. They seem superfluous with the responsive automatic, which also has a Drive mode for smoother shifts and Sport mode for firmer shifts.
Those who want to manually shift should pocket the $1,250 and opt for the standard six-speed manual gearbox. It's occasionally balky during fast shifts, but makes a Corvette more fun to drive, although some 60 percent of Corvettes are ordered with an automatic. Also, half are convertibles.
There's also a new smaller-diameter, three-spoke steering wheel, optional XM Satellite radio, advanced frontal air bags with a passenger-sensing system and, appropriately, new Velocity Yellow paint.
The regular Corvette comes as a well-equipped $43,800 hatchback and as a $51,535 convertible. Both are offered with the manual or automatic transmission.
I tested the $43,800 coupe with the automatic and found the car to be so fast (0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds) that there were few times I could use most of its power and 400 pound-feet of torque on area roads-- and then only for a few seconds. A 65-75 mph passing test was so fast and effortless that it felt like a 35-45 mph test.
Steering, handling and braking are excellent and the firm base suspension is compliant and best suited for most Corvette buyers. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as are traction control and an anti-skid system. Corvettes used to slide all over the place on slippery winter roads here without those items, and thus most were parked until warm weather arrived.
My test car had the optional Magnetic Selective Ride Control suspension with a driver-controlled "Tour'' mode for a softer ride and "Sport'' mode for a firmer ride but slightly sharper handling. There's also an optional Z51 performance suspension, but it's mainly for car buffs. Average drivers will find it too stiff.
The engine loafs in town and during highway cruising. That's why the 400-horsepower Corvette provides an estimated 18 mpg in the city and 28 on highways with the manual transmission and 17 and 27 with the automatic -- not bad for a 186-mph car. The Z06 provides 16 and 26, and reportedly tops 190 mph.
The hard-edged Viper will tire out anyone but a NASCAR race driver in an hour, but the Corvette is a comfortable long-distance car. However, it isn't well-suited for running errands because its long doors are awkward in tight parking spots and its seats are so low that getting in and out is a chore.
Doors are opened from the interior with small buttons, instead of handles. Some will find them nifty, others too gimmicky.
The roomy interior is inviting, with supportive seats, easily read gauges and nicely placed controls. However, a fair amount of noise from the Corvette's huge tires infiltrates the highly aerodynamic coupe's interior.
The trunk is fairly roomy in both the coupe and convertible, but has an unusually high opening. And the coupe has no partition between the cargo area and cabin, which has scant storage space.
The current-generation Corvette is by far the best ever. It thus easily remains America's dream machine.
2006 CHEVROLET CORVETTE
Seriously fast. Comfortable. Fairly fuel-thrifty. Outstanding value for the money.
Awkwardly long doors. Difficult entry/exit. High trunk opening.