Corvette: The story of an American mass-produced sports car that has gone from a Fiberglas thumper with slush-pump drive in 1953 to a world-class 172 mph two-seater for 1997.

The 1997 tale is about an exceptionally advanced automobile, a new sports car that far exceeds anything ever done with the model's predecessors.

The 1997 'Vette is not just about speed, but about advances that showcase the technology of Chevrolet and General Motors. Features that take in chassis and interior design, new exterior and interior styling, and engine innovations make the car a most formidable Corvette.

The superlatives are so numerous it's hard to know where to start. The wheelbase is 8.3 inches longer for a total of 104.5 inches. Length is 179.7 inches, up from 178.5 inches.

The exterior styling, while new, doesn't depart in great degree from previous Corvettes. However, at 73.6 inches, the new car is almost 3 inches wider. And it has almost an inch-and-a-half more height at 47.7 inches.

There also is a significant increase in cockpit legroom because the transmission and the bell housing are mounted between the rear wheels. This is not a new idea, as the Stutz had its gearbox as part of the rear axle.

On the Stutz, however, the gearbox was part of the sprung solid rear axle housing. On the new 'Vette, the transmission is attached to the rear frame assembly and drives the independently sprung wheels through a half-shaft for each wheel.

Available are a six-speed Borg-Warner manual gearbox or GM's 4L60-E automatic four-speed. Drive from the engine to the transmission is by a prop shaft that runs inside an aluminum torque tube. The tube rigidly connects to the back of the engine and the front of the rear-mounted transmission.

The new steel frame is made up of nine basic segments that include the side rails, backbone driveshaft tunnel, chassis crossmembers, the windshield and rear cockpit frames and the instrument panel crossmember.

The increased chassis rigidity provides an easier ride. For improved handling, Chevy raided the GM parts bin and adapted Cadillac's self-adjusting shock absorbers for optional electronic dampening.

Also electronic is the steering. "Steer by wire" is featured, with the 'Vette's variable-rate power-assist system providing pinpoint control.

Control of this vehicle is absolutely essential, considering that it reaches a top speed of 172 mph and runs 0-60 mph at 4.7 seconds. To help with control, the car has two wheel and tire sizes, with wide, 18-inch tires on the rear and 17-inch tires on the front.

The '97 'Vette also boasts upgraded amenities such as air, stereo and power assist accessories. Black on white instruments come with a 200 mph speedometer, a 7,000 rpm tach, and oil pressure, voltage, temperature and fuel gauges. Beneath the gauges are digital displays for 12 functional readouts.

Maybe some might question Chevy's retaining its small block V-8 for this car, but the engine is a compact, all-new aluminum V-8 that produces 345- horsepower, 45 horses more than the '96 motor. Torque is increased 15 foot- pounds to 350 foot-pounds. And the 17/25 mpg fuel mileage is better than last year's 16/24 mpg.

The motor has a little longer stroke and a little smaller bore to make up 346.48 cubic inches. And it propels 3,200 pounds of sports car like a rocket ship.

At a base price of $38,995, the 1997 Corvette has to be one of the best sports car buys around. Indianapolis Chevrolet dealers say they expect to receive the first ones in the next couple of weeks.