The rear-view mirror test. That’s the quickest way to see how much the redesigned 1997 Chevrolet Corvette has improved over its predecessor. On the ’96 model, the mirror chattered and bounced like a set of windup dentures. (So did occupants’ real teeth, thanks to the car’s rough-riding chassis.) On the ’97 Vette, which Chevy engineers have been refining for something like seven years, the rear-view mirror is like a rock. That has to be good news for prospective buyers who are denture-wearers.
And that’s only the beginning of the story.
She: I have to admit, I’ve always been intimidated by the Corvette. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’ll bet there are even some guys in that crowd. The Corvette always seemed so powerful and looked so muscle-bound, and the inside was like a jet-fighter cockpit. But I’m happy to say the new one is easy to drive, and surprisingly easy to live in.
He: It helped to drive the old car if you had illusions of masquerading as Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Or maybe Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon. The ’97 Vette is one smooth puppy, but it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its zip and explosive charm in the transition. The new and improved LS1 engine, for instance, delivers 345 horsepower, and even with the automatic transmission, the car goes like a scalded dog. I wish Chevy would have ditched that awful six-speed Borg-Warner manual, which forces an upshift from first to fourth unless you really have your foot in the throttle. Time for that fuel-economy special to be retired.
She: Those are some of the finer points. The big picture is that long-time Corvette lovers will be happy with the new fifth-generation version. Chevy seems to have gone out of its way to not lose the original audience. The ’97 model doesn’t look all that different on the outside, even though all the body panels are completely new.
He: You get the feeling that Chevy was worried about getting too radical with the new car. Not to worry. You could only describe this design as evolutionary. But it also works beautifully.
She: You can look inside, too, at things like the cupholder. They’ve gone from two to one on the ’97 model. But that’s OK because longtime Vette owners say they don’t allow people to drink in their vehicles anyway. The old step-over – the distance from the ground to the top of the lower door sill – was the biggest complaint in focus groups. Chevy cut that in half, so now it’s much easier to get in and out of the car. And you used to have to put your golf clubs in the passenger’s seat. Now you can get two sets in the trunk.
He: I’m so happy that my big b–, er, ample posterior fits so comfortably into the new seats. I don’t feel nearly so claustrophobic in the ’97 Vette. Even visibility seems better. And the major switches and controls are much easier to decipher and to reach. And, bless you, Chevrolet, for installing good ol’ analog gauges and dials in place of that silly video display.
She: Turns out that Buick owners liked the digital gauges better than Corvette owners. Chevy engineers say the old Vette had the reputation of being the noisiest American car. The combination of the noise and the old suspension made the car feel like it was cheaply made. Chevy snagged a couple of Cadillac engineers to work on the new car, and they didn’t just stuff it with more insulation. They actually improved the structure, which means the car is quieter and doesn’t rattle nearly so much.
He: Corvette lovers can probably thank Dave Hill, the chief engineer – only the third one in the car’s 44-year history. He came from Cadillac where he did lots of front-wheel-drive luxury cars, including the old Allante. I had my doubts that he was the right guy for the new Vette. Until I drove the ’97 model, of course. OK, so I was wrong and you were right, Dave. You pulled it off, buddy. In spades. What a great car!
She: I do have one or two minor complaints. Chevy went out of way to come up with really nice soft-touch buttons for some of the controls. But then they stuck in a generic Delco radio and GM climate-control system, just like you’d see on a $12,000 Cavalier. It’s the centerpiece of the instrument panel, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. And it doesn’t match the look or feel of the other controls. It seems too obviously like a corner-cutter. I would feel a little miffed if I were spending $40,000 on a new Corvette.
He: If Chevy is true to its word, and holds the line on prices, you should wind up paying a little less than 40. The ’96 model went for around $37,000. I’m still not convinced, even at that price, that Chevy is going to lower the age of Corvette buyers much below the current average of 45 years.
She: Well, honey, you’ve got one more year if you want to help them lower that average. And I might even drive the car sometime, too.
What we liked: More comfortable and user-friendly than predecessor; evolutionary design won’t alienate old fans; much quieter and less prone to shakes and rattles; easier to get in and out of; easy-to-read analog gauges are back; finally, a real trunk!
What we didn’t like: The dumb 1-4 upshift on the manual transmission; crummy generic Delco radio; only one cupholder.
1997 Chevrolet Corvette
Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sport coupe.
Price: Base, $37,500 (estimated).
What’s new for ’97: Redesigned for ’97.
Standard equipment: Leather seats with power adjustment on driver’s side, leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt column, air conditioning, power windows, power heated mirrors, power locks, Delco-Bose audio system with AM-FM stereo cassette, analog gauges, driver information center, lockable glove box, antitheft system, variable-rate power steering, four-wheel power disc brakes, Goodyear Eagle GS extended-mobility tires with low-pressure warning, aluminum wheels, limited-slip differential, tinted glass, removable roof panel, lockable console, auxiliary power outlet, cruise control, rear defogger, Scotchguard fabric protector, intermittent wipers.
Safety features: Dual air bags, antilock brakes, traction control, daytime running lights.
Options on test vehicle: n/a.
EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway.
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8; 345-horsepower at 5600 rpm; 350 lb-ft torque at 4400 rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Competitors: Acura NSX, Dodge Viper, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Porsche 911, Toyota Supra.
Specifications: Wheelbase, 104.5 inches; overall length, 179.7 inches; curb weight, 3,218 pounds; legroom, 42.7 inches; headroom, 37.8 inches; shoulder room, 55.3 inches.
Where built: Bowling Green, Ky.