More civilized Corvette comes close to perfect

MILFORD --If you want to fully appreciate the changes made to the redesigned 2005 Chevrolet Corvette, look no further than the cup holders.

The Corvette, its designers and engineers say with pride, now has two standard cup holders designed to withstand 0.92 Gs -- equivalent to the force generated in a sports car turn. They replace the single shallow cup holder in the old Corvette that tended to spill its contents once the driver got a little frisky behind the wheel.

The dual cup holders are emblematic of a car that has been carefully and thoughtfully improved, especially from the inside out.

"The interior was where the big difference needed to occur," explained Dave Hill, Corvette chief engineer. "We now have an interior that's worthy of the Corvette heritage."

The new Corvette coupe, which is built in Bowling Green, Ky., is on sale now. A convertible version will be on the market by fall.

There's one word we use to describe the sixth-generation Corvette: civilized.

That characteristic stands out in bold relief, especially when you compare the Corvette to such testosterone-driven domestic competitors as the Ford GT and the Dodge Viper.

The Viper and GT are long on performance -- the GT and the Viper both top the Corvette by 100 horsepower -- but are short on amenities. Coarse, not civilized, comes to mind when conjuring up adjectives to describe the Viper and GT.

In fact, with all the new refinements, especially to the cabin, the 2005 Corvette stands out as the perfect sports car for couples.

There was no whining when we had to switch seats during our test-drive.

Our test car had a base price of $44,245, including an $800 destination charge. It was outfitted with several new options, including the OnStar communications system, priced at $695, and $325 XM satellite radio. Our test vehicle also had the $4,360 preferred equipment group that includes side air bags, a new reconfigurable head-up display, heated seats and 6-disc changer. As equipped, our test Corvette cost $51,970.

Compare that to the GT's base sticker of $143,845 and the Viper's starting price of $85,295, and the Corvette seems like a screaming bargain, at least among domestic performance cars.

Corvette comes close, but does not achieve a perfect utopia.

We were puzzled by the lack of a modern five- or-six speed automatic transmission, which is widely available on other vehicles in this price range. Chevrolet engineers told us General Motors Corp. did not have a five-speed automatic transmission available that could handle the 400 pounds-feet of torque generated by Corvette's new 6.0-liter V-8 engine. That's why you can only get a four-speed automatic, a no-cost option to the standard Tremec T56 six-speed manual gearbox.

That also seems like a pretty lame excuse, conside ring that a number of outside transmission suppliers, including ZF, offer outstanding five- and six-speed automatics, and that GM already purchases the Tremec manual transmission from supplier Borg-Warner.

The engineers also have failed to correct a bizarre lockout feature on the manual that forces the driver to shift from first to fourth, bypassing second and third gears, unless the vehicle is under heavy throttle. The device was incorporated some years back in return for a mileage credit from the Environmental Protection Agency, which enabled Chevy to duck a gas-guzzler tax on the Corvette.

But it remains a major grievance for many drivers who find themselves without sufficient power for accelerating or merging with traffic.

Another unpleasant surprise was the lack of adjustable pedals, a great way for a shorter driver to get comfortable behind the wheel. Chief engineer Hill said Chevrolet will offer buyers the chance to get a dealer-installed "space bar" that will make the clutch pedal easier to reach.

Despite those shortcomings, we found few other significant compromises in the '05 Corvette.

It deserves praise in a number of areas, from the new optional power-operated soft top (the power top last made its appearance on the 62 Corvette) to the freshened exterior that uses vintage Corvettes as a touchstone, but not a template.

Even the Corvette hardtop's removable roof panel has been improved. At about 20 pounds, it is lighter and easier to operate and fits in the trunk, snapping onto a special carrier.

We had a lot of fun on a morning in late July zipping around mid-Michigan in a LeMans Blue 2005 Corvette coupe with the new 400-horsepower LS2 V-8 engine -- the most powerful standard small-block engine ever offered in Corvette, according to Chevy.

The new pushrod 6.0-liter engine is an upgrade from the 2004 Corvette, which had a 5.7-liter V-8 that made 350 horsepower and 360 pounds-feet of torque. The LS2 engine is noticeably more muscular, especially at lower engine revs.

Fuel economy is surprisingly decent. The standard model with manual transmission is rated by the EPA at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway.

Our test car was easy to handle on two-lane country roads and out on the highway, with a surprisingly smooth and comfortable ride. The standard suspension on the new Corvette has double wishbones, shocks and a transverse composite leaf spring at either end. The car rides on Goodyear Eagle F1 "run-flat" tires -- 18 inches in front, 19 in the rear.

Chevy offers an optional F55 magnetic selective ride control system that automatically and almost instantaneously adjusts the ride settings for optimum comfort and control. Enthusiasts also can opt for the Z51 performance package that bundles larger shocks, springs, stabilizer bars and brakes for the ultimate in handling.

All models come standard with four-wheel disc brakes, antilock brakes, traction control and stability control.

Before we set out on our drive, Corvette exterior engineer Luke Ananian pointed out some of the car's design cues that hark back to earlier versions, including the back glass that is reminiscent of the 1963 Stingray and fixed headlights that last appeared in 1962.

Still, the styling of the newest Corvette -- which is five inches shorter than its predecessor -- is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

"Some folks say we didn't go far enough," Ananian said. "But that was intentional. People want to recognize the history of the Corvette in the design. If you divert too far from that, it's no longer a Corvette."

The cabin redesign on the Corvette is simply stunning.

Gone is the generic black plastic interior that made the car look like a man-cave created for Darth Vader. Now, buyers get a choice of four lush interiors. We think the best-lookin g of the four is the cashmere-and-ebony two-tone combination that gives a sophisticated, upscale flavor to the car.

Throughout the interior are what chief engineer Hill calls "little elements of jewelry." A case in point, are the two door-release buttons. The textured aluminum trim on them looks woven and the buttons are insulated so they don't feel hot to the touch in the sun.

There is still plenty of plastic urethane trim on the Corvette's interior, but it is designed to look and feel like leather -- and it does. Using a special process, designers were able to replicate the wrinkles and uneven textures in leather. Like the cup holders, it's a small thing, but it speaks volumes about the level of detail on the '05 Corvette.

As we finished our satisfying drive in the 'Vette, we tried to put it in perspective in a model year that has been loaded with lots of superior cars, from the Chrysler 300 to the Cadillac STS.

From either seat in the new Corvette, this American icon is poised to take home some car-of-the-year honors.