From the young boy who leaned out the back of his grandparents' Cadillac on Pines Boulevard to flash a grin and a thumbs-up, to the truck driver whose one-word assessment at a stoplight on Biscayne Boulevard was "awesome,'' the all-new 1997 Corvette is getting rave reviews in South Florida. Just the fifth total redesign of the world's most popular sports car since it debuted in 1953 as a glitzy show car at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the '97 Vette is the best yet. Engineers and designers worked to retain the basic Corvette theme -- mammoth V-8 horsepower in a luxury two-seater that outperforms cars costing two and three times as much. They also worked to vanquish all the bugaboos that, on and off, have plagued the car since its inception: a cramped cockpit, little or no luggage space, interior shakes and rattles, questionable overall fit and finish. The verdict -- based on a week of driving an early production model -- is that this car is by far the best Corvette ever, a solid contender for best overall sports car on the planet. "We set out to build a car that illustrated the top of our technical prowess,'' said John Cafaro, who headed the design team that set the Vette's new body shape. "The Corvette is a symbolic piece of American culture, so you don't make changes lightly. But there were things we needed to address to bring in people who might not have considered a Corvette. And of course we didn't want to alienate the thousands of loyal Corvette owners.'' The new car started with major changes to the Vette's underlying structure. The frame was revamped to eliminate the huge side rails that people had to climb over to get into the last model. In the process, the rigidity of the chassis was increased dramatically, which improved stability and cut down the potential for rattles. Throughout the car, ways were found to simplify construction to eliminate potential sources of shakes and rattles and improve reliability. Engineers followed what is called the "transistor rule'' -- the fewer the parts, the better the machine. The new Corvette uses 34 percent fewer parts than the 1996 model. The wheelbase -- the distance between the front and rear wheels -- was increased by more than eight inches to provide a smoother ride, yet overall length has grown only 1.2 inches. The track -- distance between left and right wheels -- is significantly wider in front and back, which helps improve handling. The rear suspension was redesigned, too. A new power rack-and-pinion steering system, called Magnasteer, does a remarkable job of increasing driver control and feel. Power comes from the latest version of Chevrolet's venerable small-block, overhead valve V-8, which can be traced back to the V-8 that first appeared in the 1955 Vette. The new 5.7-liter V-8 is all aluminum and puts out 345 horsepower. It has a broad power curve, meaning you can punch it at any speed and get pi nned to your seat -- a Corvette trademark. The positioning of the transmission has been radically changed. Both the six-speed manual and the four-speed automatic use a transaxle setup, which means that the gearbox is mounted at the rear axle. That gives the Vette a nearly perfect 51/49 front-rear weight distribution, which makes handling predictable -- and forgiving. The overall shape helps cut the wind at speed, which keeps fuel economy -- as much as 28 miles per gallon -- remarkably high for a V-8 sports car. The body design is evocative of past Corvettes, employing some cues from previous years. The front and the back are evolutions of the most recent design, but viewed from the side there is a mixture of themes. Some people see some Mazda RX-7 or Acura NSX hints there. Cafaro says his team strived for a "GTP race car'' look. Overall, this is a car that looks good in photos but terrific in person, down to the quadruple exhaust pipes that peek from the back p> The most talked-about change will be the interior. Virtually every aspect has been improved, from the seating position to the new analog instruments to the fit and finish of the rounded dash and center console. It's easy to get into the cockpit, and the seats are so comfortable you don't want to get out -- something rarely said about past Vettes. People who have owned Vettes will want this car. People who have preferred Porsches, Toyota Supra Turbos or Nissan 300ZXs should give the Vette another look. At a base price of about $38,000, there is no better performance value. At first, the new car will be limited to a model with a lift-off center roof -- a lot easier to remove than in previous cars. Expect a convertible later this year and possibly a stripped-down, $32,000 fixed-roof coupe in 1998. Wanting and getting a Vette may be two different matters, however. The factory in Bowling Green, Ky., is going slow at first to make sure all cars are well screwed together. The first should begin arriving at dealers in the next few weeks, with Chevrolet giving preference to stores that have sold a lot of Corvettes. Given that South Florida ranks with California as one of the top two Corvette markets, most area dealers will be high on the distribution list. One word of warning: It would not be surprising to see some dealers tack on a premium of as much as $10,000 for the privilege of owning the first '97 Vette in your neighborhood.