The Morning Call and's view

For the best part of 45 years, America’s sports car has been the Corvette.

It’s easy to see the longing in the eyes of guys learning to drive for the first time. Or middle-aged women who remember their first boyfriend, “the one who drove a Corvette.”

While cars always stir memories or passion, few can do it like a ‘Vette.

While 1997 saw the release of the all-new fifth generation Corvette, 1998 featured the intro of the new convertible, the first ‘Vette convertible with a trunk since 1961. So, having tried neither, and with warmer weather upon us, it seemed only natural to sample what Chevrolet hath wrought.

The styling has been controversial to some Corvette loyalists, who bemoan the Japanese influence in the design. Certainly that’s true, with traces of the late RX-7 apparent in its bulging fenders. Yet the muscular look is way beyond what any Asian designer would consider, especially the wide rear, accented by ovoid tail lamps. A horizontal character line would help slim this elephantine back end.

All the coachwork out back disguises the rear-mounted transaxle, but also frees up interior room. It’s this kind of thinking that has kept the character of the Corvette without radically changing it.

Think of it as civilizing the beast. But don’t worry — it’s not too civilized, just enough to make one adore it.

When designing the new sports car, Chevy engineers laid out the structure with the knowledge that a convertible would be built, ensuring extra stiffness. With a solid layout, squeaks and rattles not only would be reduced (a sore point in the old design), but the ride could be softened, so your dental work wouldn’t rattle as well.

Don’t worry. You’ll never mistake the ride for that of a Caprice. But the optional Z51 Performance Suspension, an upgrade with stiffer springs, larger stabilizer bars and monotube shocks, is a must for those seeking the ultimate in handling.

This car has the quick reflexes the Corvette driver expects. Turning is razor sharp, and the steering has enough weight to it that driving demands both hands on the thick steering wheel. It doesn’t seem artificial, and has enough feel through the wheel to let you know what’s going on.

You’ll know what’s going on from the minute you awaken the beast, too.

Turn the dash-mounted ignition switch and the Chevy small-block LS1 erupts, restlessly stirring and ready to roll. The throaty rumble lets go at regular intervals while idling and the speedometer needle goes from 0 to 200 and back again, as if to remind the driver of the true promise this car holds.

And the promise this car holds is the same one that every small block ‘Vette has: the thrill of speed and muscular agility, and the ability to hurl the car at furious speed down the road.

The tail is delightfully playful, with power slides available at the touch of the throttle. Yet it’s controllable enough (thanks to anti-lock brake s and traction control) to be driveable in inclement weather. Just avoid applying too much power in a corner.

The ride is sports-car firm, but not punishing, with no body lean and great handling that can best almost any car.

Power is courtesy of Chevy’s 5.7-liter aluminum block V8 with a hearty 345 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque. In a car that weighs 3,246 pounds, that’s good for a 4.7-second 0-60 run. Top speed is in the 170-mph range. This is courtesy of the truly massive Z-rated tires that are fitted to the car — P245/45ZR-17’s up front, P275/40ZR-18 out back.

The Corvette has no spare tire, because Chevrolet supplies Goodyear Extended Mobility Tires. When the tires lose air pressure, the sidewalls are stiff enough to keep the car running for 200 miles at speeds up to 35 mph or less at higher speeds. In addition, battery powered sensors in the valve stems transmit warnings via FM-radio frequencies of the low pressure in the damaged tire. It work at speeds above 15 mph and is accurate within 1 psi. The warning shows up in the driver information center, the digital readout that displays the odometer, fuel economy and other functions.

The usual comforts and convenience adorn this car. Included are the power windows/locks/mirrors/cruise/leather combo common to all cars today. The Bose audio system is good, but the true music here is the rumble of the drive train.

The instrumentation is complete and, thankfully, all analog, with readouts for voltage and oil pressure in addition to temperature, fuel, speed and engine rpm.

One never expects blissful quiet in a ‘Vette. Road and tire noise are constant, as is the thunderous exhaust. But little noise emanates from the lined convertible top. It proved to be weathertight and nicely made, with a glass rear window and defroster.

The top itself is put up and down manually and requires that no one be in the car. Undo the releases at the front, fold the back end of the top forward, release the tonneau cover and stow the whole thing under it. Once you learn it, it takes less than a half minute. The result is a hidden top and clean deck, with the body color strip flowing down between the seats, a nod to 60s-era ‘Vettes.

The newly fashioned trunk is large enough for a small suitcase or a couple of duffle bags. Three small compartments hide valuables from prying eyes, and a cargo net is standard — and essential in a car capable of high triple-digit speeds. But the trunk lid only seemed to close when slammed, something less than desirable when the body panels are fiberglass.

Accessing the car is easier this year. No longer must drivers climb over a frame rail to get to the seat. The sill is now flat. Another major stride is the quality of the interior, with solid switch gear and simplification taking the place of the cheesy whiz-bang interior that plagued older ‘Vettes.

There’s a little body shake, enough to move mirrors, but it’s admirably tight for a car with such a firm ride. And despite the rough 5,000-plus miles it got from auto journalists, the test car was free of rattles.

Even wind rustle is artfully managed, with just enough to tousle your hair, but not enough to make it unpleasant.

In many ways, the fifth-generation ‘Vette is an artful updating of this venerated classic. It goes a long way to maintaining the lust you always feel when seeing one pass by.

1998 Chevrolet Corvette convertible Standard: 5.7-liter V8, four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, power antenna, manual convertible top with heated rear window glass, dual outside heated power mirrors, P245/ 45ZR-17 and P275/40ZR-18 on aluminum wheels, intermittent wipers, power windows with driver express down, AM/FM-cassette stereo, leather bucket seats, power driver’s seat, tilt wheel, cruise control, keyless entry, theft deterrent system, low tire pressure wa rning system, power locks, cup holder, air conditioning, dual air bags. Options: Floor mats, body side moldings, dual zone electronic air conditioning, performance axle, fog lamps, AM/FM-CD stereo, license plate frame, performance handling package. Base price: $44,425 As tested: $46,089 EPA rating: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway Test mileage: 18.6 mpg

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