EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

Nothing provides the thrill of pure driving like America’s sports car

Motor vehicles perform a wide variety of functions. Besides transporting passengers, they: drip with luxury, save on fuel, carry large cargo and often provide many of the creature comforts of home and workplace. But one vehicle transcends all that. The icon, also known as the Chevrolet Corvette, exists purely to be driven. Everything else is just window dressing. It had been several years since I had any serious seat time in a ‘Vette, but a recent week in the 2006 Corvette Coupe brought back all the old, familiar feelings. This is America’s sports car, with 50-plus years of glorious history. It’s special, and the test car seemed to radiate that feeling. I’ve tested $250,000 Bentleys and Mercedes-Benz models with 600 horses, but only the Corvette made me feel compelled to lock the car inside the garage every night. I simply didn’t want anyone disturbing it in any way.

I guess that’s called respect.

And of course, the sixth-generation Corvette is alluring: beautifully styled, with smooth, sweeping, aerodynamic lines from every angle. Viewed head-on, the front end of the car all but shouts “get outta my way.”

That’s pretty much what I do when I see a ‘Vette approaching in my rearview mirror … no matter what I’m driving. Back in high school, I had a gearhead friend who was forever getting ticketed for drag racing on public roadways, but he always insisted, “I won’t even pull up to the line against a Corvette.”

That’s respect. And rightly so. The 2006 Corvette’s super-aggressive looks are matched by its performance.

Starting up the tester for the first time sent chills down my spine. The 6-liter, 400-horsepower V-8 rumbles to life with such ferocity that it seems the car is going to launch before you do anything with your hands or feet.

Start-up, by the way, is done with the touch of a button. As long as you have the proximity-sensor key on your person, you can get the Corvette moving.

Out on the road, performance is extraordinary, but not so brutish as some drivers of past Corvettes might remember. Passing, maneuvering and generally powering out of harm’s way are so effortless that it’s easy to become jaded. Formidable acceleration is dished out with just a slight toe touch.

If anything, I found myself holding back in the tested Corvette, just to avoid the perception of being an undisciplined speed freak. Only once, in a tight spot on a freeway merge, did I ask the Corvette for near-maximum performance. The sound and engine response flatly intimidated me.

The tester had the new-for-2006, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to put the six-speed gearbox through its paces. It doesn’t take too long to get the rhythm of the paddles, which were a kick to use when traffic was light.

On a dollar-per-horsepower basis, the ’06 Corvette Coupe remains a remarkable bargain, with a starting price of $43,800 – about half what you might pay for supercar performance in other models.

The tester was, well, obscenely dressed up in options – $12,080 worth of them.

Leading off was a $4,795 “preferred equipment group” package that included heated seats, a driver’s side “head-up” display of speed and other data, a six-way power driver’s seat and XM Satellite Radio. A $1,695 performance package included extra-large brake rotors, serious shocks and super-strong stabilizer bars. Then there was a $1,600 navigation system. And $1,295 in polished aluminum wheels …

You get the idea. It all added to the holier-than-thou ambience of the icon.

But even icons have their flaws. For all of its pleasurable driving characteristics, the Corvette Coupe might be the world’s most impractical car for a long road trip.

Want to pack a lot of stuff? Better hire some friends to follow with your luggage in the back of their sport-utility vehicle. Ditto on transporting the kids. The coupe is a two-seater.

Driving in heavy freeway traffic? Keep your head moving. Because you sit lower than most every other vehicle out there, vision to the sides and behind requires perpetual head-swiveling.

And driveways! Don’t get me started on driveways.

I had to s-l-o-w-l-y back the Corvette Coupe down my gently sloped driveway at an angle. And even then, I could hear a slight brush as the ‘Vette’s front end dragged bottom.

When I see a large scrape on a steep driveway, I mentally imprint the words, “Corvette was here.”

So, there you have it.

Want to take a big group camping in Yosemite National Park? Get the SUV, the minivan or the crossover.

Want a pulse-quickening driving experience that’s been around since Dwight Eisenhower’s first term as president?

Get the icon.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE AT A GLANCE

Make/model: 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

Vehicle type: Two-seat, two-door, rear-drive sports car

Base price: $43,800 (as tested, $56,680)

Engine: 6-liter V-8 with 400 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 400 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city; 27 mpg highway

Transmission: Six-speed manumatic with special performance features

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature

Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel discs with anti-lock and other special features

Suspension: Independent, short/long arm, double-wishbone on front and rear

Fuel tank: 18 gallons

Interior volume: 52 cubic feet

Cargo volume: 22 cubic feet

Curb weight: 3,179 pounds

Track: 62.1 inches on front; 60.7 inches on rear

Height: 49 inches

Length: 174.6 inches

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches

Width: 72.6 inches

Tires: P245/40ZR18 performance radials on front; P285/35ZR19 performance radials on rear

Assembly site: Bowling Green, Ky.

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