EXPERT REVIEW

TheMercuryNews.com's view

The kid down the street said it best: “It looks like a Hot Wheels car.”

That’s the best description of the anything-but-subtle, yellow-and-purple screamer that Chevy sells as the 1998 Corvette convertible Indy 500 Pace Car replica.

It looks like a full-size version of one of those less-than-a-buck toy cars that kids love so much. And it is.

After all, how could you take something this over-the-top seriously? Come on, it has yellow wheels. I’ve driven Hummers and Lamborghinis and Vipers and Prowlers and this is the car that says, “LOOK AT ME!!!” better than any of them.

Of course, if you’re the one footing the $50,000 bill, you’re probably pretty serious about it.

The General Motors division will make only 1,158 of these Indy 500 Pace Car replicas. It’s as close as a buyer can get to the car that will lead the pack around the Brickyard this weekend.

This is the 11th time a Chevy has been the pace car, and this is the seventh replica the division has sold. Ironically, two Camaros were pace cars before the first Corvette (1978) was selected. With the 1998 Corvette, the 11 Chevy pace cars now include four Corvettes, four Camaros, the Fleetmaster convertible (1948), the Bel Air convertible (1955) and the Beretta “Concept” convertible (1990).

Golfer and Chevy spokesman Greg Norman will be driving the pace car. A roll bar and strobe lights will be the only modifications to the stock Corvette convertible.

Underneath, it’s all stock, with its awesome 345-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission. This is the car that was picked as 1998 North American Car of the Year by a jury of auto writers, including me, who felt the new-generation Corvette combined performance, safety and comfort at a level that many of us thought the ‘Vette couldn’t reach.

This is a tremendous car to drive, with lots of immediate power and superb handling. And the convertible version is pure gorgeousness, especially when you take down the top and pop it snugly into its body-colored cover between the seats. The combination of power and open-air driving only increase the desirability of the new Corvette.

The Corvette Pace Car replica gets tons of cosmetic changes — most of them following the purple (Chevy actually calls it Radar Blue) and yellow color scheme.

The package starts out with a purple exterior and bright yellow wheels. There’s a bold graphics package — which is the touch that makes the whole thing look like a Hot Wheels for adults — that ends with a checkered flag motif. Inside, you’ll find black leather seats with yellow accents.

The package also includes many options, including an upgraded Delco radio with a CD player, a digital clock, an anti-theft system, speed-compensated volume control and Bose speakers. The leather sport seats are adjusted electronically and have memory functions.

The base transmission is the four-speed automatic that comes with a performance axle ratio at no c harge in the Pace Car package. A six-speed manual is an available option.

Most notably, the Pace Car replica includes Chevy’s active-handling package. Similar to systems found on expensive Mercedes-Benzes and other cars, the system works in concert with anti-lock brakes and traction control to increase handling dexterity and accident-avoidance capabilities.

The system monitors steering inputs and the lateral g-force being exerted, as well as the vehicle’s yaw rate, and activates any of the four brakes to stabilize the car in emergency maneuvers. As Chevy explains it, the system is activated when there’s significant difference between how the driver intends for the car to corner and how the car is actually cornering.

The Z4Z Pace Car package adds about $5,000 to the price of a Corvette convertible. The active-handling package is now available as a $500 option on all Corvettes.

Check out Sunday’s race if you want to see what the Corvette Pace Car looks like. With less t n 1,200 slated for production, and the replica cars a favorite of collectors, you might see one parked at your neighborhood grocery, but you won’t see two of them.

NUTS AND BOLTS

What we drove: 1998 Chevrolet Corvette Indy Pace Car convertible with a 5.7-liter V-8 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Base price: $44,425

Price as tested (includes options and delivery charge): $50,199

Curb weight: 3,246 pounds

Length: 179.7 inches

Turning circle (curb to curb): 40.0 feet

Standard features: Traction control system; limited slip differential; aluminum five-spoke wheels; extended mobility tires; four-wheel anti-lock brakes; theft deterrent system; full folding top with heated rear window glass; AM/FM/cassette stereo with Bose speakers; air conditioning; trip computer; cruise control; leather seats; power driver’s seat; tilt, leather-wrapped steering wheel; power locks and windows.

Options on test vehicle: Indy Pace Car package with black leather seats with yellow accents, exterior Pace Car decals; aluminum yellow-painted wheels, memory package, floor mats, sport seats, performance axle, active handling package, fog lamps, upgraded stereo with CD player and dual zone climate control; California emissions.

EPA figures: 17 mpg (city); 25 mpg (highway)

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