When nearly 5,000 folks squeezed into the Detroit Opera House on a frigid January night this year, they weren't there for Wagner. They'd come for a glimpse of the C6, insiders' code name for the sixth-generation Chevrolet Corvette. The car was already a year late, having missed the 'Vette's well-feted 50th anniversary. It took several more months before we could wrangle a running version of the fiberglass-bodied 2-seater—only the 20th car to roll off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
At first glance, one might have wondered what the fuss was about. From a styling standpoint, the C6 is what designers call an "evolutionary" update, much more modest than the revolutionary redesign Corvette underwent in 1997. But appearances deceive, for significant changes mark the 2005 Corvette. The most controversial replaces the pop-up headlights, a singular Corvette design cue for more than 40 years, with xenon lamps. Few, on the other hand, will complain about the new rear end. The last-generation C5 had a fat and bloated tail that only true aficionados could love.
What might escape the eye of the casual observer is the smaller "footprint"; at five inches shorter and an inch narrower, it's almost exactly the size of a Porsche 911. More than a coincidence.
As you'd expect, C6 has plenty of muscle. Its LS2 V-8 has been bulked up to an even 6.0 liters, with horsepower jumping to a full 400. The engine has been mated to a new short-throw, 6-speed manual (with a 4-speed automatic available, as well). The high-performance Z51 package we tested launches from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds—about the same as last year's limited-edition Corvette Z06—and tops out at 186 mph.
Fast? Sure, you expect Corvette to be quick off the line. But the new car will also command the most demanding road course, thanks to a stiff new chassis and updated suspension. Larger brakes stop the C6 as if it's been grabbed by an aircraft carrier's arrest wire.
The '05 Corvette has been refined, rather than tamed. There's markedly less road noise and harshness. Even the engine sounds more sophisticated. There's still the resonant roar of big Detroit iron, but none of the brashness. The C6 gains some decidedly upmarket technology, including a Heads-up Display, or HUD, system, which projects critical information onto the lower windshield. There's even an optional navigation system, as well as first-ever seat heaters. And for the first time since 1962, the convertible will offer an optional power top.
We do have a few minor complaints, such as the cheesy plastic bezels cladding the radio and climate control. But when your foot is pressed to the floorboard, your back slammed into the seat, those are details few will notice. The bottom line is that the C6 is not only the best Corvette ever, but dollar for dollar, it is in the running for best sports car on the road.