Are you getting a car in?" Campy asked. Discussions around the office had centered on a new-car test for some time, and it had been decided that a Corvette road test would fit nicely between the demise of the F-body and the introduction of the new GTO. Jim, Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords editor and closet Corvette lover, had been following those conversations closely. "50th Anniversary coupe, 6-speed," I replied. Camp smiled.
That was the reaction with everyone who heard that GMHTP would be testing a 2003 Vette. And why not: for the past six years, GM aficionados have heard power this, refinement that from the automotive press when the C5 was judged.
While the anniversary model didn't pack the commemorative hi-po mill that GM fans were hoping for, it did possess several technological improvements to go with the special colors and badges, along with a $50,000 price tag. I know, I know--the C5 is repeatedly praised as the best high-performance bargain in the world. But, thorough motoring scribes that we are, we needed some firsthand data before making a boast like that. So the game plan was simple: smack the golden boy of GM performance around for a week, see if it holds up, and then give it back. First stop: Raceway Park.
Our street time with the 6-speed coupe told us that this sucker had serious stones, so a trip to Raceway Park in Englishtown for some quarter-mile "evaluation" was a must. "Stick Shift" Steve Baur was called on to throw the Vette's gears, and when the crew arrived on a 65-degree morning, we found him icing down the LS1's composite nylon intake for max power. Baur settled into the Shale leather interior and donned a Simpson helmet, cracked off the 350-horse LS1, and drove to the waterbox. A five-second burnout warmed up the 275mm tires before Steve pulled to the line. He bumped in slowly until the stage light was on, the track's teeth ripping at the warm rubber. The Vette was revved to 2800 rpm, and with the last amber staring him in the face, Steve slipped the clutch and breathed down on 375 lb.-ft. of torque. The sweet spot between hook and spin on the glue-prepped track was his--the Goodyears barely chirped as the overpowered IRS unloaded--and 2.08 flashed for the 60-foot. This now-legendary alloy mill explodes with revs, and the 6-grand 1-2 shift was over before we knew it. Another mechanical crescendo echoed off Raceway Park's walls as Baur got scratch in Third, and soon after fourth gear was successfully engaged, the clocks showed the result: 12.76 at 111.96 miles an hour.
Baur made several more high 12-second runs, but the 12.7 wasn't to be topped. The Stalker radar gun told us that the Vette turned in 0-30 times of 2.2 seconds and a 0-60 sprint in only 4.7.
After the drag testing, we used Raceway Park's slightly bumpy parking lot to get some lateral-g readings. Once the cones were placed in a 200-foot circle, we hooked up and calibrated the G-Analyst data acquisition unit, and as Baur threw on his Simpson, I scoped out a photo spot that wouldn't get me squashed by a sliding Corvette. Once he had adjusted the 6-way power seats to his liking, disabled the Active Handling, and verified that the console-mounted Magnetic Selective Ride knob, which controls the new magneto-rheological shock absorbers, was set on "Sport," Steve hit the record button and began the run. A warm-up lap was made, then with the shifter in Third, he attacked the cones.
From my vantage point I could see that the 50th stayed flat and composed as the g-forces mounted. On the third and final counter-clockwise lap, a rough patch of pavement shook the at-the-limit-Vette's tail out just enough for Baur to go wide on the next cone. He flipped around and completed three clockwise laps, then straightened it out and pulled to the circle's center. A replay of the data showed that the '03 was pushing a .96-g peak heading into the broken asphalt, but once the IRS was past that spot, the self-adjusting F55 suspension turned in a .94 average--not bad for 245mm front/275mm rear Extended Mobility tires.
No all-out test session would be complete without a few laps on Raceway Park's 1.35-mile road course--there's nothing like a few high-speed turns to uncover the demons in street-based suspensions and brakes. Handling the driving duties was Jim Campisano--Campy gladly strapped himself in, turned the Active Handling off, and headed out for what would become a tail-sliding, five-lap affair. When he came back in, Camp reported neutral handling with just a hint of oversteer, a well-weighted steering system, a slightly unsettled rear under braking, and good tires and brakes. Jim's second lap was the best at one minute, twenty-nine seconds, and the rest were in the low- to mid-1:30 range.
Real-World: New York City
The Vette exhibited hushed brilliance while excelling in our performance tests, and it was obvious that this platform was sneering at our weak attempts to challenge it.
We threw down the gauntlet on a Saturday in late March and headed for the Lincoln Tunnel--traditionally known as the worst commuter thoroughfare in the tri-state area. To complicate matters further, the large pre-theater crowd in Midtown would be whipping Yellow cabbies--normally merely homicidal to nearby motorists and pedestrians--into a suicidal lane-darting and brake-stomping frenzy.
Our destination, Hell's Kitchen in the mid-40s and the Times Square area, would put us in the center of this chaos.
A steady rain kept traffic slow for the first leg of the trip, but we finally began to move around Route 3. In weather like this, even my testosterone-fuddled brain knew that disabling the Active Handling system was a bad idea. But conditions were perfect to test its effectiveness; the metal-grate bridge surfaces were wet and slick as dog snot, and it was time to take a leap of faith. When room around the Chevy opened up, a quick downshift and rap of the throttle turned us sideways--and brought this system online. Sensors in the wheels, accelerator pedal, brake switch, master cylinder, and steering wheel, mixed with data from built-in accelerometer and yaw rate sensors, lightly applied individual brakes and straightened us out. The system was very effective in keeping the tail-happy Vette from spearing a fart-piped Honda...whether that's bad or good has yet to be determined. My adolescent antics over with, we crested a hill near Union City, where the Empire State Building became visible.
Once in the city, we turned north from 42nd Street onto 8th Avenue. The deep rumble of the all-aluminum V-8 echoed off of the fast food joints and peep shows as I accelerated through two gears. With all of the jaywalking going on at Manhattan intersections, a sharp blast of the horn is a must to send horn rim-wearing weenies diving for the curb--is this thing insured?
With 49th street looming the cabs started to dance, and I found myself mashing the huge 12.6-inch disc brakes to avoid collisions. Pulling into a Hell's Kitchen parking lot for some grub, I weaved through the crowd and purposely hit the steep ramp a little hot--the Indian attendant was a bit irritated; the Vette's underside was not.
It was near 8 p.m. when we finished with dinner. After collecting the 50th, I turned east and drove toward the mother of all traffic jams, Times Square. Rain fell and car doors swung open as we sped down West 48th, and it was in these emergency lane-change maneuvers over broken pavement that the Corvette's refined IRS began to shine. A twitchy foot covered the brake as potholes and manhole covers shook us down, but the C5 never lost its composure. Five minutes and one right turn later, we arrived on America's Main Street.
This experience--the lights, the sounds, the life--is best appreciated with the windows down and, if possible, the top off. But with the proverbial cats and dogs making a very un-welcomed appearance that night, the windows were up and the coupe's lightweight top was latched tight. We stuck out like a sore thumb among the sea of for-hire cars, but apparently the Vette was still invisible to their drivers--as space opened up to head south toward 41st Street, a near-sideswipe by a lane-changing stretch limo again made a hero out of the Bosch 4-channel ABS system.
With Tourist Central 10 blocks behind us, the Goodyear EMTs rubbed the curb around 29th and 5th. A few photos were taken of the Corvette in the shadow of the Empire State Building, and once these powerful, timeless, undeniably American icons were captured on film, I fishtailed toward the West Side Highway.
Once up to speed around the upper 70s, I slipped the shifter into Sixth and watched the glowing tach needle settle at 1200 rpm. And with the Delco/Bose stereo softly overpowering the LS1's rumble, the Vette rolled across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey.
The 50th Anniversary C5 survived our hell week without a scratch, but the staff did find a few things that were irritating. A rattle from the stainless steel exhaust was almost inaudible at first, but after the city trip it grew to a real annoyance while shifting through gears. And speaking of, throwing gears on the Tremec is like holding a block of wood. The pedals were great in dry weather, but our feet tended to slip off when they were wet. We found little use for the cheesy Heads-Up Display, and despised the gaudy hole it occupied in the dash. Lastly, the high-tech Xirallic flake in the 50th Anniversary Red paint is trick, but for $50,010, there was too much orange peel in the mix.
But all minor gripes aside, this is the most refined 12-second car I've ever driven. We could start at the pure-heaven power side bolsters and telescoping steering wheel and end with the freight-train pull of a third-gear blast, but aside from the above-listed complaints, this automobile is hard to top. It won't be long before the new C6 is introduced, and if it is born with the kind of refinement that our 50th model had, prepare yourself for many more years of accolades for America's sports car. In closing, let me encapsulate this memorable week with a quote from Ferris Bueller: I love driving it--it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.