The snow was banked high on either side of the D 31 in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, and traces of weak sunshine were breaking through the low clouds, helping to keep the digitally-displayed outside air temperature just 2 degrees above the freezing point, which could seriously curtail our driving. This departmental road snakes across the green hills and plunging valleys which contain the Semois River as it flows westward from French-speaking southern Belgium into France itself. The road sweeps out around the buttresses of the hillside, revealing fine views of the river gorge, and then slams back into the woods to cross the streams that cascade down to swell the river below.
We had left the Cadillac-Corvette Experience Center at Breukelen in a Magnetic Red '05 early on a Wednesday morning in March. International motor group Kroymans runs Cadillac-Corvette Europe from a spectacular new headquarters building some 15 miles outside Amsterdam. concentration was at a premium as we drove GM's six-speed press car in the dense rush-hour traffic heading south on the congested A1.
The aim was to drive south to the twisting back roads of the Ardennes region on the Belgian/ French border, by way of the unrestricted autobahn of Germany, where the high-speed ride and handling of the new C6 could be properly assessed. More honestly, my photographer Trevor Rogers and I were off to have two days of fun in what we hoped would be the fastest and best-handling Corvette ever built. We had a unique opportunity to enjoy to the maximum the European version of America's favorite sports car and test it on real European roads.
The G-meter on the head-up display of the new C6 Corvette had no trouble repeatedly hitting 1.1 as we blasted around the positive-camber hairpins. The suspension loads up as the bend tightens, the coarse aggregate surface locks into the tire treads, and then accelerating hard, the rear wheels spin just enough to thrill the driver before the ASR traction control takes over, preventing things from getting too untidy, before using a fraction of the available 400 bhp to round the next buttress and repeat the process. the centrally-mounted GPS screen displayed the approaching curves, and with the driver's eyes locked on the road ahead, the navigator in the right-hand seat can describe the unfolding road ahead.
The rear hatch opens to reveal a trunk space similar to that of the familiar C5, but without the recess for the phantom spare wheel. It swallowed a mass of photographic equipment and will apparently hold two sets of golf clubs. I had studied the C6 at Geneva Salon in 2004, but driving in heavy traffic really shows off the car. Initially, the GPS navigation system was jammed up with a previous tester's parameters, but as we familiarized ourselves with its operation, it quickly became obvious that this is an essential option for the C6. When the used ones start to make the market in three years time, it will be the sat-nav cars that are most desirable.
The '05 may look smaller than the C5, but it seemed just as wide as we negotiated the tight streets of Nijmegen on the River Rhine for our first photo-call. While Trevor set up next to the busy waterway for our first pictures, I borrowed a tape measure and checked the true width of the car, which proved to be 6 feet, 10 inches-exactly the same as the supposedly-wider superseded C5. Chevrolet will tell you that the car is less than 6 feet, 1 inch wide, but they ignore the mirrors. Most modern European cars in the Corvette's price bracket have power retractable mirrors, and this is a car that could certainly use them. Better still, the external mirror glasses, which already have memory capability, should also flip downward to show the curb when Reverse gear is engaged.
Making steady progress towards Germany and keeping a careful eye out for speed cameras that are the curse of Dutch roads, we reflected on the interior design. The C5 was so good, perfected over the many years of its delayed introduction, but the new model falls short of that high standard, particularly in the arrangement of the door controls. Power windows have been offered in the Corvette since 1956, with hopeless metal switches until 1982, but have only now in the C6 adopted the Oriental-style switch-the finger is hooked to lift the window.
The steering wheel is a bit of a shock too. GM's design staff were always masters of effective simplicity in design. The diameter and position of the driver's most important control are just right, but are four spokes really necessary? Head-up display is still an optional extra, and a more open steering wheel design would allow those with the base-specification car a better view of the gauges when the wheel is turned to take a bend. The C6 now meets or exceeds the performance of the best from Porsche or Ferrari, but that wheel would never be found in either. (The '06 C6 and Z06 are now equipped with the improved three-spoke wheel -ED.)
Keyless start is not actually new, but has been reintroduced after a forty-year break. Chevrolet built keyless-start Corvettes for its first twelve years, although use of the key was optional to lock the ignition switch. From 1965, the key was essential to turn on the ignition and crank the motor. Who needs a bunch of keys dangling on the dash when they can be left in the pocket? Keyed starting was a reaction to increasing car crime in the '60s, and the anti-theft devices have escalated since, from the '69 that locked in Reverse or Park on automatics, to the ingenious and effective VATS key system used since '86. The new system needs some understanding and can be frustrating, for instance, when two people are trying to pack the car and leave in a hurry.
On heavily-trafficked roads with sometimes-poor surfaces, the increased suspension travel made a big difference. As soon as we were able to cruise at 100 mph, the advantage of the indexed door glass became obvious. C5 door glass was sucked outward at three-figure speeds, sometimes causing wind noise and water leakage, but the C6 glass is tightly restrained in a channel section. Touching the electronic door handle instantly drops the side glass a quarter of an inch out of the roof and A-pillar weather-strips, then allows the door to open. Combined with the quieter run-flat tires, the superb weather sealing made the car much more restful at high speeds.
A Cadillac for the XLR, which shares the C6 platform and is built in the Corvette plant, paid for all the new technology. Inside sources at GM say that was only possible thanks to the incredibly-profitable Escalade SUV. I like my cars simple and trouble-free, and it's no coincidence that my own Corvette is a '64. A lifetime of fixing customers' Corvettes makes me appreciate the simple virtues of trouble-free drum brakes and wind-up windows. It's easy to imagine that all these new electronics will give a lot of trouble in ten years, but I won't make the mistake of the '85 pundits who forecast that all those tuned port injections would be discarded and replaced by carburetors when the ECMs and sensors failed. Today's C4 owners fix their own electronics and probably don't even know how a carburetor or mechanical distributor works.
The faster you drive this Corvette, the better it feels. Bump-steer was developed from the Corvette C4 in the late '80s, and then the C5 with its extraordinarily-stiff hydro-formed chassis completed the revolution and matched the Corvette to the very best of the European competition. The autobahn from Koblenz to Trier climbs and drops back down constantly, curving all the time. With superb lane discipline by all road users, we cruised at 120 mph with occasional forays to 150. At these speeds, the suspension and steering is just superb, inspiring absolute confidence and making this one of the very best drives I have ever had anywhere. With the drilled brake discs that came with the optional FE7 package on our car, the brakes were just excellent. I suffer from car mechanic syndrome: I can't bear to over-rev an engine, cook a clutch, or get the brakes red-hot, and watching bracket racers power shift makes me ill, so I never braked hard enough to see if they would protest.
By the late afternoon of our first day, it was time to leave Germany and head through Luxembourg towards our destination hotel at Monthermes in France. The twisting roads of the Ardennes region were the highlight of our two-day, five-country trip. This area was occupied by German invading forces for the four years of the 1914-1918 war, and to prevent a repeat of that invasion in the worsening political climate of the late '30s, the impregnable Maginot line of defense was built south from here, all the way to the Alps. The French military was convinced that the Ardennes' hills and gorges would resist Hitler's tanks and left it undefended, but the Panzer Divisions fought their way through it easily to start the invasion of France in 1940.
Over dinner, we agreed that my short cut through the snow-covered back roads in the dark was a mistake. It was slippery and snowing, but the xenon HID headlights lit the path ahead like no previous Corvette ever could. Some keen reader might know where those German-looking headlight washers were sourced, but I have yet to find out. Not fitted to domestic spec cars, they telescope out some four inches from the bumper panel and flood the lamp lenses with washer fluid. They squirt only every third time the washer switch is operated and only when the lamps are lit. Thirty-five years ago, all C3 sharks had headlight washers, a novelty discontinued in mid-'71. Slithering through tight back roads in the dark, the active handling ABS antilock brakes and ASR traction control were a constant aid. Only on the tightest hairpins, which a C4 would nip round with much less lock, was it obvious that this Corvette has the longest wheelbase yet, but that extra length between the axles brings with it more legroom and more high-speed stability, both of which we appreciated on this trip.
As we headed back into Belgium, we found a narrow, bumpy, but completely straight road, and wound the Magnetic Red beast up to twice the legal speed limit. As the ASR kicked back over the bumps, the steering needed constant correction. However, if those cars are more stable under these particular conditions, it is probably because they tend to be much heavier, but at 3,250 pounds, the weight advantage of the C6 brings too many other benefits to ever complain about it.
I am not a professional road tester but am lucky to drive most models of Corvette every day. While I cannot offer any real comparison to the competing models from Germany, Italy, or Great Britain, like most Corvette enthusiasts, I am committed to the American brand and can judge the new model against what has gone before. I have to say, I just love this car! It is faster, quieter, better handling, more comfortable, and even better to live with day-to-day than the incredibly good '97-'04 C5 that it replaces.
There is an unmistakeable vein of continuity running through the Corvette marque, and the C6 delivers just as much driving fun as my forty-year-old restored '64. After some initial reservations, I have to say, I think it is a more attractive car, too.