1997 Chevrolet Corvette

By November 10, 1999
1997 Chevrolet Corvette

It's been 14 years since the last all-new Corvette came along, and with that much time you'd expect the new one to be an improvement on its predecessor. But even so, we think you'll be surprised at the magnitude of those improvements.

The previous Corvette was fast and agile. The new one is faster, and it has the reflexes and poise of a world-class athlete. And that's just the sports car side of the equation. Chevy's work on the comfort side of the ledger is even more impressive. The new car is far easier to get in and out of, with more room inside. Improvements in structural integrity and assembly have eliminated the stress squeaks that have plagued Corvettes ever since 1953, and ride quality has improved by a factor of four. Driving a Corvette is no longer a mixture of pleasure and pain.

Although this new Vette arrives four years behind schedule, it's clear that the development team put the extra time to excellent use. For the first time, the Corvette can claim a place among the elite of the world's best sports cars.


Unlike previous Corvette redesigns, the styling of the fifth generation represents an evolutionary change rather than a distinct visual break from the previous model. It's not easy to see the changes at a glance, particularly if you're looking at the car from the front. The new hood has a slightly more contemporary shape, reminiscent of the Mazda RX-7, but the pop-up headlights lend a familiar look, as do the overall proportions, which are classic sports car–long hood, short rear deck, and a wide, action-ready stance.

Distinctions at the rear are more apparent. The rear fascia has been squared off, and the glass of the rear hatch is fully framed, making it much easier to close and much less prone to breakage. The going-away view is much more aggressive, giving the new Vette the look of a Le Mans racer.

Overall, this is a shape that evolved in the wind tunnel, a development program that included the underside of the car as well as the surface. The payoff is outstanding aerodynamic efficiency. The new Corvette rolls into showrooms with a coefficient of drag rating of 0.29, better than any other General Motors offering save for the ultra-slippery EV-1 electric. Aerodynamic efficiency pays dividends in high-speed stability, fuel economy and reduced wind noise, just one example of the painstaking attention to detail that went into this all-new car.

All-new is always a relative term in the car biz, of course, but it's truly appropros here. Beneath its plastic body panels, the Corvette has a new chassis with rigidity numbers that make its competent predecessor seem like a piece of spaghetti. Chassis rigidity is the starting point for good handling, ride quality and noise isolation, and the new Corvette is vastly improved on all three counts.

As before, the strength of the chassis lies in two massive siderails. However, thanks to a new production technique the rails are one-piece units, rather than a multi-piece fabrication, and are far stronger as a result. The front suspension is anchored to sturdy sub-framing, and the rear suspension has been redesigned so that the halfshafts, which transfer power from the differential to the rear wheels, no longer have to double as suspension components. All of this conspires to keep all four tires solidly in contact with mother earth, regardless of the road surface.

Wheelbase is another key ingredient in ride quality, and the new Corvette has more of it–8.3 inches more, to be precise. That's a big stretch, and the car's track has been widened proportionately. The body is also substantially wider–almost three inches–but overall length has stretched by just over an inch, which means there's less car extending beyond the axles, fore and aft, a plus in the weight distribution scheme.

A bigger plus in this regard is the transmission location, which has been moved to the rear of the car. It all adds up to a 51/49 front/rear weight split, a key factor in the new car's outstanding handling balance. And speaking of weight, the basic Corvette scales in 69 pounds lighter than its predecessor, a noteworthy achievement considering the increases in structural rigidity and overall dimension.

You expect power in a Corvette, and the new Vette's 5.7-liter V8 has plenty–345 horsepower, enough to produce consistent 0-to-60 mph dashes in less than five seconds with the standard six-speed manual transmission (an electronically-controlled four-speed continues to be the automatic option).

The intriguing element here is the engine's design, which preserves Chevy's classic small-block overhead-valve concept, dating to 1955, even though virtually all its components are new and it's all aluminum. Why didn't Chevy go with a contemporary overhead cam, multi-valve design? Chevrolet cites tradition, but the key elements were probably the relatively low cost of production (fewer moving parts) and packagability (tidier dimensions overall).


Interior Features

Sports car drivers expect snug cockpits, but the previous Corvette seemed to confuse snug with cramped. Thanks to its stretched wheelbase and increased width, the new Vette corrects that problem. There's more room to squirm in the excellent multi-adjustable bucket seats, more room in the footwells and, at last, a driver's side footrest.

Another significant improvement, in our view, is the return to basic analog-style instruments in place of the previous liquid-crystal display–easier to read at a glance, and better looking. The center stack controls–climate and audio–are nicely marked, with knobs and swtiches big enough for easy adjusting when the car is moving, and all control locations are logically arranged.

Climbing in and out of the previous Corvette, with its high door sills, was a chore. The new car corrects this problem by lowering the sill 3.7 inches and expanding the door openings. It's also easier to get at the luggage space, and there's more space to get at–enough for the obligatory two golf bags–thanks in part to the new run-flat tires, which eliminate the need for a spare.

Standard equipment is plentiful–air conditioning, leather, a very good sound system, power seats, locks, mirrors and windows, plus a standard removable roof panel that no longer requires special tools.

Upgrade options include two more performance-oriented shock absorber packages with automatically adjustable damping, fancier sound systems and an automatic transmission, but the basic Corvette Coupe, our test subject here, is basic in name only.

Driving Impressions

You expect eyeball-flattening performance from a Corvette and that's what you get. It takes less than 12 seconds to reach 100 mph, and top speed is just north of 170 mph, almost as fast as the old ZR1.

The handling that goes with all this speed is pure joy–decisive, balanced, cat-quick and laser-precise. The prime purpose of a sports car is to make the vehicle an unerring extension of the driver's will, and that's what the new Corvette delivers, with amazing brakes thrown in for good measure.

In short, wow.

As good as the dynamics are, though–and they are very, very good indeed–we think the new Corvette's strongest suits are comfort, all-around driveability and quality. We think that largely because these elements were marginal in previous Corvettes. Harsh ride quality has been replaced by an up-to-the-minute blend of firm control and supple response to small bumps and ripples in the pavement. Thanks to much higher construction quality, squeaks and rattles have been banished, and the sweeping improvements in the details make the new Corvette far more useful as an everyday car, as well as an adrenaline generator.


With a base price of $38,000-plus, the Corvette is clearly not just a toy. On the other hand, Its performance capabilities are substantially higher than other cars in the same price range–the BMW Z3 2.8, Porsche Boxster, Mercedes SLK and Toyota Supra Turbo, to name just a few. And they're on a par with sports cars costing far more, such as the Porsche 911.

Add comfort, plenty of standard features and vastly improved quality and you have a true world-class sports car, something we couldn't really say about previous Corvettes.

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