1998 Chevrolet Corvette

By November 10, 1999
1998 Chevrolet Corvette

What could possibly be cooler than a new C5 Corvette?

You guessed it: a new C5 Corvette Convertible, one of the most formidable blends of performance, panache, and price on this planet. (Or, as far as we know, any other.)

“So what?” you could say. “You can open up the top of the Corvette coupe, too.”

And technically, you’d be right. Although a hardtop version is planned, every C5 coupe that’s rolled out of the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to date is a T-top. The twin glass panels that make up the middle of the roof lift out easily when it’s time for motoring al fresco. And this costs about $7,000 less than the convertible.

But there’s an essential difference in style here, a carefree brio that no coupe can match, no matter how many roof panels are removed. And in this case, the brio is not only carefree, it’s also hair-raising, literally, as well as figuratively.

Unlike most convertibles, the new Corvette ragtop weighs the same as its coupe counterpart, which means its acceleration performance is undiluted: 0-to-60 mph in less than 5 seconds with the 6-speed manual transmission, about 0.4 seconds slower with the automatic.

The automatic is standard in all Corvettes, the six-speed an $815 option. But automatic or stick, the new Vette is fast traffic–quick at the starting gate, beautifully balanced, surprisingly comfortable, and built to a far higher standard than any Corvette in history.


Introduced in early ’97, the new Corvette is generation number five in the line–thus the C5 designation–and the first complete redesign since 1984. The Convertible version came along about six months later, and the new car immediately started collecting honors, including the 1998 North American Car of the Year award.

While the basic concept is the same as it was back in 1953–a two-seat plastic-bodied all-American sports car–the C5 is about as all-new as all-new ever gets in the car business. The wheelbase is longer, the track is wider, structural rigidity is far higher, and there are far fewer pieces in the whole assembly, which improves rigidity and quality.

Like the car, the LS1 V8 engine is all new. Although it shares the same cylinder bore spacing as the previous LT1 V8 and the same old reliable overhead valvetrain, it’s all aluminum, and shares almost no parts with previous Chevy small-block V8s. And, as befits a Corvette, it’s also potent–345 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque.

With its aerodynamically inspired broad hindquarters, the styling of the new coupe has been controversial. The convertible version looks a bit more graceful, particularly when the top is down. If stares of envy are part of your sports car enjoyment, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than the ragtop Vette.

Interior Features

Handsome analog dials have replaced the previous digital displays, but the most striking change inside is comfort. Lower door sills and narrower side rails make getting in and out far easier and there’s more room for the driver and passenger. There’s also a real trunk, something that’s been absent from Corvettes for a long time. The other major element of improvement is the elimination of the rattles and stress squeaks that have haunted Vettes for so long. Wind noise is noticeably absent from the convertible.

The convertible top is simple to flip up or down and it stows neatly under a flap that folds flat at the forward edge of the trunk lid. The top is made of high-quality material with a glass rear window. The top seals well–there were no leaks in our car wash test or our high-speed wind test.

There is more interior noise in the convertible than the coupe and the coupe isn’t exactly quiet. However, this is a sports car and noise–particularly the calculated growl of that terrific new V8 –is part of the deal. If you want quiet, go to the library.

Driving Impressions

While we prefer the 6-speed, which was part of our test car’s inventory, we have to admit that the automatic rams its shifts home with authority, and there’s enough muscle in the new V8 to cover the small performance penalties associated with auto-shifters.

In fact, the only performance penalty that goes with the convertible version is top speed potential. The ragtop doesn’t share the coupe’s aerodynamic efficiency, so it tops out at a mere 162 mph versus 174 for the coupe. Of course, when the top is down there’s more drag and a correspondingly lower top speed. Still, that’s speed that’ll get you to the drive-in in a pretty big hurry–and the local slammer even faster.

Aside from this one small disparity, though, it’s tough to perceive any other performance distinctions between the topless Vette and its coupe counterpart. Chief engineer Dave Hill and all the rest of the Corvette kids insist that the structural design for the new Vette began with the convertible, and as a consequence no shoring-up measures were required for the soft top chassis.

We admit to some pre-test cynicism on this issue, because you hear the same song from almost every purveyor of ragtops. But in this application, at least, it seems to be true. If there’s any distinction to be made between the agility and stability of the Corvette coupe and the new convertible, it would be all but impossible to discern on public roads.

Even with the basic suspension package, our test car’s responses were surgically precise, if you can imagine a surgical instrument with 345 horsepower and great gobs of torque. Just as important, there wasn’t a hint of cowl shake, the time-honored malady of convertibles wherein the dashboard and exterior oscillate at differing rates.

Another part of the deal is stiff ride quality. You don’t get a sports car’s ability to change directions without snubbing body roll and limiting up and down suspension motions, and when you do those things you’re obliged to accept some tradeoff in comfort. Any suspension so conceived isn’t going to be very good at sopping up small bumps and holes, and that’s true of the Corvette.

On the other hand, the combination of the superb new chassis and continuing improvements in shock absorber technology make this Corvette substantially more supple than its predecessor, and far from unpleasant.

And in the basic sports car mission–carving up switchbacks, or attacking an autocross course–the new Vette has the reflexes of an Olympic gymnast. It’s a superb blend of muscle and finesse, with a much higher tolerance for mistakes of the enthusiastic variety, complemented by brakes that are nothing short of raceworthy.


Although there are a number of very good sports cars in the same price range as the Corvette, it doesn’t really seem to have any direct competitors.

The similarly priced Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 2.8, and Porsche Boxster are all delightful and competent players, but they play at a more modest pace. When it comes to real pavement-ripping prowess, none can match the Corvette’s sheer power and corner-gobbling grip.

The Dodge Viper does rival the Corvette’s dynamic capabilities–indeed, it’s even faster–but it requires a single-minded focus on brutish performance to enjoy it. When it comes to civilization and comfort, the Corvette wins hands-down.

To get a similar blend of comfort and true sports car performance, you’ll find yourself in a Porsche store looking at 911s, but the 911 can’t compete with the Corvette’s price.

The Corvette is no longer this country’s only sports car, and it’s certainly evolved well beyond the realm of what we call affordable. But coupe or convertible, there doesn’t seem to be much question that the latest generation of this all-American is also world-class.

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