On the automotive stage, names don't come any bigger than "Corvette." Now marking fifty years as America's sports car, the Corvette has achieved star quality, despite some not-so-memorable performances. The fifth-generation (C5) Corvette restored the luster of the storied nameplate, and the Z06 brought the Vette's abilities up to the level of its legend. For that, it garnered our Automobile of the Year award for 2001.
To find out what this legend is like to live with, we took delivery of a torch-red Z06 twelve months ago. Would its superstar performance still thrill? Would hidden flaws emerge? Would we discover new talents? Would shaky quality shake our faith?
Taking the last question first, the answer turned out to be no. Under our loving, if not exactly tender, care, the Corvette stayed fairly healthy, hanging together with a tenacity that belied the marque's reputation. It did, however, develop a taste for the Mobil 1--two quarts in the first 2500 miles, three more quarts in the next 1100. We twice checked in to the dealer's service department, but they could find no leaks. Finally, at 5810 miles, as we reported in our six-month Logbook update, the Z06 received new piston rings. Excessive oil consumption had been a lingering problem for a small percentage of C5 owners, and eventually it was traced to light-load, high-rpm driving. Under those conditions, ring flutter would diminish the rings' ability to scrape oil off the piston, increasing oil blow-by and raising consumption. Chevrolet and its supplier developed redesigned piston rings that have higher tension and a reshaped profile to control flutter and eliminate blow-by. The new rings are a running change for both LS6 and LS1 engines. For the rest of our test, the Z06 went from slurping to sipping its synthetic elixir at a rate of a quart every 4000 miles or so.
Of lesser import but greater inconvenience was a failed alternator, which stranded copy editor Matt Phenix at his dad's house in North Carolina. Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet had to order the part (which is unique to the LS6), but once it was installed, Phenix was on his way. The only other hiccups were a loose coolant hose clamp, a broken exhaust system bolt, and a corroded electrical connection that caused the outside temperature gauge to stick at 69 degrees. All were warranty fixes.
Our nonwarranty expenses were tires and more tires. Because we run our Four Seasons cars in all four seasons, we needed snow tires. But there are no snow tires made that fit the Z06's ultra-wide wheels (17 x 9.5 inches front, 18 x 10.5 inches rear, an inch wider than a standard Vette's). So add the cost of four standard Corvette wheels to the $1278 for the tires, and you'll understand why Z06s are rare sights at ski resorts. Still, the Goodyear Eagle MS EMT snows and the Corvette's traction control kept us on the road all winter.
Despite running snow tires for several months, we still managed to wear out the standard Goodyear Eagle F1 SCs. By way of expla-nation, all we can do is shrug our collective shoulders unapologetically and say, "Track time."
After all, the Z06 is supposed to be the sports car that you can drive to the track and race when you get there. That's why it's lighter, stiffer, and more powerful than your regular Corvette. Many of the modifications to its 5.7-liter V-8 are designed to cope with the rigors of track use, but the LS6 engine also puts out 385 horsepower (increased to 405 for 2002) to the LS1's 350 horsepower, it redlines 500 rpm higher, and it makes its torque slightly higher in the rev range. The Z06's six-speed transaxle is unique, with slightly shorter gearing (except in fourth). A titanium exhaust, thinner glass, and conventional (not run-flat) tires are the key Z06 weight-saving initiatives. In addition to the aforementioned wider wheels, the Z06's FE4 suspension is the firmest of all Corvettes', and its steering is the quickest.
The net result is a stunning track car. "This was my favorite car at Waterford Hills race-track," said associate editor Joe DeMatio. "I just left it in third, and there was always plenty of power. Steering, brakes, and suspension are all phenomenal."
Give some credit to the Active Handling stability system, which features a "Competitive Mode" that turns off the traction control but retains the stability control. The system was refined for 2001 to be quicker-acting and yet less intrusive, and technical editor Don Sherman praised the results: "They nailed those important calibrations."
As awesome as it was, the Z06's track prowess wasn't really a surprise. "We know this is a great car for the track," executive editor Mark Gillies pointed out. "But it's also a very usable sports car. The huge amount of torque means you can be lazy with shifting. The ride is surprisingly compliant, and, though it's a big car, it's easy to place."
Indeed, Big Red's big revelation was how easy this racing car is to live with.
The first thing one might expect given the Z06's hard-core specification is that the ride would beat you up, but we found it surprisingly supple, although the wide tires made for a good deal of tramlining. Nonetheless, comfortable seats, a roomy interior, and a reasonable luggage compartment made the Z06 a popular choice even for long trips. New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman drove it from New York to Michigan and filed this report: "A red Corvette is probably the stupidest car you could choose for interstate travel. I enjoyed my own police escort for large portions of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Nonetheless, this is a supremely competent long-distance tourer--fast (oh so fast), comfortable, and economical. This last is a real surprise, as you don't usually expect 27 miles per gallon from a 385-horsepower car. Yet at a steady 80 mph, with occasional forays into the triple digits, our Z06 was sipping gas like a Corolla."
The source of the Vette's highway economy, and resultant bladder-stretching range, is its gearing. When you shift into sixth, it's as if you've switched off the ignition. Fifth is an overdrive as well. Happily, the LS6's reserves of torque are deep enough that the Corvette still steps out if you boot it. The sky-high fifth and sixth ratios provoked little carping, but GM's first-to-fourth skip shift still inspires loathing. And even when your shifts are not being guided by an invisible hand, this gearbox is less than fluid. But at least the heavy-duty clutch has humane efforts and is easy to modulate.
The biggest road-trip downer was booming tire noise (particularly with the snows on), mostly a result of the trunk being open to the cabin. As for the cabin ambience, staffers fell firmly in both camps. For everyone who complained about cheesy materials, someone else praised the seats, the gauges, the switches, even the red-and-black color scheme.
If road noise was the Z06's weakness on the highway, then maneuverability was its most pronounced flaw around town. For a two-seater, the Corvette feels pretty huge, never more so than when you've got the wheel cranked at full lock, as the Z06's turning circle is 42.3 feet (curb to curb), three feet larger than a standard Vette's.
In all, a year of nit-picking and abuse didn't much dim our enthusiasm for this big red sports car, and it even revealed some hidden talents. "There's something so soulful and right-on about the Z06 that you can forgive it for its shortcomings," said senior editor Eddie Alterman. "Put the throttle down, and all is forgiven."