TOM FALCONER

 

 
 

         

 

Five Country 2005 Test.

Text by Tom Falconer. A version of this story appeared in Corvette Fever Magazine.

The snow was banked high on either side of the D 31 in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, traces of weak sunshine were breaking through the low cloud, helping to keep the digitally displayed outside air temperature just two 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.  The road is wet with melting snow, and a plume of spray follows and mixes with the raucous and off beat exhaust.

The G-meter on the head up display of the new C6 Corvette has no trouble in repeatedly hitting 1.1 as we blast around these 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 getting too untidy, before using a fraction of the available 400 bhp to round the next buttress and repeat the process. All the time the centrally mounted GPS screen displays the approaching curves, and with driver’s eyes locked on the road ahead, the navigator in the right hand seat can describe the unfolding road ahead, like Denis Jenkinson navigating for Stirling Moss in the 1955 Mille Miglia. They averaged almost 100mph for ten hours racing through Italy in their Mercedes Benz 300SLR, Jenkinson reading the road from notes he made previously on a continuous roll of paper, and using hand signals to describe each approaching bend.

We had left the Cadillac-Corvette Experience Center at Breukelen in Magnetic Red 2005 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, and having flown into the Netherlands from London that morning, concentration was at a premium driving GM’s own 6-speed Press car in the dense rush hour traffic as we headed south on the congested A1.

The aim was drive south to the twisting back roads of the Ardennes region on the Belgian French border, by way of the unrestricted autobahn of south-west 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 handing 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 additional agenda was to drink some great coffee  - Starbucks may have raised the standard in America, but for the real thing, head for the Netherlands or Belgium.

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, whatever they are. I had studied the C6 at Geneva Salon in 2004, but driving in heavy traffic really shows up the car. Initially the GPS navigation system was jammed up with a previous tester’s parameters, but as we familiarised ourselves with its operation, it quickly became obvious that this is the absolute essential option for the C6.  When the used ones start make the market in three years time, it will be the Sat-Nav cars that are most sought after.

The 2005 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 for our first pictures beside the frantically busy waterway, I borrowed a tape measure and checked the true width of the car, which proved to be 6’ 10”, which is exactly the same as the supposedly wider superseded C5.  Chevrolet will tell you that the car is less than 6’ 1” wide, but they ignore the mirrors.  Most modern European cars in the Corvette’s price bracket have powered retractable mirrors, and this is a car that could certainly use them, and better still, the external mirror glasses, which already have memory capability, should also flip downward to show the kerb when reverse gear is engaged.

Making steady progress towards Germany, and keeping a careful eye out for speed cameras, which are the curse of Dutch roads, we reflected on the interior design. The C5 was so good, perfected as it was 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 Corvette since 1957, with hopeless metal switches until 1982, but have only now in the C6 adopted the Oriental style switch under which 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, and yet that wheel could never be found in either. Sit the drivers of those makes in the new Vette, and it will be the first item to draw a negative comment.

Keyless start is not actually new, but has been reintroduced after a forty-year break, as any 53-64 owners will confirm! 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 sixties, and the anti theft devices have escalated since, from the 1969 that locked in reverse, or park on automatics, to the ingenious and effective VATS Key system used since 1986. The new system needs some understanding and can be frustrating when, for instance, two people are trying to pack the car and then leave in a hurry.

On heavily trafficked road with sometimes-poor surfaces, the increased suspension travel made a big difference.  As soon as we were able to cruise at 100 miles per hour, 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 inch out of the roof and A-pillar weather-strips, then allowing the door to open, as on some BMW convertibles. Combined with the quieter run-flat tires, the superb weather sealing made the car was much more restful at very high speeds.

Cadillac for their XLR, which shares the C6 platform and is built in the Corvette plant, paid for all the new technology, and inside sources at GM say that that was only possible thanks to the incredibly profitable Escalade SUV.  I like my cars simple and trouble free, and its no coincidence that my own Corvette is a 1964. A lifetime fixing customers’ Corvettes makes me appreciate the simple virtues of trouble-free drum brakes and wind-up windows. It’s easy to think that all these new electronics will give a lot of trouble in ten years time.  But I won’t make the mistake of the pundits who forecast in 1985 that all those Tuned Port Injections would be discarded and replaced by carburettors when the ECMs and sensors failed. Today’s C4 owners fix their own electronics, and probably can’t even see how a carburettor, or mechanical distributor can work.

The faster you drive this Corvette the better it feels. Bump-steer was developed out of the Corvette C4 in the late Eighties, 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 120mph with occasional forays to 150, in company with the local BMWs and Mercs, and all quite legal.   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, which came with the optional FE7 package on our car, the brakes were just excellent too. I suffer from car mechanic syndrome  - I can’t bear to over rev an engine, cook a clutch, or get brakes red hot, and watching bracket racers power shifting makes me ill  - so I never braked hard enough to see if they would protest, and German truckers check their mirrors before they pull out, so I never needed to either.

By late afternoon of our first day, it was time to leave Germany and head through Luxembourg and towards our destination hotel at Monthermes in France.  The twisting roads of the Ardennes region are the highlight of our two-day five-country trip. This area was occupied by German invading forces for the four years of the 1914-18 war, and to prevent a repeat of that invasion in the worsening political climate of the late Thirties, the ‘impregnable’ Maginot line of defence was built south from here all the way to the Alps. The French military were convinced that the Ardennes’s hills and gorges would resist Hitler’s tanks and left it undefended, but the panzer divisions fought their way through here easily, to start the invasion of France again in 1940.

Over a superb dinner and enjoying a perfect bottle of claret from St Emilion, 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 will tell where those very 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 too, a novelty then but discontinued in mid-1971. 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 really appreciated on this trip.

America makes the best sports cars, but the French, who sadly haven’t made a V8 passenger car for years, really do the best food. The traditional breakfast is a fresh croissant pastry with a bowl of chocolate or coffee made with hot milk, and thus filled we spent a misty morning on those perfect deserted snow banked roads, taking pictures and even shooting two minutes of high definition video of the car in action.

As we headed back into Belgium, we found a narrow and bumpy but completely straight road, and wound the Magnetic Red beast up twice the legal speed limit. As the ASR kicked back over the bumps, the steering needed constant correction and we wondered whether a BMW or Mercedes would have been more stable over this very European surface. But if those cars are more stable under these particular conditions, it is probably because they tend too much heavier, and at 3,250 pounds the weight advantage of the C6 bring too many other benefits to ever complain about.

I am not a professional road tester, but am lucky to drive most models of Corvette every day. So 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, and have to say that I love it. It is faster, quieter, better handing, more comfortable and even better to live with day to day than the 1997 -2004 C5 that it replaces, and that is still and incredibly good car.  There is an unmistakeable vein of continuity running through the Corvette marquee and the C6 delivers just as much driving fun as my forty-year-old restored 1964. And after some initial reservations I think it is a more attractive car too.