Here's a beautiful stretch of road in rural North Carolina north of Charlotte, an unpopulated expanse marked by sharp elevation changes and a series of complex corners. It is a perfect test track and playground for the 2003 Corvette coupe, and as I nail the throttle and shift from second gear to third, the brute force of its big V-8 engine pushing me back in the seat, I can feel the blood moving in my head. The huge Goodyear tires grip tenaciously on turns, and the chassis balance is so perfect that I find myself taking corners faster than I'd ever thought possible, let alone prudent.
As I think of the legendary Corvettes of yesteryear—the first fuel-injected Vette in 1957, the 1963 split-window coupe, the thundering 427-cubic-inch monster of 1967—it's apparent that this one inspires both outright lust and quiet introspection. Before I know it, I'm thinking about the car as if it were human: I should look this good at fifty. I should feel this good at fifty. I should have this much sex appeal at fifty. I should be driving one of these at fifty. Sigh.
Yes, the venerable Chevrolet Corvette is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, a half-century of legendary ups (1956-'67) and a few downs (most of the 1970s and '80s). Through it all, the Corvette has remained true to its mission as America's definitive—and usually only—true sports car.
The Corvette is two-lane blacktop on heat-thick nights in the middle of an endless summer, a tribute to the honest virtues of a monster V-8, two seats and all the road one can swallow in a day. In a world where automotive tastes and styles come and go, the Corvette is a symbol that has both defined eras and defiantly outlived its competition.
And there is no doubt that the 2003 is the best ever built. It delivers stunning performance, going from zero to sixty in a retina-detaching 4.6 seconds, with a top speed of 175 m.p.h. And it sticks to the road, turning an impressive 0.93 g's in lateral acceleration.
Most people will go their entire lifetimes and never drive a car capable of this kind of performance, much less own one and push it anywhere near its limits. Those who do will be rewarded with a driving experience unmatched anywhere else.
The fun starts with Chevy's 350-horsepower LS1 V-8 engine, which mates to a smooth-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. This is a power plant that demands the driver get in touch with his or her inner juvenile delinquent—just punch it and feel the engine kick in like the afterburner on an F-18. In short, there's not much in life that feels as good as this engine under heavy throttle.
Fortunately, the chassis and brakes are more than up to the task at hand, delivering a total package of ride, handling and braking that truly is as exceptional as it is satisfying. Thanks to advanced electronics, the first-rate handling is no longer accompanied by a bone-crushing ride. True, the new Vette is no Cadillac, but neither is it as tiring to drive as it used to be.
But the real revelation about the 2003 Corvette is that it is no longer just a hot rod with a pretty face. It is a refined, comfortable car that, while not exactly minivan-like in its utility, is infinitely more tractable than the high-horsepower Vettes of the mid-1960s.
The 2003 Corvette doesn't squeak and rattle, nor does it leak water when it rains or overheat in the summer. You can actually carry a weekend's worth of luggage, or a couple sets of clubs, in the trunk. And the interior, though not quite up to Porsche quality, is light-years ahead of where Corvettes were just a short time ago.
The Corvette's subtly curved fiberglass body remains a visual delight, muscular and athletic without stooping to the kind of comic-book excess so often found on high-performance cars. There is no unnecessary frippery, no rear-deck spoilers or faux hood scoops that one often sees on go-fast wanna-bes. No, the Vette is what it is: simple, sleek and to the point. It's fast and it knows it. So does the rest of the world. May we all do as well at fifty.
Scorecard CHEVROLET CORVETTE COUPE
PRICE/AS TESTED: $43,635/$48,245
MPG: 19/28 manual; 18/25 automatic
ENGINE: 5.7-liter V-8
TORQUE: 375 foot-pounds
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual (4-speed automatic also available)
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 4.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 175 m.p.h.