This sort of thing happens a lot when you're driving a very hot car like the 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Some friends and I were about to go into a restaurant in suburban New Jersey, and a fellow stopped us at the door to ask about the car. He was eagerly awaiting delivery of his own '06 Vette, but said he had decided to go with the regular Corvette convertible -- which has a mere 400-horsepower engine, vs. 505 hp for the Z06 -- because the Z06 "costs more than $10,000 extra and there isn't anything legal you can do with the extra power anyway."
The man had a point, which brings us to the subject of this week's discussion: Does anyone really need a car that goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds, that tops out at 198 miles per hour -- a car that one editor at Car and Driver magazine recently compared to "having a booster rocket at the end of your foot" and another described as "testosterone on wheels"?
The short answer, at least according to many red-blooded (mainly male) Americans: Of course they do. How else can you avoid looking wimpy if you find yourself waiting for a stop light to change next to a Dodge Viper, Ford GT, or a Porsche 911 Turbo? Many environmentalists, safety advocates, highway patrol officers, and other adults among BusinessWeek Online's readership may consider that a less than sufficient reason for unleashing such a behemoth on the public thoroughfares. So, the better short answer is that Corvettes are a lot of fun, relatively practical, and often used mainly for weekend driving, anyway.
DOPEY MANEUVER. First, let's be clear: The Z06 is scary fast. We've dubbed the group of cars I've been reviewing lately "Heart Throb" cars -- vehicles like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, Porsche Boxster, Pontiac's Solstice and GTO, and the Ford Mustang GT convertible that give you a little thrill to drive and set the heart aflutter when you see one going by. But the Corvette Z06 is more like a Heart Attack car -- because that's what you'll have if you're not careful when you punch the gas.
I found that out as I was coming back to my country abode from a trip to New York City. Late at night in a light misting rain, I pulled up over a rise on a little on a river road near where I live in rural Pennsylvania and decided to downshift and floor it. This would have been a mistake under any circumstances, but on wet pavement it was a genuinely dopey maneuver. The car bucked like a bronco, the steering wheel almost jerked out of my hands, and the rear end fishtailed before the traction control kicked in and saved my lunch.
I was instantly wide awake and drenched in the cold sweat of primal fear.
Speed is what the Z06 was designed for. General Motors (GM) says the car's awe-inspiring 7-liter (427-cubic-inch) V8 powerplant is the most powerful passenger car engine it has ever produced. But Chevy designers also went to great pains to reduce the car's weight to a mere 3,130 pounds -- extraordinarily svelte for a big muscle car with a 106-inch wheelbase.
POWERING UP. The Z06's frame is mainly aluminum, the front fenders, floor panels, and wheel housings are made of expensive carbon fiber, and the engine cradle has lightweight magnesium castings. The Dodge Viper -- the only production car in the under-$100,000 price range nearly as fast -- is more than 300 pounds heavier than the Vette.
The Z06 was developed in conjunction with the Corvette C6R racecar, and it comes standard with a lot of upgraded equipment that can handle the engine's power. It has very wide (9.5-inches in the front and 12-inches in the back) cast spun aluminum wheels and special Goodyear supercar tires. Stability control is standard.
The high-performance, cross-drilled, piston-driven brakes are enormous -- from 60 mph, they can bring the Z06 to a full stop in barely over 111 feet. An extra-large, eight-quart oiling system keeps the engine cool during fast driving. And to prevent engine damage from overreving, a speed monitor cuts off the gas at 7100 revolutions per minute.
PRACTICAL DEMON. You pay for all that technology, of course. The Z06 lists for $65,800, vs. $44,600 for the basic'06 Corvette coupe and $52,335 for the basic convertible. That's a lot -- but it's still more than $20,000 cheaper than a Viper. The Z06 also comes standard with just about everything you need: The main upgrade is a $3,340 package that includes XM satellite radio, upgraded sound and CD player, and a navigation system.
As GM stresses in its promotional materials, the Z06 is also surprisingly practical for such a speed demon. In lieu of rear seats, it has a large, 22.3-cubic-ft. storage area -- far more than other sports cars. And because it's so light and sleek, it gets reasonable mileage, considering how big the engine is. It's rated at a surprisingly high 27 miles per gallon on the highway and a less surprisingly low 16 mpg in the city. Needless to say, though, it uses expensive premium gasoline.
Of course, for most people a Vette is a second or even third car. You can hook up a child's safety seat on the passenger side -- but you would have to leave the spouse behind to bring the kid, because it's only a two-seater. And Vettes are built so low to the ground they aren't much good on bumpy roads. As the owner's manual puts it: "Under normal operation, the [Corvette's front] air dam will occasionally contact some road surfaces (speed bumps, driveway ramps, etc.). This can be heard inside the vehicle as a scraping noise. This is normal and does not indicate a problem."
TOO MUCH FOR MOST. In any case, the less expensive Corvette coupe or convertible is a more practical choice for most weekend drivers. For '06, those models even come with an automatic transmission with racecar-style paddle shifters, while the Z06 comes only with a hard top and six-speed stick shift.
In the end, the Z06 is a great ride -- but you need to spend your weekends at the racetrack to really enjoy it. It's more car than most people can handle.