The long wait is over. Speculation about the C6 has dominated the Corvette community for the past couple of years. Spy photos of "beta" cars (lightly masked or otherwise disguised prototypes built on factory tooling) fed the frenzy as did the Internet appearance of some photos of a final-configuration C6 coupe taken during an ad filming late last fall in San Francisco. Some members of the automotive media got to see the C6 in November and December, and the wraps came off to the public at the Detroit Auto Show in early January.

Even after seeing the sixth-gen. Corvette and reading over the new car's rather impressive specs, one BIG question remained--would the C6 live up to expectations? The answer to that critical query would have to wait. In late December, at the time I wrote "The Evolutionary C6" for the May '04 issue, I figured The General would give us an opportunity to drive C6s in April or May. That turned out to be the last week of May and the first few days of June. In the third paragraph of "The Evolutionary C6" article I opined "...if the C6 lives up to its claimed power output figures and lives up to the statements of its creators, it will be a very impressive performer." I'm happy to state that it was worth the wait and, more importantly, that the C6 easily lives up to and exceeds the hype. It's good, it's very good.

As of this date (June 7th), just a relative handful of serial-numbered, legal-to-be-sold C6s exist. These are "pilot-line" cars, the first cars built on production tooling and in final-production configuration. Chevrolet and the Corvette team held off on scheduling media driving events until they had built enough "real" C6s, both coupes and convertibles, with a reasonable range of standard and optional equipment (such as base, Magnetic Selective Ride Control, and Z51 Performance Package suspensions) and both six-speed manual and the newly optional (that's right, the six-speed is the standard gearbox in C6s) 4L65-E automatic transmissions, to give the media a representative sampling of C6s to evaluate.

The driving agenda consisted of three "ride-and-drive" sessions of over an hour each on rural country roads west-northwest of the Detroit area, followed by the opportunity to wring out the C6s that afternoon on the new Milford Race Course at GM's Milford Proving Grounds. The "ride and drive" meant that we, the lucky media types, got to drive while accompanied by top members of the Corvette team, including Chief Engineer Dave Hill, C6 Chief Designer Tom Peters, Small-Block V-8 (i.e. LS2) Design Systems Engineer Jordan Lee, Corvette Product Manager Harlan Charles, and Corvette communications guru Bob Tripolsky. In addition to the 8 to 10 C6s, there were several C5s (including a Commemorative Edition '04 Z06) and an '04 Porsche 911 on hand so we could compare and contrast the new Corvette to both its immediate predecessor and some decidedly pricey and capable competition from Germany. I arrived a day early and got to spend most of that "bonus" day driving two of the C6s on my own, wherever and however I wanted. Cool!

This was my first real opportunity to look over a C6 outside of a studio or auto show setting. The Daytona Sunset Orange coupe I examined during last December's Media Briefing was a prototype (final-production design but built on "soft" tools) as was the Precision Red coupe seen in both the infamous spy photos and the "transporter" TV ad and the various C6s seen at the auto shows earlier this year. Chevrolet and the Corvette team had several C6s at the NCM's Birthday Bash in late April, but the cars were usually surrounded hordes of the Corvette faithful.

The new Corvette does indeed look smaller than its predecessor; it also looks more aggressive, harder edged, and muscular. The changes in size and proportion are most noticeable in profile and from the rear. These changes are quite readily apparent when a C5 and a C6 (or two) are parked together. The new, larger-diameter wheels (18 on the nose with 19 inchers aft), 1.2-inch longer wheelbase, and reduced length and width (the C6 is a whopping 5.1 inches shorter and 1 inch narrower than its older sibling) all combine to give the new-gen. Vette a much more lithe and nimble look. The one major downside to the new wheels, which are very handsome with flangeless rims and five graceful spokes that radiate right to the edge of the wheel, is that they are very open. This looks great on Z51 cars with their large (13.4-inch front and 13.0-inch rear) cross-drilled rotors, but on base and Magnetic Selective Ride cars, the standard 12.8-inch front and 12.0-inch rear non-drilled rotors look positively lost--not as bad as, but somewhat like, large SUVs running "dubs" (22- to 24-inch diameter, sometimes even more, wheels) with rubber band- sidewall tires wrapped around stock 11-inch brakes.

The new interior is definitely a hospitable place, at least for those of us of average or slightly larger stature. The major interior dimensions, headroom, legroom, shoulder room, and hip room, all measure within a fraction of an inch (plus or minus) of a comparable body-style C5. Overall cargo capacity in the C6 is down moderately, from 24.8 to 22.4 cubic feet in the coupe and from 13.9 to 10.5 cubic feet (both are top up measurements) in the convertible. While the C6 coupe actually has slightly more interior volume than the C5 (according to GM specs--52.1 versus 51.4 cubic feet), to me, the C6 feels smaller, slightly more confined, and more intimate within.

The upgrades in materials, which I talked about in May, were immediately and very noticeable to this C5 owner. There is substantially more space for "stuff" in the passenger compartment, with small pockets in both doors, a much more usable compartment in the center console, and a double cupholder that's deep enough to actually hold a cup or can. I know that most of us buy Corvettes for passion and performance, but for those of us who use our Vettes for everyday transportation, a degree of practicality and utility help justify such a car to spouses and "significant others." The C5 is good; the C6 is a little better.

The C6 boasts new seats with elongated bottom cushions for better thigh and leg support and a strengthened framework inside the seatback bolsters--a weak point in the C5's seats. Both the standard seat and the optional sport seat have more lateral support than we've had in the C5. The standard seat again offers six-way power adjustment and a manually controlled recline mechanism for the driver, while the sport seat goes several steps further with power lower lumbar and side-bolster adjustability for both the driver and passenger. The sport seats also now include both head and torso side-impact airbags, which deploy through the faces of the bolsters. Personally I do NOT want to test that particular function! And, as I mentioned in the May '04 article, heated seats are now optional in Corvettes-- something that should be very welcome in those parts of the country that have real winters.

The first thing I noticed after climbing into the black cockpit of the Machine Silver coupe I got to drive first upon my arrival in the Detroit area was the new instrument cluster. At first glance it's very evocative of a C5's gauge panel; the C6 still uses white-on-black numerals. The instruments are laid out nearly almost identically to the C5's nearly perfect arrangement, and the multi-level elevations of the gauges (it's not a perfectly flat panel) is carried over--but there's less clutter on the faces of the tach and speedo since the idiot lights (Chevrolet refers to them as "telltales") have been moved to a space between the two major gauges. The most significant visual change is the additional of satin-finished bezels surrounding each individual gauge. It's a minor thing, but it really adds pizzazz to the gauge cluster. The gauges are backlit with "white LEDs" at all times, and they are definitely easier to read in harsh sunlight than the gauges in my '00 coupe. The faux aluminum trim on the "stack" (the center panel on the dash that holds the climate and audio systems controls and runs down onto the top of the console to surround the shifter and cupholders) adds both interest, character, and a more upscale look to the C6.

The C6's ignition switch is in essentially the same location as on the C5--and that's where the similarity ends. The new switch is keyless. As long as you have the remote Keyless Access key fob (that's definitely an oxymoron) on or near your person, you simply push once on the upper portion of a rocker-style switch and the car's brain (i.e., computer) does the rest. To shut off the engine, push the lower part of the switch once, and to go to the "Accessory" mode, push the lower part twice. By the end of the first day, it seemed fairly natural.

I had some doubts about the new steering wheel when I first saw it last December, but after looking at it and grasping it for several hours on three hundred or so miles over a couple days, I've really warmed up to the new design. The center airbag and horn buttons area are much trimmer than the C5's; the more open look and classier hub on the new wheel add a lot to the inside.

Most of the major controls and switches are located in quite close proximity to where they were in the C5. The ergonomics of the fifth gen. were pretty damned good overall, so GM wisely opted to not mess with success.

What really matters is how the new Corvette drives. I experienced five different C6s during the two and a half days I was in Detroit--three coupes and two convertibles, four with six-speeds and one with the automatic transmission. Two of them, a six-speed coupe and an automatic convertible were equipped with the base suspension. One other coupe had the optional F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control, and the other two, a coupe and a convertible, were set-up with the Z51 Performance Package.

The pair of C6s--the aforementioned Machine Silver coupe with the Z51 Performance Package and six-speed gearbox and the base suspension automatic Precision Red convertible--I got to drive on my "bonus" early-arrival day represented the opposite ends of the C6 performance spectrum (at least until the new Z06 comes out a year from now!). Even though I drove the coupe first, I'd like to start off with my perceptions of the convertible. I'll also add that many of my comments are based on comparisons with both my daily-driver '00 coupe with automatic and base suspension and with my son Rob's recently acquired Torch Red '99 1YY17 hardtop, which was available only with a six-speed and the Z51 "Performance Handling Package."

Weather allowing, convertibles should always be driven with the top down. And since the red ragtop was equipped with the new-for-'05 optional power top mechanism, this was the perfect opportunity to see how well it works. After releasing the two latches on the windshield header, (the shifter goes to park; I don't know what gear for six-speeds), pull the parking brake on, push on and hold some pressure on the brake pedal, and then push and hold the top button. The forward portion of the top rises, followed by the rear section lifting off of the deck. Then, the deck/ tonneau cover opens rearward, the top drops into the compartment, and the cover drops back in place. It operates just like a C5 convertible top--without the quite minor effort. I didn't time the operation, either down or up, but would guess that it takes no more than 15-20 seconds. It works quite well, but if I were in a position to get a C6 convertible, I'd probably stick with the manually operated top. Just a personal opinion.

If a car is going to creak and groan, it'll be most noticeable in a convertible with the top down, and the best place to find out how solid a convertible's structure really is, is on twisty roads with surface irregularities--you know, potholes and pavement patches--and elevation changes. While in the six-speed/Z51 coupe, I'd found some roads west and north of Novi--which is itself west-northwest of Detroit--that fit all of the above requirements and returned there with the convertible. The convertible comported itself with perfect aplomb. Not only that, but it handled the worst of roads I could throw at it while feeling more "of a piece" than my '00 coupe. I detected no cowl shake and no creaks or groans--nothing but the sense of a rock-solid structure beneath the new skin. And while that new chassis and inner body structure look remarkably similar to the C5's, it is almost 100-percent changed, and those changes have made an already solid platform even better.

As soon as you start to drive a C6 you'll notice the increase in power. The new LS2's seemingly modest 305cc (18 cubic inches) increase in displacement, combined with LS6-based cylinder heads; a new intake manifold and larger bore throttle body; revised cam timing; and an entirely new exhaust system that starts with thinner-wall exhaust manifolds, no "pup" (or pre) catalytic converters, new higher-flow and more efficient dual cats, and new higher-flow (but painfully quiet at light throttle applications) mufflers running for and aft rather than transverse a la the C5, blend seamlessly together to produce a serious big-block-style low-end grunt--400 SAE net lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. At the same time, the LS2 makes serious horsepower on the top end--400 net at 6,000 rpm and revs to a 6,500 rpm redline (fuel cut-off is 6,600). This new powerplant makes the very capable LS1 seem a little limp-wristed by comparison.

While the new LS2's power output is very similar to the Z06's LS6 on paper (400 hp at 6,000 rpm and 400 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm vs. 405 hp at 6,000 rpm and 400 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm), the LS2's delivery feels entirely different. A Z06 feels less powerful at lower rpm but screams and lunges towards its redline under full throttle. It's a heady sensation. The C6's LS2 has more low-end thrust; even at light low-rpm throttle tip-in, a C6 surges forward. Response is immediate at any rpm and any degree of throttle application. Even a base convertible with an automatic transmission responds impressively hard. The difference from LS1 to LS2 is very significant and very noticeable!

I may have expected too much, but the new 4L65-E, an upgraded version of the 4L60-E found in the majority of C5s, didn't feel all that impressive, and its Performance Algorithm Shifting calibration didn't feel all that much better than the fairly lame (at least by serious performance standards) 4L60-E in my '00 coupe. The four-speed 4L65-E (and the 4L60-E) performs quite well; it just doesn't have much, well, soul. GM used to be the leader in automatic transmissions, but they could take some lessons from BMW and Mercedes when it comes to kick-ass automatics. The Germans are producing five- and six-speed automatics that work very well. I've driven a late M3 with an automatic, and it's damn near as much fun as a six-speed-- something I cannot say about a C5 or C6, and I'm speaking from experience.

The base C6's suspension works very well. The revised shocks, spring rates, bushings, stabilizer bars, new suspension pickup points, and second-generation Goodyear EMTs (Extended Mobility Tires, a.k.a. runflats) work together to provide a better ride, less road noise, better traction, and more grip and stability in corners. It's less touchy and better controlled than a base C5 with better ride quality thrown in for good measure.

One of the three cars I drove during the ride-and-drive sessions was a Daytona Sunset Orange (metallic) coupe with the optional F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control. We introduced the MSRC in the October '02 issue's "Cause For Celebration," our first look at the 50th Anniversary Edition models (they were also the Official Pace Cars of the 2002 Indianapolis 500). The 50th Anniversary Vettes were the first GM products to utilize this revolutionary technology, which we took an in-depth look at in "Magnetic Personality" in February '03. With that in mind, I'm not going to try to re-explain the system. It had already supplanted the F45 Selective Real Time Damping (adjustable shocks) in the C5 and carries over as an option on the C6.

There is a console-mounted switch with two settings--"Touring" and "Performance"--and the performance setting firms things up more than it did on the C5. The ride quality of the F55-equipped coupe was indistinguishable from the base car with the control set on Touring. It simply felt a little more controlled over pavement irregularities. The performance setting stiffened up the ride, and, on country lanes, seemed rather pointless. It's something I'd only use for serious canyon or autocrossing.

I'm saving what is, in my humble opinion, the best for last. I've driven a number of Z51-equipped C5s at high-performance driving schools and on all sorts of public roads at all sorts of speeds. I've probably put a thousand miles on Rob's '99 hardtop in the last couple months. I have personally felt that the C5's Z51 Performance Handling package is almost the equivalent of the Z06's FE4 suspension and was limited only by the "old" Goodyear runflats. The C5 Z51 system was purely a suspension package, with stiffer springs and larger-diameter stabilizer bars. RPO Z51 is now a "Performance Package," and the improvements go far beyond springs and stabilizers. There are also different, more aggressively valved dampers (shock absorbers), substantially bigger and more durable brakes, "old" Z06 gearing in six-speeds, transmission and power steering coolers, and new tires--a runflat version of the Goodyear Supercar tires that work so incredibly well on the current Z06. The Supercar EMTs on Z51-equipped C6s are the same size as the standard tires, but are in an entirely different league when it comes to performance--kinda like college basketball versus the NBA.

I ran rampant for nearly three hours with the silver Z51/six-speed that first day, and was delighted to spend over an hour in a Millennium Yellow Z51/six-speed convertible during the second day's ride-and-drive sessions. The new Z51 is superb! It handles and accelerates nearly as well as an '04 Z06, feels like it stops better, and is supremely well-mannered! C5s with Z51 are stiff, not at all harsh, but definitely stiff. Z06s are slightly stiffer than a Z51, still not harsh, still comfortable, but stiff. The C6's Z51 package is supple yet taut, exceedingly well-controlled, stable and grippy in the twisties, and utterly confidence-inspiring. Ride quality is much improved over the C5. It's a far cry from the old "gotta-make-it-stiff-to-make-it-handle" school of thought.

Corvette Chief Engineer Dave Hill and I talked about the new Z51 package during one leg of the ride and drive. We were in C6 VIN 000001, a LeMans Blue six-speed base suspension coupe. I was (still am) very impressed with the Z51 package and complimented Dave and the entire Corvette engineering team for the great job they'd done, both overall and on the Z51. Dave told me that the Supercar runflats play a major part in how well the package works but also informed that among the many revisions to the C6 suspensions was an increase in travel. Across the board, C6 front suspensions have gained an additional 1/2-inch of travel, while the rear has benefited from 3/4-inch of added travel. Fractions of an inch may not sound significant, but that much-additional range is major gain! And the new Z51 package works so incredibly well that, were I in the position to buy a C6, I wouldn't even consider it without Z51. It's that good!

The C6 is a collection of "is" and "is not." It is not all new; it is highly evolutionary. It is not cutting edge; it is, just like the C5, a very high-performance sports car that can be used every day and for cross-country trips. It's not going to strike fear into the hearts of owners of Ferrari Enzos or new Vipers, but it is, by far, the most bang-for-the-buck performance car in existence (the previous statement will be inoperative in one year, upon introduction of the '06 Z06). With a top speed of 186 mph (300 kph), it is the fastest production Corvette in history. It is capable of beating almost any production car in existence from 0 to 60 (a "regular" six-speed coupe runs 0-100 kph [62 mph] in 4.2 seconds; the Z51 does it in 4.1), and few legitimate production cars can better its quarter-mile numbers of 12.6 seconds at 114 mph.

A base suspension car is capable of .93 gs on a skidpad, while the incredible Z51 package ups that number to .99 gs! Even with substantial gains in torque, horsepower, acceleration, and top speed, the C6's fuel economy will equal the impressive figures C5 owners have grown accustomed to.

The Corvette team has managed the nearly impossible; they've taken an already very extraordinary automobile and made it better in essentially every respect. The C6 is an automotive tour de force.

It really is that good.