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We called it Big Blue when it came into our garage: the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, the latest example of a strong pedigreed line of American sports cars. Chevrolet has been pushing the Corvette model line, coming out with the Z06 version, and more recently the ZR1, boasting 620 horsepower. But Big Blue is a domesticated animal, a 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, designed for cruising and the occasional burst of power.
This Corvette was even shipped to us with an automatic transmission, but we're OK with that. Paddle shifters give manual control, while automatic mode squeezes out surprisingly good fuel economy. It's not the most tech-laden Corvette we've seen, as it lacks a navigation system, but with the top down, we can let the stars be our guide.
On the road
We will never get tired of hearing the bass-heavy bark of the Corvette's engine when we push the start button (yes, this Corvette has a smart key). But after it lets you know it's alive, it settles down to a quiet murmur below 1,000rpm. And even as we applied some gas to get the car moving, the volume didn't go up much, as the transmission immediately found the highest viable gear, keeping the engine turning at just above idle. When you have 436 horsepower to work with, you don't need a lot of engine speed to get going.
We take the convertible Corvette out for a drive down the coast.
In the narrow lanes of downtown San Francisco, the wide Corvette Convertible was a little intimidating, initially. We fretted about the lesser cars in the lanes around us, blipping the gas to get away from drivers who seemed unaware of the lane lines. The Corvette easily got away from all of them. Our Big Blue also came with a new feature: Chevrolet's Magnetic Selective Ride Control, which let us choose between Sport and Touring modes on a console dial. For city driving, we put it on Touring, and immediately understood why it's not called Comfort. The Corvette's sports-car suspension, even in Touring mode, is rough, especially over broken pavement and potholes. We also winced each time the rubber skirt at the bottom of the front spoiler touched pavement, a frequent occurrence on the many hills around the city.
But eventually we broke free, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and opening up the taps; 50, 60, 70 miles an hour passed quickly, yet the rpm needle stayed low. We moved the shifter from Drive to Sport, but didn't notice a difference. So we tried the shift paddles--push for an upshift, pull for down. We pulled. Fifth gear and the engine was still quiet. Fourth gear and we could feel a little more power coursing through the car. Third gear at 70 mph, and the tach was only brushing 4,000 rpm. What a power train. Should we run it down to second? We dropped down to 60 mph, just to be safe, and pulled the paddle once more. The tach hit 5,500 rpm and the engine roared with a sound that would make Ferrari owners jealous.
This car is one of the few where you will actually put the paddle shifters to use.
This car also has a stereo, so we tried it out with an MP3 CD. The Bose audio system has some real punch, but not as much as the engine. With the volume up, we heard lots of bass, but little treble or mid-range. So we skipped all the acoustic tracks. The Corvette also has Bluetooth, so we made a call to check the sound quality. Surprisingly with all the road noise, we came through very clearly on the other end of the line.
Now we got to the fun stuff, putting the Corvette down on some winding roads in Northern California. These backroads were where the paddles came into play, although third gear satisfied most of our needs. Through the first couple of turns, we found that the car's stability came from its horsepower. If you go into a corner fast and just let it roll on through, you will feel body roll and have to work the wheel a lot. But give it juice in the corner, and the engine overcomes the lateral g-forces, keeping the car flat, while downforce on the front wheels from the acceleration enhances the car's turning ability. The car was in its element on these roads, so we spent the afternoon taking turn after turn, getting on the brakes, turning in, then getting on the gas. We brought it up to fourth for longer straightaways, and brought it down to second for hairpins, but third was fine for everything else.
In the cabin
The 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible decks out its cabin with stitched leather and a carbon-fiber console cover, and while nice, it's not quite up to the level of a Ferrari. The leather is a little thin, and stretched so taught over the interior surfaces that it seems glued into place. The power-operated top makes the conversion to an open-top cruiser painless, but the lack of any kind of roll-bar or pop-up head protection concerned us a little. We quickly got used to the trick electronic door latches.
Although the stereo interface looks a bit ugly, it offers XM radio and a six-CD changer, plus an aux input on the face plate.
Lacking the navigation option, you don't expect much from the Corvette's black plastic face-plated stereo system, with its monochrome display. But looks are deceiving in this case, as the stereo hides a six-disc changer capable of playing MP3 CDs. This system also has XM satellite radio, adding to the music options, but forget iPod integration, as all you get is an auxiliary jack on the face-plate.
The monochrome display is merely adequate for seeing what's currently playing and choosing music from satellite radio or an MP3 CD. But you get additional information on the car's head-up display, a projection on the windshield showing the car and engine speed. When you skip forward a track or change CDs, the display briefly shows the name of the next song before resuming its normal duties. That head-up display can be flipped through a street mode and two different track modes, which show lateral g-forces, oil temperature, and other pertinent performance data.
Bose speakers are mounted around the cabin, in the doors and behind the seats.
As mentioned above, the Bose audio system, with seven speakers, has some power, but not much refinement. It didn't exactly bring out the best in the music we played through it, muddying up the vocals and muting the highs.
Bluetooth is just one of the unexpected special prizes in this Corvette. Pairing a phone and accessing the system requires you to hold down the talk button on the steering wheel for about 2 seconds. If you just tap that button, it will only mute the stereo. We paired the system to an iPhone and found the call quality nice and clear, but it can't access a phone's contact list; if you want to call out, you will have to know the number.
OnStar is included with the Corvette, and includes navigation services. When you give a destination to an OnStar operator, they can send turn-by-turn directions to the car, and these will be displayed on the radio interface.
Under the hood
The convertible Corvette is built on the base model, so it gets the LS3 engine, as opposed to the LS7 engine in the Corvette Z06. For driving on real roads, that LS3 is plenty, with 6.2. liters of displacement for its eight cylinders. Normally, this engine would generate 430 horsepower, but our 2009 Corvette Convertible came with the optional Dual Mode Exhaust, enhancing exhaust flow and increasing the output to 436 horsepower at 5,900rpm. This optional exhaust system also creates that brilliant engine roar we liked so much. Torque is up there at 428 pound-feet, peaking at 4,600rpm.
This engine is a work of art, and uses big displacement to generate plenty of torque and horsepower.
Most sports-car fans will scoff at the idea of an automatic transmission in a Corvette, but this six speed really isn't bad, especially if the car won't be put on the track. Automatic mode works well for just getting around, delivering smooth operation, easy hill starts, and painless stop-and-go traffic experiences. It also seeks high gear, and will have you in sixth before you know it, resulting in decent fuel economy. The EPA rates the car at 15 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. We turned in an average of 18.8 mpg, not spectacular, but impressive for such a big engine.
When you want to really go, put it in Sport mode, enabling the paddle shifters. We didn't notice any difference between Drive and Sport when you let the automatic work, and the transmission also doesn't aggressively downshift for you. Sport driving is all about using the paddles. Unfortunately, manual gear shifts feel a little soft, with the usual torque converter slushiness, but the car won't overrule your choice of gear. With third gear engaged, you get good throttle response for speeds from 20 to 80 mph.
You can change the handling characteristics with this knob on the console.
We were surprised to see the Selective Ride dial on the console of this Corvette, which let us choose between Touring and Sport mode for the suspension. This option is similar to Audi's Magnetic Ride system, and uses a magnetic fluid in the shock absorbers, the viscosity of which is controlled with an electromagnet. The car monitors the road conditions and driving style, adjusting the damping of the shock absorbers appropriately. In practice, we didn't feel a big ride difference between Touring and Sport, but we assume it improved the handling, and it is good to see GM adopt this technology for the Corvette.
The 2009 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible has a base price of $51,700, but that version doesn't come with much. We added the 4LT Premium Package for $10,050, which brings in the Bose stereo, CD changer, Bluetooth, head-up display, and the power top. The magnetic ride control was an additional $1,995, $1,195 for the exhaust system, and $1,250 for the automatic transmission. Those options and sundry others brought our total up to $69,480. Chevrolet manages to avoid a gas guzzler tax with the Corvette due to how it tunes the transmission. Although not as elegant, you could definitely give a Ferrari F430 a run for its money with the Corvette, at about a third of the price. For around the same money as the Corvette, other speeders to consider would be the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, and the Nissan GT-R, although a dealer mark-up on the latter would probably drive the price way up.
In our ratings for the Corvette Convertible, we would have just considered its cabin tech average, but it gets a bump from the head-up display, an innovative feature found on few other cars. Performance is outstanding, with excellent acceleration from the big engine, nicely tuned handling, the high-tech magnetic-ride system, and better gas mileage than any of its competitors. We also consider the design of the car outstanding, as the Corvette uses such a distinct body style that this Chevrolet Corvette Convertible is unmistakable on the road.