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.
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 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.
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.