ROAD TEST: Chevrolet Corvette

Motoring

As an American might say, I can't get my head round the new Chevy Corvette. The problem has not to do with the car itself; it's more the mystery of its failure to catch on in the UK.

The fifth generation 'Vette, along with Ford's Mustang, is the most iconic of American muscle cars. And it offers distinctive heritage by the trunkload. The four round rear lights are a definitive Corvette signature and the weighty tail and swollen front wheel arches give the required impression of unremitting acceleration even when the car is stationary. Inside, the dash layout could almost be from a Honda, save for a few odd spellings such as "gage" for gauge.

Judged on paper, the Corvette could appear - and this is the preconception with which I approached it - as a rather crude route to the basic requirements of supercar performance. The 5.7-litre engine is a good ol' Yank V8 with two valves per cylinder and a single camshaft with pushrods. The suspension uses leaf springs, for Pete's sake.

The best part of 350bhp is hardly a shortcoming and neither is 356lb ft of torque, most of which is available at engine speeds where Italian sports cars are only just ticking over. Squeeze the pedal ever so slightly and a contemptuous, lazy surge is delivered; push hard enough for the 'box to kick down to second (there is a manual alternative, but this automatic transmission is perfect for the car) and the Corvette is impaled on the buffers of a passing express train. The nearest European equivalent I can offer is a V8-engined Aston Martin, which, in any case, is a Brit bruiser very much in the American mould.

The Chevy is a stunning performer, and it all happens in such an unruffled way that you can find yourself terminally on the wrong side of the law before you realise what's going on: at a fast cruise in the ludicrously overdriven top gear the engine is barely awake and the ride - I left the adjustable dampers on the middle of their three firmness settings - is deceptively compliant. The most unfamiliar aspect of the Corvette's dynamics is the steering. Not for this those tight-gripped, from-the-elbow inputs; you need to drive like an American, palms on the rim, easing the car through bends with a gentle sway of the shoulders.

Soul, performance, good looks and a humbling price tag of pounds 35,000 - it's a crying shame that only about 30 Corvettes a year will make it to the UK through the officially appointed importer. Perhaps the left-hand drive puts people off; perhaps the (mistaken) impression of a lack of sophistication offends European tastes; maybe the 'Vette just isn't expensive enough to be taken seriously.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE

Specifications

Engine: 5666cc V8, 2 valves per cylinder. 344bhp, 356lb ft. Four-speed automatic with overdrive.

Performance: Top speed 171mph, 0-60mph 5.05secs, overall fuel consumption 21.5mpg

Price: approx pounds 35,000

Comparisons

TVR Cerbera 4.2 pounds 39,800

The first car built for TVR's own V8 suffers from an attempt at oversophistication of the interior and electronic systems. Conversely, the mechanicals are raw and raucous. Blindingly fast, though, which was the main objective.

Porsche 911 Carrera, pounds 61,250

The 911 is to Europeans what the 'Vette is to Americans - the practical, totally dependable supercar. Sharper and more austere than the Chevy, but even in this, its most basic form, it's approaching double the money. Add another pounds 4,500 if you want a removable roof.

Marcos Mantis 4.6 Spyder, pounds 39,995

For V8-engined bruiser from Britain's cottage supercar industry, and definitely an eccentric choice. Unrefined (though in a seat-of-pants and charming sort of way), it feels a bit kit-car from the inside. Engine rather good, though, and the looks are "striking".

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