Most of us have probably read at least one Corvette road test lately in which an editor gushes on about how great the car is. Well, add me to that list. The fifth-generation Corvette is, in a word, impressive. I've owned some of the hottest muscle cars ever to come out of Detroit including a 1968 Dodge Charger (383-cu-in. Magnum engine, four-speed) and an Olds 442 of the same year. But the Vette simply outperforms those dinosaurs -- and every car I've driven since -- by a wide margin.

The light pewter metallic paint finish had my neighbor, a fastidious antique car collector, drooling. He proceeded to shut the driver door a few times with ever increasing vigor, testing for fit. "Nice," he grinned. The doors take a good pull to close but do a great job sealing out wind and road noise. Once inside, a six-way power leather seat positions you comfortably in front of a well-designed instrument cluster. Unlike many cars, the steering wheel doesn't block the view of the panel and instead follows the upper dash contour. The analog gages are at-a-glance readable in all lighting conditions thanks to ultraviolet illumination.

A large 200-mph speedometer and a tachometer with a red line just north of 5,500 rpm dominate the center of the dashboard. Buttons on the panel edge access diagnostics such as oil and tire pressure and temperature. These are shown on a bright blue digital readout at the speedometer base. A turn of the key lights the display, flashing the headline "1999 Corvette," followed quickly by rumbling from a 345-hp, 350-cu-in., all-aluminum V8 engine. Dual-wall stainless exhaust manifolds lower noise levels and are said to reduce cold-start emissions, as well. The exhaust note is noticeable but not annoying -- just right.

Linked to the spirited powerplant is a rear-mounted six-speed manual transmission with an integral limited-slip 3.42:1 ratio differential. The short-throw shifter is precise and the clutch firm. One irritation, however, is a skip-shift feature that forces you to upshift from first to fourth, skipping second and third, when driving at low speeds and revs (1,500 to 2,000 rpm). It apparently conserves fuel. Also, the tunnel required for the rear-mounted transmission makes the console storage box between the driver and passenger seats too shallow to hold anything more than a pair of sunglasses. Still, the unusual drivetrain arrangement adds passenger space and, more importantly, improves weight distribution and handling.

An active-handling package further boosts driveability. The system uses multiple sensors to monitor yaw rate, steering angle, lateral acceleration, and braking pressure. It works like this: When the car's rear end attempts to trade places with the front, the system independently applies braking to the correct wheel to keep the car on course. In competition mode, selectable with a push button, the feature is disabled. I took a few hard turns in both modes, and quite frankly, I didn't notice any difference. There's plenty of traction either way helped by wide P245/45ZR-17 tires up front and even fatter P275/40ZR-18 treads on back.

Keeping the rubber on the road is a race-car type, fully independent, four-wheel, short/long-arm suspension system. The hardtop comes standard with a Z51 handling package which includes stiffer springs, thicker stabilizer bars, and larger monotube shock absorbers. Vented four-wheel antilock disk brakes handily slow the 3,153-lb vehicle with no noticeable fade.

Put all this into one package and you get a car that begs to be pushed harder. Steering is tight and precise, the ride firm, and body roll virtually nonexistent. Acceleration is brisk but smooth and the power is ample throughout the rpm range. The car accelerates so effortlessly, in fact, that speeding-ticket range is only a toe tap away. At 70 mph in top gear the motor turns only 1,500 rpm. This, no doubt, contributes to a respectable 28-mpg EPA highway estimate. In combined city and open road cruising, I averaged 22.5 mpg.Capping off the finely engineered insides are head-turning, drop-dead looks outside. Yes, the Corvette hardtop is sweet, and best of all, it's almost affordable. I used to think if I had 40 grand to spend on a toy, it would be a restored 1968 Charger R/T, but that's all changed. I'd take a new Corvette any day.

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