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2003 Chevrolet Corvette Sports Car

MSRP Range: $ 43,495 - $ 57,000

Invoice Range: $38,058 - $ 55,000
Price Quote

MSRP As Tested: $55,370 50th Anniversary convertible

Versions: Corvette Hatchback Coupe, Corvette Convertible, 50th Anniversary Coupe, 50th Anniversary Convertible, Corvette Z06 Hardtop Coupe

Vehicle Category: 2-seat Performance Sports Car

Engine Location: Front Engine

Drive Wheels: Rear-Wheel Drive

Engine As Tested: Optional - LS1/Z06 5.7-liter, Dual Overhead Cam, V8, 405-horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 400 lb-ft torque at 4,800 prm. Standard - LS6 5.7-liter, Dual Overhead Cam, V8, with 350-horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 360 lb-ft torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission As Tested: (optional LS1/Z06 and LS6) 6-Speed Manual or standard (LS1) 4-Speed Automatic

Fuel Economy (city/hwy): LS1/5.7 or LS6/5.7 with manual transmission - 19/28. LS1/5.7 with automatic transmission - 18/25

Standard Safety Features: Driver and Front Passenger, front airbags, 4-wheel power disc brakes, Antilock Braking System, Antiskid-Traction Control, tire pressure monitor, daytime running lights.

Competition: 2003 Audi TT, 2004 BMW Z4, 2003 Dodge Viper, 2003 Mazda Miata, 2003 Mercedes-Benz SLK, 2003 Honda S2000, 2003 Nissan 350Z, 2003 Porsche 911.

It's hard to believe it's been half a century since Chevrolet unveiled its fabulous fiberglass-bodied Corvette, America's only mass-produced sports car.

Today's 'Vette has come a long way since those first 300 cars of 1953 rolled off the assembly line with 150 horsepower, six-cylinder engines and a $3,500 price tag. While the base price has swelled to about $43,000 for a 2003 model, who can argue with 350 horsepower and a throaty V8, not to mention the latest 21st century technology?

Chevrolet celebrates the Corvette's 50th birthday with a special edition that includes a spattering of fancy badges, a gorgeous dark red metallic paint scheme, and a miracle of technology called magnetic selective ride control.

Basically, the system provides a quieter, smoother ride without compromising handling precision. It works by varying the electric current sent to a special liquid inside the Corvette's shocks, which instantly makes the liquid thicker or thinner to adjust for varying road conditions. The ride is still extremely stiff -- exactly as it should be in a sports car -- but the new system takes the 'edge' off bumps and makes the 'Vette more livable for a daily commute.

Surprisingly, the magnetic ride control has little effect on the car's high-performance handling, which is incredibly well balanced and responsive. Body roll is virtually nonexistent even in tight turns, and the thick steering wheel transmits road feel from the front wheels with almost surgical precision.

The heart of every Corvette, though, is under the hood, where a pavement-crunching 5.7-liter V8 breathes fire as it makes 350 horsepower with a window-rattling exhaust note. It's enough to reach 60 mph in just over five seconds with an automatic transmission and even quicker with the optional six-speed manual gearbox.

As if that's not quick enough, Chevy offers the souped-up Z06 model with a 405-horsepower engine that can reach 60 in a mind-blowing 3.9 seconds. It's the fastest car you can buy for $50,000.

It's important to note that there are several world-class sports cars in the Corvette's price range, including the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK, and brand-new BMW Z4, all of which offer a completely different driving feel. The 'Vette more closely competes with the much more expensive Dodge Viper in terms of handling and raw acceleration, but the Viper doesn't offer as many amenities or real-world drivability. For a mix of comfort and true sports car handling, the Corvette's closest competitor is the Porsche 911, which also is much more expensive. Both those cars make $43,000 look like a bargain.

My favorite thing about this fifth-generation Corvette, aside from its superb engine, is the traction control system that saved me from at least two dry-weather spins but still let me have some fun. Unlike other traction control computers that abruptly interrupt at the first hint of sideways skid, even the intentional kind, the Corvette's system won't take over unless the driver is clearly on the verge of losing control. Essentially, it lets you have fun using the accelerator to slide the back end through corners and only kicks in when the driver makes a dumb decision. Amazing, isn't it?

What's even more incredible is that Chevrolet continues to improve on this legendary sports car year after year. A completely new 'Vette is rumored to be faster and more refined when it's introduced in 2005, and with continued improvement, don't be surprised to see a 100th anniversary edition a few decades down the road.

From behind the wheel of a Corvette, it's bound to be another fun ride.