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'99 Corvette Hardtop - Billy Bob? NOT ! 1999 Vette Hardtop


The introduction of the fifth-generation, Chevrolet Corvette began with a splash in November of 1996 at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. After a briefing in the Chevrolet Theater by Chief Engineer, Dave Hill, members of the automotive press walked out of the NCM to find a dozen or so '97 Corvette Coupes. The suspense was over.

C5 had arrived.
In May of 1998, the 18-month C5 media intro ended with a shock inside a parking structure at Indianapolis Indiana. In this industrial setting, lit by naked, orangeish lights, we found Dave Hill surrounded by a trio of his cars. A large ventilation fan twirled in the background. His voice echoed amongst the concrete columns and competed with the drone of some unseen air conditioning plant as he introduced the final C5: the 1999 Hardtop.

The Corvette for hardcores.
It was the final piece of the puzzle: a car for which the lunatic fringe of the Corvette hobby had waited 18 long months. Forget such gadgetry as: power passenger seats, memory options, two tops, F45 shocks and dual-zone HVAC. With the Hardtop, you get basic, kick-ass performance from the 345hp LS1 Gen3 V8, a six-speed stick-shift and Z51 suspension all in a car that weighs 80 pounds less and is stiffer than the already stout Coupe. The shock was the Hardtop coming in as such an aggressive offering.

Previous to the car's debut, rumors ran rampant in the Corvette community the car would be a decontented, price leader. The genesis of this belief was, perhaps, remarks former Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins made in the '94-'95 period that nicknamed "Billy-Bob" what was officially known back then as the "FRC" or Fixed-Roof Coupe. Perkins, a Texas good old boy, was alluding to the hardtop originally being aimed at the thrifty, Billy-Bobs of the world wanting a Corvette at a lower price.

Initially, the coming-Hardtop (some jokesters labeled it "William-Robert") was vilified by Corvette "libertarians" who demanded an aggressive, no-frills "race" car. In early April, 1998 the situation seemed to get more grim. Chevy was uncharacteristically loose with information. The preliminary 1999 Dealer Order Guide was sent to out early that month and many dealers promptly passed-out copies of the Corvette section to anyone that asked. It confirmed our worst fears. The hardtop would be just a mild-mannered Billy-Bob. It was decontented from the Coupe, had a minimal option list, came with automatic trans and base suspension only, along with cheaper tires and a speed limited engine. The guide also listed an option, RPO Z19. When ordered, it restored much of the Coupe's performance pieces. Three weeks later, Chevy notified dealers that Z19 was canceled. I was crushed and a little embarrassed because, a week before, I sent an article to Vette Magazine for the August issue to press with the Z19 story.

Imagine our surprise when Vette's Editor, Rich Lentinello and I got to Indianapolis at the end of May to find the Hardtop was the most aggressive C5 yet. I was further astonished to hear all '99 hardtops would be that way. There would be no Billy-Bob.

Price Leader or Race Leader
An interesting aspect of covering the Corvette is the controversy and intrigue the car creates inside the company that makes it. General Motors Corporation is pretty staid and conservative--no secret there, huh. Thankfully, deep, deep inside GM's often boring but practical persona is a g-spot called Corvette. It's a brash, in-your-face product amongst the sedans, SUVs and minivans embraced by the ignorant, blissful masses.

This near-half-century-old icon is GM's highest performing product as well as one of the few image cars it builds these days. Corvette attracts the most passionate of engineers, designers and managers to the team responsible for producing it at GM's Midsize/Luxury Car (MidLux) Group. Obviously, amongst these zealots who guard the fire of America's Sports Car there are strong opinions of what a Corvette should be.

There is another, different group that also controls Corvette's destiny, composed of people at Chevrolet who market the car, do its public relations, research the needs of its customers, process the statistics, communicate those needs to MidLux, sell the car and design its advertising. Many of those folks believe just as strongly in the Corvette mystique as the hardware types over at MidLux.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure these two groups, the passionate engineers and the equally-devoted sales and marketing specialists are going to clash and occasionally the fight ain't gonna be pretty. Sometimes this is counterproductive. Other times, while the stress level might rise temporarily, the result is a better Corvette.

Conflict arose over Hardtop's production configuration and it went right down to the wire. The development team and the Brand Team were in dispute over whether the hardtop would be a decontented, entry-level "waxer" or hardcore, haul-ass, racer. The Brand Team, led by Brand Manager, Dick Almond, wanted a moderately decontented, price-leader with some performance options. The MidLuxers, lead by Chief Engineer, Dave Hill, wanted a pure, performance sports car.

The two sides skirmished into early May. At one point the Brand folks must have felt confident that the wind was blowing their way because Chevrolet issued the preliminary Dealer Order Guide with the information Vette published back in the August issue, but when the smoke cleared in mid-May; MidLux seemed to have won the war. Dave Hill is acknowledged by sources inside GM and some outside observers as being a skillful politician. We've even heard the word "aggressive" used in that context. We know Hill (who is, in addition to Chief Engineer, the GM Vehicle Line Executive for Performance Cars) believes very strongly in his idea of what a Corvette should be and is usually quite determined in his promotion of those those beliefs inside the corporation. It appears that his strategy in the Hardtop debate was, for the most part, successful.

At the end of the month, media showed up at Indy to find mild-mannered William-Robert had undergone last-minute, corrective surgery. Hardtops were steak-and-potatoes all the way with the unrestricted LS1, a six-speed, Z51 suspension, big tires and wheels and minimal options.

At the Hardtop preview, Chevrolet announced Dick Almond was taking a promotion out of the Brand Team, back into its field sales staff in a high-level executive position. We asked Almond if his sudden move was influenced by the struggle between the two groups. He denied that, telling Vette "...differences of opinion and frank exchange of views are always a part of any matrix management system." He went on to say that he had been anxious to "return to his roots" in the field sales side of the business and that the timing of the move was coincidence more than anything else. Almond will go down in history as the first Corvette Brand Manager and as presiding over one of the more successful new car launches in Chevrolet history. He has done a number of good things for Corvette in his four years in the job and we are sorry to see him go.

Once the "differing of opinion and frank exchanging of views" were complete, the two sides pulled back, accepted the outcome and assessed their casualties. Was it a nasty battle? Perhaps. In the end, we think the Corvette enthusiast ended up with a better car. The decontented-price-leader idea has not been deep-sixed. It's timing was just not right. Dick Almond told Vette the idea was "...put on the shelf." Our guess is, after a couple of years, if Corvette sales slow a bit; we just might see a thrifty, Billy-Bob on dealer sales floors, but for now; we get the hardcore Hardtop.

A Bit on the Techside
The Hardtop's underbody structure is the stiffest of all C5s. It has both the Coupe's "top bow" and the extra crossbar behind the seats, characteristic of the Convertible. Its exterior bodywork behind the windshield and above the belt line is bolted to the windshield header and is bolted and adhesively bonded to the rear deck. The underbody structure, the hard top and the lack of the big hole in the back for the hatch make the Hardtop about 12% stiffer in torsion and bending than the Coupe with its roof in place. Additionally, though the removal of the coupe's heavy hatch glass and lighter top structure, the Hardtop's curb weight is 80 pounds less than the lightest Coupe.

All the Hardtops come with the Tremec T56 six-speed transmission, a 3.42 limited slip axle and the Z51 Performance Handling Package which consists of higher rate springs and stabilizer bars and a set of stiffer, fixed-valve, shocks. The only performance option is the RPO JL4 Active Handling System. "AH" piggybacks to ABS and traction control and can assist the driver in maintaining control in gross oversteer/understeer situations with momentary brake intervention on a single wheel basis. Vette tested the system in the March issue and I feel Active Handling can make 95 percent of Corvette drivers faster and safer in most performance driving or accident avoidance situations.

The rest of the Hardtop's option list is limited to two items, a power driver seat and sound systems. Other stuff like the Memory feature, Head-Up Display, Telescoping steering column, Dual-Zone HVAC and sport seats are left to well-heeled gadgeteers.

Before we get to a short test of the Hardtop, there are some new features of the 1999 Corvette Coupe and Convertible to discuss. "Twilight Sentinel" is the name GM applies to devices that sense low-light driving conditions and turn on the car's headlights. To date, Corvette has been a car with its "comfort/control" compromise skewed strongly towards control, so we are not sure a lot of customers are going to want another option that does their work for them and (of course) pushes up the car's cost. Nevertheless, dealers will love the Twilight Sentinel - another option they can hang on stock units. C5ers, if they choose the Twilight Sentinel, can now simply stop thinking about headlights.

Another new option on Coupes and Convertibles is an electric, telescoping steering column which, in our opinion, is more useful than a Twilight Sentinel. While a tilt wheel was available through the C4 era, a telescoping wheel was dropped in 1990 when the Feds forced airbags on us. Because C5 fits a wider range of driver "sizes" the telescoping wheel has returned, but this time it is electric. The combination of the tilt and telescope features allows more drivers to find the perfect steering wheel location.

Lastly, we have the Head-Up Display (HUD), clearly the most technically innovative new feature for next year. A Corvette HUD has been under development since the early C4 era. In 1985, in a move to gain technology transfer, GM bought Hughes Aircraft, a major defense contractor. One of the assignments Hughes got was adapting military aircraft HUD technology to GM's automotive products.

Steven Stringfellow, a Hughes engineer with a background in aircraft instrument panels, lead the project and one of the first attempts at putting an economically-feasible, head-up display in a GM car was done on a Corvette. While this development version was well-received, the production, C4 structure behind the instrument panel would not accommodate a useful HUD. The idea was shelved for Corvette and rolled into the development of the GM10 program, which arrived in 1988 as the then-new, W-platform. Both the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Olds Cutlass had HUD's designed by Hughes and manufactured by AC Delco. In 1992, a "Gen2" HUD debuted in the Pontiac Bonneville.

By 1993, Stringfellow was working directly for GM in an advanced electrical design group. A Chevrolet marketing executive, Dr. Fred Gallasch, approached Dave Hill with information supporting Chevrolet's position that customers wanted an HUD in the car. The case for a HUD was further reinforced when the digital vs. analog speedo debate (another one of those differences of opinion and frank exchanges of views, perhaps?) at the Corvette Launch Center resulted in an almost 50/50 split the cluster went analog and the HUD would provide digital speed. It was put on the list for the 1999 model year (MY99) and Stringfellow was brought into the C5 development group to work, initially, on the Instrument Panel Cluster (IPC) and the Driver Information Center (DIC) for MY97 and subsequently on the HUD.

C5's Head-Up Display is the fourth generation GM HUD. It is brighter and can display more information than previous versions. The unit was designed by Stringfellow's group and Nippon Seki, the manufacturer of the car's IPC, was awarded the manufacturing contract after ACDelco's bid was rejected due to high cost.

The hardware resides in a small well ahead of the instrument panel and projects its image, via a vacuum fluorescent display, on the inside of the windshield. The HUD is positioned such that the display reflects off the front glass and into the driver's field of view. It appears to hang in space just below the driver's line of sight. Its basics are: digital speed, graphic RPM display, a choice of 3 gages, turn signals, high beams, a check gages warning and a shift light. The unit can be formatted, by holding down the page button, to show:

  1. speed only,
  2. 2) speed and gage,
  3. 3) speed, gage and RPM
  4. 4) speed and RPM or
  5. 5) just RPM.

Tapping the page button switches between oil pressure, coolant temp and fuel gages.

You can judge the HUD two ways, as a convenience option and as a performance driving aid. For convenience, it's easy to get used to the HUD as a constant driving "assistant". There it is, seeming to floating out there about 100 feet in front of the car. You never need to look down at the IPC to see your speed, rpm or to check if your blinkers are on. All you do is drop your line of sight a tiny bit and you see that bluish display. One thing we like about the HUD is, while a lot of data is available, only the basics are default-displayed, the rest is user-selectable. We, also, like the controllability of the HUD. The user can set the display's format, position within a moderate range and the brightness, all with controls that are easy to reach. They are located on the left of the IPC trim where, since 1997, there was a styled plug.

If the C5's HUD has a weakness, it is the shift light feature. At the media program at Indianapolis, after introducing the '99 Hardtop, Chief Engineer Hill discussed the HUD. He emphasized the shift light feature as a performance driving aid, similar in nature to shift lights used in road race or drag race cars. My evaluation later that day, in a performance driving situation of the type deemed by Hill as ideal for the HUD shift light, found the feature lacked visibility.

I tested the light in the default choice of HUD data by accelerating in second gear. I intended to upshift when we saw the light in my peripheral vision, however, I never saw it and the LS1 hit the rev limiter. I tried again, looking directly at the HUD as the engine neared redline. This time I saw the light, but couldn't find it until too long after it came on and the motor tagged the fuel cut-off, again. The light is so small, it seems to get lost amongst the other data. I found out later, in emailing with Stringfellow, that the HUD can be set to show the shift light without the graphic tach display and he says it stands out more when not nestled up against the tach bars, however, in my opinion; it still needs to be a contrasting color or at least made several measures brighter than the surrounding parts of the display.

The Hardtop on the Track.
Putnam Park is a road race venue about half an hour west of Indianapolis and was the track Chevrolet rented for a few hours so Vette and other media outlets could test '99 Hardtops. Like Buttonwillow in California and Grattan in Michigan, Putnam Park is one of many fine road race courses in this country about which many motorsports fans know little because they hold no professional races. It's mainly an amateur racing, race driver school and a test facility.

Putnam Park is attractively landscaped and neatly-kept. It's main course is 1.76 miles long and has 10 turns. There is one fairly long straight and a couple of shorter ones. The track has several different kinds of turns and, thus, is a good choice to evaluate performance handling. The only thing lacking was some slow-speed, sharp-turn stuff typical of autocross. We were unable to instrument any of the cars we tested, so all we have to offer is subjective data.

After running hard at Putnam Park for nearly 20 laps I have no doubt that the Hardtop is the Corvette for the aggressive driver. It's mix of slightly less mass, manual trans and Z51 chassis tuning makes for race track performance that is just a slight measure better than any C5 I've tested to date.

The first thing I noticed is the car accelerates just a bit harder, undoubtedly because of lower mass. Compared to a Z51 Coupe that was available, Hardtops reach just a bit higher rpm at braking points prior to entrances to turns at the ends of straights. I am not sure how much that will knock off the car's already quick quarter mile times, but I tested a C5 manual Coupe in the spring of 1997 that ran 13.14 and 13.11. Initially, we were skeptical of that car's "tuning" but other media tests we read or heard about have shown different C5 Coupes with stick-shifts capable of low- 13 - second passes. We think some Hardtops, run in good air and driven with skill will go 13-flat and maybe the very high-12s. That's ZR-1 country, my friends.

The word "tossable" was dreamt-up by GM to describe the Hardtop's claimed increased forgivingness when run past the limit. Several times during the two days Editor, Rich Lentinello and I spent at the '99 Corvette media program, we heard Dave Hill and other GM folks answer, when asked about the Hardtop's handling, "Well, it's more tossable."

If a car is "forgiving", one thing it does when pushed real hard is let a driver get more in over his or her head and still save the car, before it spins. Generally, we feel the quality of forgivingness is not something fast drivers should exploit recklessly. Drivers who consistently run past their cars' limits, that is: lots of sliding and gathering it up at the last second, are usually not as quick around the track as a driver - road race champion and former Assistant Corvette Chief Engineer, John Heinricy, for example - who's very smooth and runs on the near side of the limit or right on it.

I did not spend time in Hardtops deliberately getting over my head then trying to save it, as a measure of the car's "tossability," but I will tell you that the C5 in general is a better balanced car than C4. It lacks most of the quirks at the limit that were imposed upon C4 by a trailing arm rear suspension and less robust structure. Those two qualities would tend to make C5, Hardtop included, more forgiving and there was one instance in my testing at Putnam Park where that was demonstrated.

A technique we use on the race track, sometimes, is "trail-braking". With an understeering car that sometimes resists turn-in, trail-braking can be an acceptable strategy to improve turn entrance performance. In short, when you trail brake, you carry your braking into the first part of the turn. In most cases, this tends to induce a bit of oversteer and rotates the car sooner.

Our "bud" Mike Neal, the C5's ride and handling development engineer, told me several times over the last year or so to get out of the habit of trail-braking when driving a C5. Because the new car is more neutral than even the best, production C4s; trail-braking actually degrades lap times and, in extreme cases, can cause the back end to really step-out. I decided to see this for myself. During one of my laps in a Hardtop at Putnam, I came flying up to a turn and trail-braked it pretty good, like I'd do with a nose heavy car (such as a ZR-1). Sure enough, the back stepped right out - in fact, it stepped-out a bunch and suddenly, I found myself a bit crossed up. More astonishing was that I saved it. In most other cars, I surely would have been embarrassed with a spin and slide into the weeds. OK. The car is more tossable.

After after 10 laps in different Hardtops to get familiar with Putnam Park, I picked one that felt best and went out to really run it hard. I noticed two things:

  1. I was able to brake just a bit deeper in several of the turns. That is probably due to the new model's lower mass and, perhaps, a small shift in its weight distribution.
  2. 2) In transitions, compared to a Z51 Coupe, Hardtops are noticeably (but not significantly) quicker or "crisper" in transitions. Transitions are "ess" turns in which the car is driven in a rapid, zig-zag fashion.

The lighter a car is and the better tuned its suspension is, the quicker and more responsive the car will be in transitions. That the C5 Hardtop is both better under braking and quicker in transitions make it capable of better lap times. Again, we had no timing at Putnam Park, but considering the track's length and our estimate of the Hardtop's improved performance over a Z51 Coupe, we are fairly sure the new model would be the quickest C5 by about 1/3 to 1/2 a second-per-lap.

The only thing we regret about our preliminary test of the 1999 Corvette Hardtop was that none were available with the car's only performance option, Active Handling and we did not have more power. It will be interesting to track-test a Hardtop with a 375-400hp engine some day.

And Finally
The 18-month introduction of the C5 has been a memorable time for anyone working at a Corvette magazine. A group of writers who regularly cover Corvette and some GM people have become a "family" of sorts through our attendance at all four of the C5 media programs. Having those events go smoothly not only helps we writers, but it helps you, the reader too, because you get better coverage of a product you want to learn about. A lot of people at Chevrolet made the C5 media preview series happen, but one person had overall responsibility for the planning and execution of the events and that was Tom Hoxie, Assistant Director of Chevrolet Communications.

Dealing with scores of writers, each with varying needs, descending on the program venue from all over the world, also requires a "travel agency/tour management" operation and ChevyComm contracts to a Michigan firm called Marcom for that. Every time we turned around, there was a smilin' Marcomer there to answer questions about travel arrangements, dig-up press kits, conjure up a snack after we missed a meal while on a photo shoot, give us a ride to the airport, along with other, more outlandish requests. The people at Chevrolet Communications and Marcom made our trips to C5 media events something special. We appreciated their efforts.

Well, there you have it. The Launch of the Fifth-Generation Corvette is complete and Chevrolet saved the best for last: The Hardtop - the Corvette for Hardcores. At this point, let's recall some of the first words heard about the C5 at the '97 Coupe preview, way back in November of 1996,1999 Hardtop Vette it was Lead Exterior Designer (and sometimes amateur road racer) John Cafaro talking about his car, "It's a great car and it's got a great future. This car is gonna kick ass."

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