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Chevrolet designs a brand-new Corvette for highways of 1983

This is the last year for the Chevrolet Corvette in its long-familiar style.

Sometime next fall or early winter a brand-new Chevrolet-built ''fantasy car'' will hit the road - sleeker and more fuel-efficient than any Vette before it - the shape a lot less bulbous as the auto industry turns more and more to the slippery shapes of tomorrow.

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The redesigned '82 Camaro will give some idea of the tack the designers are taking for the Vette - clean, aerodynamic, sleek. The dash lights up like a holiday tree when the ignition key is turned - an electronic marvel - as the instruments are checked out. Modern - thoroughly modern - is the word.

But all that's for next year, not 1982.

The '82 version of the fiber-glass-bodied Corvette carries a new 4-speed automatic overdrive transmission and improved fuel metering for its 5.7-liter, fuel-injected, small-block V-8. Engine power is upped from 190 in '81 to 200 hp. in 1982.

The question arises: But do you need it?

Indeed, the Corvette - 45,000 were sold last year - is a noteworthy performer for the driver who wants to get off the mark fast, even though the car isn't as quick as it was in its heyday.

Estimated mpg on the highway is up this year over '81. The '82 version of the 350-cubic-inch V-8 is rated at 15 mpg in city driving and 26 on the highway, compared with 15 and 21 for '81. You probably will not do as well overall.

To achieve the higher highway rating for '82, an on-board computer adjusts the fuel flow 80 times a second in the '82 engine, compared to 10 last year.

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''This is Stage 1 of a two-stage production,'' asserts David R. McLellan, chief engineer for Corvette. ''We're doing the power train this year and next year we add completely new styling and other innovations.''

Corvette, a bare 4 feet high, hugs the road with only 4.3 inches of clearance beneath the car. Thus, a Vette is not built for deeply rutted roads or a too-steep angle to the driveway unless you don't care if the car strikes bottom. The front spoiler is so low, in fact, that it tends to rub protuberances with annoying regularity, such as a concrete barrier in a garage or parking lot.

Inside the car, you sit low and peer over a hood that seems a block long. In fact, you can't even see the front couple feet of the car so parking a Vette calls for finesse and a feather-light foot on the gas. What you can't miss, however, are the bulbous fenders which sweep up above the hood and then curve down toward the front end.

Frankly, I didn't feel the car is comfortable, but then I guess it depends on how you define the word.

Steering input is swift despite the wide tires on the wheels.

Headlamps are retractable and always arouse in me a certain amount of concern that something may go wrong as the sun sets and I still have some driving to do.

Surely, the Chevrolet Corvette, named for a small submarine chaser used in World War II, is not a highway dreamboat, if by that term is meant a car that cuddles its occupants in luxurious comfort as it glides over the blacktop without a bump. The Corvette, by contrast, gives a hard ride, even choppy - much too hard for my taste - and every pebble sends shivers rippling throughout the car. An even stiffer suspension is available. Ouch!

It's also a noisy car, even when brand new, with creaks and crunches striking the ear from time to time.

Those who buy the Corvette want it that way. Obviously.

The Corvette, it seems to me, is a warm-weather car that probably makes its best showing where the temperature stays well above freezing. Not that the car can't be kept warm inside - it can - but the doors locks froze on a cold, wet night not long ago and the Vette was all over the road when I hit a totally unexpected pad of ice in a light snowfall.

Propelled by inflation, a well-loaded Vette can hit $24,000 or more without even trying.

The Corvette goes back to the famed General Motors Motorama auto show where it was shown at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1953; and in the following 28 years more than 700,000 have hit the road.

Production began in Flint, Mich., soon after the show and later the same year was moved to St. Louis. Then last summer Corvette production was shifted to a new assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky.

At first the showy car was underpowered and largely ignored by sports-car buyers, but by 1956 it had a firey fuel-injected V-8 under the hood that took the sports-car world by storm. In 1963 the famed Corvette Sting Ray was born and 20,000 units sold - a production record at the time.

As the muscle-car era gained momentum throughout the 1960s, the Corvette moved with it, boasting 4-wheel disc brakes and a volcanic engine up front that approached 400 cubic inches in displacement.

Output hit a half million by the time of its 25th anniversary in 1977 and, to mark the year, the Corvette was named pace car for the 62d annual Indianapolis 500 race on Memorial Day.

But like many other car lines these days, sales are down significantly from even the poor showing of a year ago. From Jan. 1 through March 10, GM has sold 4 ,227 Vettes compared to 6,082 in 1981.

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