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Chevy Flexes Its Muscle Car; Corvette's Back, and Better

It's the story of an American icon - that almost wasn't.

Chevrolet's new Corvette took eight years to develop after General Motors shelved it, then restarted it at least four times, making the previous Corvette the longest-running variation in the sports car's history.

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Hundreds of thousands of the world's most devoted car fans faced disappointment. Corvette has more than 6,000 fan clubs worldwide. Of the 1.2 million made since 1953, more than 1 million are still on the road.

But Corvette enthusiasts finally awoke to a new dream machine. And they've been buying them as fast as dealers can order.

The latest Corvette targets more than just avid fans.

An all-new frame allows for a 3-1/2-inch lower doorsill plus an extra inch in the roofline. So getting in and out is no longer an acrobatic feat.

For the first time since the introduction of dual air bags, the car has a glove box. For that matter, the passenger-side footwell is now wide enough for real feet.

Chevy officials like to brag that the Corvette now holds two golf bags in the luggage compartment, which says a bit about the buyers.

At $38,000 each, young drag racers are left at the gate. Middle-aged hot rodders fit the bill now: 90 percent male, many of them recently divorced.

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After all these years, Corvette is still the only world-class sports car being made in America. And it still costs much less than the European competition.

The '97 model lists for $37,495 - 26 grand less than the least expensive Porsche 911, and $89,000 less than any Ferrari. Both are 'Vette competitors on the racetrack.

In the '90s, however, the big competition has come from the other side of the globe. Japanese companies began building ever faster and better sports cars that cost less than the Corvette.

With the new car, Chevrolet hopes to win back customers who had drifted over to Toyota Supras and Nissan 300ZXs - customers accustomed to more reliability and better quality.

The styling takes some cues from earlier Corvettes, but from the front and sides it looks almost Japanese.

In the four years it took to develop the new Corvette, Chevy got unexpected help from Japanese rivals. All but two dropped out of the market.

A new crop of under-$40,000 sports cars from Europe has arrived, none with a 'Vette's speed.

The Corvette is the same rocket sled as always: 345 horsepower bolted on to four wheels and two seats.

But the biggest strides come in the car's ability to tame all that power.

A stiffer chassis and wider stance stabilize the handling. In hard corners, even on the racetrack, the car clings. No surprises, no sudden skids, though hard bumps still upset it.

In addition to anti-lock brakes, the rear-wheel-drive sports car employs traction control. It keeps the tail planted behind you on slippery surfaces or when too much power is applied.

All this can be turned off by a button on the center console.

Unfortunately, the new Corvette stays true to another tradition: build-quality that lags its foreign competitors.

The Monitor's test car had a persistent squeak from the hatch behind the driver. And in light rain, water dripped inside from the driver's window ... very annoying for $38,000.

And while the car is more user-friendly, it hasn't been softened to the point that it could be mistaken for a luxury touring car.

The fuel pump howls from behind the driver's left ear, a constant reminder of the big V-8's appetite. An angry exhaust note warns pedestrians and slowpokes that an impatient muscle car wants right of way. And noise from the big tires drowns out other traffic on the highway.

The bulging fenders could belong to nothing but a Corvette.

Despite its monster engine, the car delivers better fuel economy than an average sport-utility wagon. Driven at legal speeds (really) in mixed city and highway driving, the Corvette delivered more than 21 miles per gallon. Federal mileage ratings are 17 m.p.g. in city/25 highway.

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