America's best-known sports car -- the Chevrolet Corvette -- is also one of the world's most underrated sports cars. Too many people overlook the C6 Vette when shopping for all-out performance. And with the new LS3 version of GM's small-block V-8 giving the car even more power and driveability, the Corvette is the best it's ever been.
The new-for-'08 LS3 gets an increase in bore versus the previous LS2, which raises its displacement from 6.0 liters to 6.2. Though compression has dropped from 10.9:1 to 10.7, the LS3 is more powerful and more efficient than the LS2, thanks to the addition of the Z06's fuel injectors as well as better-flowing heads and larger valves. Output rises to 430 bhp and 424 lb.-ft. of torque, with our test car's optional ($1195) dual-mode exhaust system bumping those levels to 436 bhp and 428 lb.-ft.
If you haven't driven a C6 Corvette or, even better, the C6 with the LS3, you need to. The engine does everything a modern V-8 should: It's quiet and smooth at idle, yet get hard into the throttle (especially once the dual-mode exhaust kicks in) and the engine's pulsing, pounding and throbbing absolutely engulf every part of the car -- it's such a manly sound, and gives you such a manly feeling, that Jonathan likened driving the Vette to "wrestling a grizzly with your bare hands -- it'll put some hair on your chest."
But what distinguishes the Vette's engine from the other three here -- as well as every other engine in the world -- is its massively hard-hitting and never-ending surge of power; it feels like it pulls just as hard at 2000 rpm as it does at its 6600-rpm redline, and the gear it's in is completely irrelevant.
"The Corvette's LS3 V-8 won me over with its all-around power delivery," Calvin said. "There's not a dip in its torque curve, and its power is always instantly accessible."
It's also instantly quick, laying down a 0-60-mph time of 4.3 sec., tied with the R8 and eclipsed by only a half second by the $248,903 as-tested Ferrari. The Vette's power-to-weight advantage over the Audi becomes even more obvious as the cars reach the quarter mile, the Vette's 5.9-mph higher trap speed a significant figure.
The Corvette's 6-speed manual gearbox is sturdy-feeling, with positive (though slow) throws, and most felt this is an aspect of the car that, if improved, would help greatly in the minds of potential new buyers. Said Jonathan: "I hope that one day Corvette engineers will figure out a shift linkage that doesn't feel like it's made completely out of rubber -- imagine if this car had a Porsche-like gearbox?"
Our test car had the $1695 Z51 performance package, which includes larger cross-drilled brake rotors (13.4 in. up front, 13.0 at the rear) as well as stiffer springs, shock absorbers and anti-roll bars. On smooth surfaces the car's outright grip is superb, despite steering that, while improved for 2008, still doesn't give the feedback of the Audi or Ferrari. The tail is willing to come around (it does great powerslides), though it's very controllable; we enjoyed this aspect, as it helps the car turn, but driving the Corvette quickly requires more attention than the Audi or Aston.
Where the Corvette suffers is on bumpy back roads. In that environment, the stiffer setup of the Z51 turns the car into a bit of a beast, causing it to skitter about and fight for traction. It's still fun, but it doesn't exude the confidence of the others. And, consequently, the Corvette's ride, while certainly not uncomfortable, can't be described as smooth.
Despite the better brakes that come as part of the Z51 package, our car suffered from a mushy brake pedal throughout the test, though no fading was present. Normally, Corvette brakes are quite good, so we're chalking this one up to our particular test car.
If there's one area people usually criticize an American car, it's the interior accommodations. While we aren't going to tell you the Corvette rivals the Audi's beautiful layout, the Aston's high-quality feel or the Ferrari's pure purposefulness, we will tell you the Corvette's interior delivers no-nonsense controls, super-comfortable seats (though lacking in lateral support) and a supremely convenient head-up display. While it doesn't feel like a million bucks, keep in mind the Corvette starts at just $45,170!
It's in the value criterion that the Corvette shines. Even with its as-tested price of $56,185, the Vette is $71,015 less than the next cheapest car (the Aston), and a full $192,718 less than the Ferrari.
Not only that, but after driving the Corvette to its maximum on a back road, fully able to keep up with the Ferrari and Audi (the Vantage was left behind), you start to wonder if one even needs a Z06...you certainly don't need one to go fast. This standard Corvette is already incredibly quick with fully capable handling, while sacrificing only a small amount of the usable real-world performance you'd get with the Z06.
Including a Ferrari in a comparison test is a no-win situation for the marque from Maranello. For if it wins, readers say, "Of course it won -- look at how much it costs!" If it loses, suddenly the Ferrari is a huge waste of money.
But we're including the Ferrari F430 anyway. After all, could we do a story on V-8s and not have one of the best-engineered and ferociously fast cars ever built? We couldn't.
And the Ferrari F430's engine is a masterpiece, even just to look at -- the 90-degree V-8 sits in plain view under a clear engine cover for all the world to see, its red crackle-finish intake plenums and cam covers screaming, "I'm a Ferrari, so you'd better take notice!"
Of course, this 4.3-liter engine has 4-valve heads, variable cam timing on both the intake and exhaust as well as variable intake volume. The F430 is a high-winding machine that makes its peak power -- 483 bhp -- at its redline of 8500 rpm; peak torque of 343 lb.-ft. is reached at 5250 rpm.
The pushbutton starter brings the F430 to life with a ferocity that borders on sheer anger; it's noisier at idle than many cars are at full throttle. But full throttle at high rpm is where this engine comes alive, and where it likes to reside. It's actually the least V-8-like of the group, almost acting -- with its lack of low-end punch -- like a screaming V-6. This is a race engine, and this is a race car for the street. Just as a Ferrari should be.
"Yes, the F430's V-8 requires some revs under its belt before you're in the thick of its powerband," said Jonathan. "But that's the way race cars are meant to be driven," he continued. "The F430's engine is the most visceral, the most sensual and produces the most head-turning exhaust tone by far." The Ferrari's note, which is a glorious combination of sucking intake noise together with a free-flowing exhaust shriek, seems to change its pitch about every 500 rpm; the backfires that accompany each full-throttle upshift just add to the symphony of sounds, while the blue flames that shoot out the exhausts at night add to our delight.
Unlike the other cars in this test, though, if you got stuck in too high of a gear in the Ferrari exiting a turn, it felt like your call to the engine room -- via a floored throttle pedal -- went completely unnoticed. Luckily, its slick F1 paddle-shift 6-speed manual leaves you just a flick of the carbon-fiber paddle away from more power, replete with an always-correct computer-operated throttle blip.
Jonathan, Calvin and I wished we could try Ferrari's true manual, with gated shifter, just for the sheer joy of completing that proper heel-and-toe downshift on a mountain road. Steve, always the consummate racer, said, "After 40 years of shifting for myself, I'll take paddle shifters every day." And as for an engine, Steve absolutely loved the Ferrari's: "To me, the F430's engine is the best here. But you have to rev it, and those paddle shifters can help you in any situation, especially to get you back in the powerband quickly."
The Ferrari's magnificent-sounding engine and lightning-quick gearbox aren't just for show, the F430 cracking off 0-60 mph in just 3.8 sec. and the quarter mile in 12.0 sec. at 119.6 mph, far eclipsing the other cars in this test for outright quickness. From 5000 to 8500 rpm, the Ferrari revs far harder than the others; if you're in that range at full throttle, you better hold on, because this car is going to take you for one helluva ride.
As would be expected of a Ferrari, the car is also amazing when the road starts to snake left and right. The F430's steering is incredibly precise, perfectly quick and the feedback through the leather and carbon-fiber steering wheel is superb. Although the front end can occasionally feel light, in general the car is well planted, with minimal drop-throttle, mid-turn, tail-will-come-around antics. It's not as easy to get in and drive as the Audi, but once you get used to the car's limits and slightly more nervous nature, it becomes a more willing partner. And those carbon-ceramic brakes are so firm and positive.
Ferrari certainly knows how to do interiors that thrill enthusiasts. Our test car was fitted with carbon fiber galore -- the rest was made of high-quality hand-stitched leather. But the stereo's operation was difficult to decipher (even for tech-geek Calvin), and there's no warmth like in the Audi. "The Ferrari feels like a race car that's been fitted with an interior," said Calvin.
The big downside to the F430, of course, is that few people can afford this most amazing of cars. With the Ferrari's base price of $184,309 and an as-tested price of $248,903, this magazine article is about as close as most will ever get to experiencing one. And that's a downright shame.
Who makes the best V-8? That's the question we set out to answer.
We all agreed -- without doubt -- that the always hard-hitting LS3 of the Corvette had the best power delivery and was by far the easiest with which to tap its potential.
But everyone also agreed the Ferrari sounded the best. Said Steve, "The F430's engine goes through melodies of sound that start out throaty, move on to a bark and finish in a high-revving scream." It's about as sexy-sounding a package as you'll ever find.
So when it came to choosing an absolute favorite V-8, we were torn: Two of us chose the Corvette's torque-rich 6.2-liter, the other two the Ferrari's high-revving 4.3. In a tie-breaker, we went with the Corvette's LS3. This engine is truly phenomenal in its everyday usability and civility, yet it's insanely fast when you ask it to be -- all the while rewarding our ears with that most American of V-8 thunder.
But since you generally don't buy a car based solely on its engine, rather the whole car as a package, the question remains: Which is our favorite V-8 sports car? When the editors were asked which car they would buy if they had to pay for it themselves, two said they'd sell their house and buy the Ferrari, while two opted for the Corvette. Jonathan justified his choice of the Vette: "I'd like to say I'd buy the Audi if I were paying for it, but the thought of owning two Corvettes for the same amount of cash -- one for the street, one for the track ... I think I know a deal when I see one."
If "forced" to drive one of these every day, we were split again: Two chose the real-world comfort and livability of the Audi R8, two saying they'd put up with the Ferrari's frenzied, exotic nature just for the thrill of it.
But when asked which car everyone loved driving the most, it wasn't even a contest -- it was Ferrari's F430. So while the Corvette LS3 gets the honor as our favorite V-8, the Ferrari F430 is our favorite V-8 sports car.