Corvette Z06 Is One Big, Bad Mutha

May 8 (Bloomberg) — Ever hit 60 mph — in first gear? Imagine doing so and then realizing there are five more gears at your disposal, each flush with power and waiting to be exploited. Could you handle it?

The monster we’re talking about is not the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron. Rather, it’s the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 coupe, famous among auto folk as the sub-$75,000 American supercar that tangles with $180,000 Ferraris.

On this day I’m playing out a fantasy of many a car lover: I’m testing a Z06 in the middle of the desert, hindered only by good sense.

There’s nothing specifically “new” about this Z06. The same 505 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. Yet since its lesser-powered sibling, the C6, will be released in 2008 with 430 horses, and 2009 will likely see a Corvette with an atomic 600-plus hp, I want to put that kind of power in perspective.

Impressive horsepower numbers are common these days — even some family sedans have 250-plus. All too often, though, those autos are way too heavy, and the numbers never quite translate to a thrilling experience.

On the other hand, the Z06’s power and torque are utterly tangible. It can be scary to drive, and should be handled with real caution. The uneducated driver best not step incautiously on the gas pedal — a rude lesson in physics is likely to result.

Heads-Up Display

It’s pre-dawn in the Arizona desert, and I’m on a road as straight as a tape measure. I can see to the horizon line. No traffic. Think of it as Corvette catnip.

The Vette has a heads-up display — a nifty feature in which the speedometer readout is projected onto the windshield so that it’s always in the driver’s line of sight. Even more amazing, then, that when I give the car a wallop of gas, the speedometer numbers rocket by so quickly that I can’t follow them.

Oh, my. Discretion is the better part of valor; yet it’s so very hard to be well behaved.

Later, on a very lonely desert road, I make a complete stop (the brakes are tops, too); I put the six-speed manual into first gear, rev the engine and then go full throttle. A slight beat as the traction control struggles to manage rear-wheel spin, and then the car’s front end lifts — very much like taking off in a jet. Next: Incredible forward movement.

It’s no wonder that Corvettes are often compared with Ferraris. The performance numbers are in the same ballpark. The truth is they are vastly different driving experiences.

Visceral Power

In a Ferrari F430, for instance, the speed and cornering ability seem effortless, luring you into thinking you might be a magnificent driver. The Corvette is more menacing: There’s always the sensation that you just might be taunting a bully with a big stick. The Z06’s speed is visceral, and it makes demands of its driver — you best know what you’re doing, it growls. (I consider disengaging the traction control; the button is just to my right, taunting. Nah. On a track, maybe. Or an empty Wal-Mart parking lot.)

It’s actually taken me a long time to warm to the look of a Vette. As I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, the models were just too much, like a platinum blonde with a deeply scooped blouse. No modesty.

This generation’s exterior refinements speak to me. It’s the automotive equivalent of a bird of prey: lean, hawkish angles designed to cut through air. And I love the massive wheels, with their open spokes that show the huge silver rotors and a red splash of brake caliper. My test car’s exterior is also shiny red, as if it had been just dipped in candy-apple sauce and hadn’t quite dried.

Stupid Navigation System

My biggest complaint is the satellite radio and GPS navigation system. Chevy seems to have gone out of its way to make it as non-intuitive as possible. Even worse, the actual navigation logic is brutally stupid. When I choose to ignore a suggested route back to Phoenix, it tries to send me on a U-turn for hundreds of miles (I cannot seem to cancel the guidance, either). Even when I’m mere miles outside the city, going east, it’s telling me to make a U-turn west.

Otherwise the interior is comfortable, with large raking seats. Even big drivers won’t feel cramped. The rear hatch pops, too, with oceans of space — enough for golf gear, in fact.

So, I’ll admit it. I used to make a bit of fun of the “Corvette” guys. Now, though, the allure is obvious. Any opening in the club?

The Corvette Z06 at a Glance

Power: 7-liter V-8 with 505 hp and 470 pound-feet of torque.

Drive train: Six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds.

Price as tested: $77,425.

Best feature: That unadulterated, put-the-fear-of-God-into- you power.

Worst feature: The abysmal GPS navigation system.

Target buyer: Someone who’s obsessed with power yet has the good sense to use it wisely.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)