After driving a 1993 Corvette convertible this past week, I am reminded of a quote by Dustin Hoffman in the early days of his career, after he skyrocketed to stardom on the film "The Graduate."

Asked by a reporter to describe how it felt to be instantly rich, famous and an object of adulation, Hoffman replied, "Why couldn't I have had this in high school, when I really needed it?"That's kind of how I feel about the Vette.

It's not that the passing years have robbed me of my lust for fast, sexy cars. They haven't. It's just that my 53-year-old body has lost the suppleness needed to make getting in and out of a Corvette a routine act.

One night after work this week, I walked up to the eighth level of the parking terrace where my "Ruby Red Metallic," "40th Anniversary" test car was waiting. For 30 seconds or so I just stood there, psyching myself up like a linebacker before the big game. Then, uttering an explosive grunt, I launched into the complex series of moves required to insert oneself into the driver's seat of a Vette.

Space shuttle astronauts have it easier.

No doubt Chevrolet's target market for this fast, powerful and very low-slung sports car has no such problem with entry and egress. Their bodies are lithe and supple, allowing them to easily drop down to 6 inches off the ground while simultaneously inserting their legs under the steering wheel, around the door jamb, over the 6-inch body sill and into a seat custom made for Twiggy.

Did someone say "practicality"? Bite your tongue. The Corvette isn't about practicality, especially the convertible. There is just enough room in a Vette ragtop for a briefcase and maybe an overnight case . . . if you don't fill it too full. Golf clubs? Only if you go to the course by yourself; then you could maybe slide them into the passenger seat.

Forget practicality. The Corvette droptop is noisy, bumpy, windy, gulps gas and has no redeeming social value. That's what makes it so wonderful and why every red-blooded American boy (and a lot of red-blooded American girls) have lusted after them since the day the first Vette rolled off the assembly line in 1953.

I know I have.

Corvette drivers wave to each other. Maybe in recognition of one demented person for another. Whatever, it's a lot of fun being a member of a fraternity that puts glory, gusto and go-fast ahead of . . . well, everything else. Oh, yes, and it's also gorgeous. Always has been. I suspect its looks alone have sold most of the Corvettes over the past four decades.

That and its attitude. Looks and attitude. That's the secret of the Corvette's longevity.

My experience with Corvettes has been limited, but I am familiar enough with their history to know that the '93 Vette is the best of them all - downright civilized compared to its ancestors. It stops as well as it goes (anti-lock brakes are standard), doesn't sound like it's coming apart on bumpy roads and scores pretty high in the fit-and-finish, quality-control departments.

As well it should for a car carrying a bottom-line sticker price of $46,724. This is Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus territory, so the competition is pretty stiff - although I can't really imagine anyone trying to decide between a Lexus and a Vette. You are either one of the faithful or you are not. The Corvette faithful don't have any place to comparison shop. Big C is truly one of a kind.

Interior? Once inside, I was actually quite comfortable, it was just getting there that was hard. The dash is an unusual mix of a lighted, digital speedometer, odometer and gas gauge, while the rest of the instruments, including the tach, are of the traditional analog variety, preferred by most car buffs. The combination works quite well.

The test car had a dual CD/

cassette tape sound system that worked fine, although ambient noise in a Vette, particularly the convertible, provides a lot of competition. The automatic climate control also did a good job with the top up. The AC would quickly start blowing hot air when the top was lowered. I don't know why.

The Corvette is not the easiest car to drive. The clutch pedal is very stiff, and the shifter only a bit less so, but both suit the macho personality of the car. The standard LT1 engine, a 5.7 liter V8, gets things under way in a hurry, as you would expect. There have to be some consolations for impracticality.

My test car had Chevy's six-speed manual transmission, the only real choice as far as I'm concerned. There are a lot of Vettes out there with automatic trannies, but I am of the school that a sports car driver has to row through the gears himself or he might as well drive a Caprice.

Which brings me to my single biggest gripe about the Vette: the bizarre "feature" that requires the transmission to shift from first gear directly to fourth gear if you don't accelerate hard in first gear.

Thus, if you move out serenely when the light turns green, and you go to make your shift to second, the gear shift will jump past second and third gear and go directly into fourth. The bottom then falls out of the tachometer. In fairness, not many cars could handle such a feature, but the Vette's big V8 generates so much torque that the chugging and pinging is minimal in the first-to-fourth shift. You can decelerate to below 10 mph in fourth and still pull out using just the accelerator.

The thing is, you think about it all the time while you're driving the Vette. You try to devise ways to defeat it, such as shifting from first to neutral, then to second. This usually results in grinding gears, not a cool thing in a sports car.

More often, you floor the gas pedal in first every time you start out so that you can be sure of getting second on the upshift, a habit not conducive to improving gas mileage. Maybe I would get used to it after a year, but I sure didn't in a week. Anyway, I wouldn't want to get used to it. If I want to shift from first to fourth, let me decide, not the transmission.

What about cornering? you ask. You say sports cars are supposed to be race cars with license plates. No problem. The P255/45 ZR-17 radials with which the Vette is shod put down a footprint about the size of a T-rex. On dry roads, it's just aim and point. You will probably run out of courage before the Corvette runs out of grip.

One of the options on my test car (more than $5,000 in total options) was the $1,695 "Selective Ride and Handling" switch, which allows the driver to program "Touring," "Sport" or "Performance," handling modes. I tried all three and couldn't tell the difference in any of them, but I'm a law abiding citizen who would never dream of pushing somebody else's car to its limits.

Oddity: The Corvette comes with an infrared detector on the key chain that is unique in my experience. When you leave the car, you don't bother locking it, just walk away. When you've gone about 20 feet (taking the keychain sensor with you, of course) the doors lock, the security system comes on and the horn honks to let you know it's on the job (or maybe to say bye-bye).

When you return, it senses the presence of the little keychain gizmo when you are 4 or 5 feet from the car and unlocks the doors. Pretty clever, but if you hang around the car with the key in your pocket, maybe getting gas or talking to someone, the sensor gets confused and alternately locks and unlocks the car, giving everyone in the vicinity a good chuckle.

When you walk away with the top down, the system still works, but locked doors in a topless car seems kind of silly. (Although if someone reaches inside the open car to unlock the door, the horn scolds them by honking three times. Whether this would deter a car thief is debatable.)

Speaking of going topless, lowering and raising the cloth top (which rests hidden inside a pop-up metal tonneau when down) is pretty easy, although it's no one-button affair a la the Mercedes 500 SL, and it can't be done from inside the car.

Also, at freeway speeds, the wind buffeting in the cockpit is incredible, much stronger than any other convertible I've ever driven. The wind blast can be alleviated quite a bit by rolling up the side windows, but, again, comfort is not why people buy Vettes, so none of this concerns them. They like not being able to breathe at 65 mph.

For a sports car, the Corvette feels big. This is no Mazda Miata, despite the tight cockpit and absence of cargo space. But Corvette people wouldn't be caught dead in a wimpy little car with a four-cylinder engine, or any foreign car for that matter.

Corvette is an American icon that has somehow lasted 40 years, although there have been disquieting rumors that perhaps the fabled marque's days are numbered.

General Motors denies all such rumors, and I hope they aren't kidding. There is no place in my life - now - for a Corvette, but I'm glad the cars are still out there and a few special people still want them.

Vive la Vette!