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Corvette: The Next Generation

The dream machine that became America’s sports car challenges the world-beaters with its first mid-engine model
By Paul A. Eisenstein | From CBS Sunday Morning, May/June 2020
Corvette: The Next Generation

Creeping forward, ever so slowly, all I can hear is the crunch of gravel on pavement. This beast can be uncannily quiet when it’s poised to strike. But then, with a heart-pounding roar, it pounces. Even as I hold onto the steering wheel for all it’s worth, the raw G-forces shove me deep into my seat as I launch the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette out of the pits and onto the first straight at Spring Mountain Raceway. It’s a moment that’s been a long time coming.

With the introduction of the eighth-generation, “C8” Corvette, Chevy introduces the most dramatic transformation in the history of what has come to be known as America’s sports car. In the process, it fulfills a nearly six-decade dream. A cursory glance reveals the most significant change: the big LT2 V-8 engine moving from up front to the middle of the new sports car. With the reconfiguration the driver slides about a foot closer to the substantially lowered nose.

The 2020 Corvette’s mid-engine layout transforms the car’s feel, giving it agility that past models couldn’t come close to. With its radically altered weight distribution—60 percent of the sports car’s mass now moved to the rear—comes markedly improved traction. That is one reason the models equipped with the Z51 performance package can hit 60 in just 2.9 seconds.

blue C8

At up to 495 hp and 470 pound-feet of torque, the new ’Vette’s 6.2-liter V-8 is satisfyingly loud when driven in anger, explosively quick and intuitively responsive, all the while purring at lower RPMs. That said, the powertrain has been the source of some controversy. Chevrolet engineers opted to go exclusively with a new eight-speed Tremec dual-clutch transmission, or DCT.

While loyalists might lament the lack of a manual gearbox, the cold reality, explained C8 chief engineer Tadge Juechter, is that its shifts are far faster than a human could ever manage. For those who simply must “row” their own, the aluminum paddles on the steering wheel are electronically linked directly to the gearbox for rapid-fire manual shifts.

Among the options is a magnetorheological (MR) suspension. Using a magnetically sensitive fluid in the dampers, the computer-controlled system is able to switch each individual shock absorber from soft to firm, or anywhere in between, in the time it takes the Corvette to travel just an inch at 60 miles per hour. On track it improves cornering and stability, while on the street it makes potholes all but vanish.

Shod with performance tires, the new Corvette makes even a mediocre driver feel like a star on track. The optional winter tires let the C8 operate as an all-year, everyday driver, even in the Snowbelt. Another option raises the nose about an inch to better clear speed bumps, snowdrifts and steep driveways—and it can be programmed to remember where to lift itself up automatically. The ’Vette has long been known for having more rear storage than most sports cars. The C8 adds a “frunk,” a surprisingly roomy front trunk, where the engine used to be.

sky view

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first production C8 went across the block at auction last January for a cool $3 million. Considering this is really the first ’Vette to pose a serious challenge to exotic marques like Porsche and even Ferrari, it’s surprising that the 2020 Corvette starts at just $59,995—including $1,095 in delivery fees. That’s less than the latest-generation Porsche Boxster.

The Corvette I tested, with virtually every possible option box ticked, still came in at barely $89,000, nearly $10,000 less than you’d spend to get in an absolutely stripped down Porsche 911. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Italian model offering similar performance stats—or creature comforts—for less than twice the price.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Corvette order bank immediately filled up for the first year. Furthermore, a lengthy GM strike shut down last fall’s production. Unless you already placed your order or have close ties to a friendly dealer, you could be waiting until sometime in early to mid-2021 before taking delivery.

Your CERV

The first Chevrolet Corvette rolled off the assembly line in 1953, with an innovative fiberglass body, yet anemic performance. But a procession of ever more powerful V-8s would soon make it a force to be reckoned with, one of the fastest and most feared automobiles on American highways. However, while the ’Vette may have earned a reputation as “America’s sports car,” something was still missing on the global stage.

It was something that Zora Arkus-Duntov, the engineer who some have called “the father of the Corvette,” was all too well aware of. The Belgian-born immigrant first saw the Corvette in 1953 at Motorama, General Motors’ traveling post-War roadshow. A well-respected racer who had competed at Le Mans, he convinced the automaker to hire him and let him make the two-seater deliver on what its striking looks promised. Arkus-Duntov knew that to fully realize Corvette’s potential would require the sort of radical shift that didn’t sit well with Detroit brass of that era. He wanted to move the engine from under the hood to a position just behind the driver—a midship layout then being adopted by the best of the European brands, notably Ferrari.

interior

The layout could transform a nose-heavy monster into a thing of poise and balance, radically improving handling on both track and public roads. As much as anything, to stop the engineer’s constant carping, management reluctantly approved funds for a prototype, CERV I, which Arkus-Duntov declared “an admirable tool.” Short for Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle, it was the first in a series of running prototypes, each one more capable and compelling. But if the Corvette chief engineer thought he had won the debate, he was in for an unpleasant surprise.

Year after year, his argument fell on deaf ears. Shortly before retiring in 1976, Arkus-Duntov made one last pitch, only to have then GM CEO Richard Gerstenberg respond, “Why would we change the Corvette? We sell every one we can make.”

With each subsequent generation of the sports car delivering better handling, more power and improved performance, that might have been the end of the argument—if not for the financial crisis that sent General Motors tumbling into Chapter 11 in 2009.

A Convenient Clown Suit

With bankruptcy approaching, GM management ordered a halt to work on the seventh-generation Corvette, which was just getting underway. The automaker’s future was anything but certain, and many thought it would mark the end of America’s sports car. But a small group of designers and engineers decided they weren’t going to let that happen. Even before it was clear GM would survive, they began meeting in secret, hoping to keep Corvette alive. Back in business, with a federal bailout in hand and an entirely new management team in place, GM gave the go-ahead for what would be known to insiders and fans alike as the C7.

two C8

“This version almost didn’t happen,” recalled Tom Peters, who served as design director for what would become the 2014 Corvette. “But we convinced [management] to to give us a bit more time to develop what we thought was right.”

What Peters and the rest of the team came up with was the most visually radical Corvette redesign yet. With its extreme angle adding to Corvette’s traditionally menacing appearance, the C7 could just as easily have rolled off the set of a science fiction film as out of a General Motors studio. Successive street variants like the Z06 and ZR1 went from fast to faster—and the track version, the C7.R, almost immediately came to dominate the motor sports circuit.

Yet again, the Corvette team had found ways to improve on the original formula, and the market went wild. Yet the competition wasn’t easing up. Quite the opposite. And that worried Mark Reuss, GM’s newly named global product development director. A lifelong fan of the Corvette, Reuss knew “we were running up against the limits. We weren’t going to be able to make it much better without making a truly radical change.” So, for the first time, it seemed, GM management was ready to sign off on a mid-engine makeover.

lime green

But could Chevy make it work? To see what was possible, GM turned to veteran development engineer Mike Petrucci. They gave him the resources he thought he would need, but they also told him to keep the project secret. Rumors of a mid-engine Corvette had circulated for decades, though by the middle of the two-thousand-teens few took them seriously anymore. Petrucci was determined to keep it that way.

If anything, it was still far from certain that the project would make it into production when, in 2014, he and his team began putting together a rough—very rough—prototype. Dubbed “Blackjack,” it was an automotive Frankenstein, using bits and pieces borrowed not only from the then-new C7 Corvette, but also parts cadged from GM’s operations in Australia.

With a significant amount of hand-tooled parts, Blackjack weighed about 7,000 pounds and used plenty of duct tape and bailing wire. “We had 24 engineers working to figure out how to stick all these parts together,” Petrucci laughed during a conversation at Spring Mountain Raceway where GM had brought several of the prototypes used to develop the C8 back in February of this year. But “it was a convenient clown suit for us to hide our plan to develop a high-performance, mid-engine sports car.”

Despite all the challenges, Blackjack worked. It demonstrated all the advantages that Arkus-Duntov had first predicted back in the late 1950s. More importantly, this time, GM’s senior management was convinced. “After we put Mark Reuss in the car and he knew what we were doing, it was very clear there was high-level support,” recalled Petrucci.

By 2016, the team began to pull together the first C8 “mule,” something that was a lot closer visually to what the eventual 2020 Corvette would look like—though it was still a hodgepodge of ill-fitting parts—the top of the instrument panel, for one thing, was a piece of cardboard held together by duct tape. A year later, with management giving the project the full green light, a “production representative” prototype rolled out—or, more precisely, about 100 of them. They were soon being spotted all over the place while testing and became the subject of countless “spy shots” and banner headlines in the automotive enthusiast media.

Our Work’s Not Done Here

Automakers like GM are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to future product. After all, why reveal what you have coming when it could hurt sales of what you’re offering today? That said, GM insiders privately like to drop hints about what they’re working on and the industry rumor mill routinely leaks like a sieve. “Our work’s not done here,” one well-placed manager recently confided when asked about future Corvette updates.

red C8

There is absolutely no doubt that Chevy is developing numerous variants of the C8. What’s unclear is whether they will stick with familiar names, like Z06 and ZR1, the latter normally reserved for only the most powerful Corvette from each generation. There has been widespread speculation that Chevy may lift a page from the playbook at Ferrari, which a few years back named what was then its most extreme machine after its founder Enzo. Few would be surprised if we saw a Corvette Zora before the middle of this decade.

The question, of course, is what would be different? In the Corvette generations past, a ZR1—or Zora—would feature track-ready enhancements to its suspension, aerodynamics and, naturally, its powertrain. And that gets to the heart of the biggest uncertainty.

The world of high-performance automobiles is rapidly changing, and the key word is “electrification.” The Ferrari Enzo was one of the first street-legal supercars to adopt a gas-electric hybrid drivetrain, a strategy increasingly common today. Porsche offers an array of plug-in hybrids that can reach speeds nearing 200 mph yet drive in all-electric mode. Now comes the wave of all-electric supercars like the Rimac C_Two and Pininfarina Battista, vehicles making anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 horsepower and blasting from 0 to 60 in less than two seconds.

Reuss, who now serves as GM’s president, has made it clear that GM is “no longer” going to make hybrids, whether plug-in or conventional. Instead, he stressed in a recent conversation, GM is “on a path to an all-electric future.” In March, the company confirmed plans to roll out 20 pure battery-electric vehicles by 2023. A recent media briefing showed off several platforms that could deliver as much as 1,000 horsepower.

The question is not if, but when an all-electric Corvette will appear. It’s reasonable to assume that a battery-powered version will generate even more controversy, but when it comes to sports cars, nothing wins skeptics over like better performance. Even as going too far out on a limb poses its own dangers, the real risk is taking no risk. The market demands ever better performance, improved comforts and greater utility, as well. The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette clearly delivers. But the product development team is already hard at work on what will be coming next.

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