I got my new Car & Driver magazine in the mail earlier this week. And it reported on something I managed to miss from one month ago, passed on by Jalopnik:
GM’s head of global product development, Mark Reuss, confirms that the company is working on the next Corvette. Our sources elaborate on this salient piece of information, telling us that, after 61 years of evolution, the C8 will be revolutionary.
The new Corvette will be the mid-engined American Dream Machine that Chevy couldn’t, until now, muster the courage to build. In truth, the factory is still not prepared to detail what’s coming, which is why you’re looking at the 2017 model year through our freshly waxed crystal ball.
THE PLAN: The C8 flagship, the Zora ZR1, will debut the new mid-engine architecture. Launching as a 2017 model, it will define the top of the Corvette hierarchy just as its precursors did in 1990-1995 C4 generation and 2009-2013 C6 model years. As before, the ZR1 will be low volume, roughly 1500 units per annum, and high priced. We figure around $150,000.
Before I go on: Regular readers know I have a thing about the Corvette, though I have driven few and owned none. (I work in journalism, have kids, and to date have received exactly $0 from my supposed Vast Right Wing Conspiracy benefactors. And no one has gotten me one for my birthday or Father’s Day. And I have yet to see in the flesh the yellow convertible recently purchased by a member of my family, with the correct transmission, that really needs to come up here.)
So if you’ve read this blog, you know of my skepticism of mid-engine Corvettes (or more accurately Corvettes with engines behind the driver) such as …
Technically the Corvette has been a mid-engine — that is, the engine is mounted between the front and rear axles — since the C4 debuted in 1983. This obviously refers to a future Corvette with an engine in front of the back wheels, instead of behind the front wheels.
I truly believe that every car magazine publisher has a note in his desk that reads something like: “In case single-copy sales are lagging, do a NEW MID-ENGINE CORVETTE! story.” Car & Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Automobile and the others have resorted to what could be called “Corvette porn” — predictions that are fun to read and heighten anticipation, though they don’t actually happen — for decades. (This was particularly the case during the 15-year run of the C3 Corvette, which was due to be replaced by a new mid-engine Corvette any day now, or then.) Jalopnik calls the rear/mid-engine Corvette as “the automobile magazine’s white whale; an elusive beast that always seems so close and yet, always, just of reach.”
One of the two reasons I remain skeptical about a mid-engine Corvette is that GM already sells every front-engine Corvette it makes today. The side view of every mid-engine Corvette design except possibly the XP-882 and AeroVette shows a car with more back than front, which goes against every previous Corvette design. And there are enough people not enamored with the C7’s design; for some reason every alternative-looking version looks better than the actual animal.
The other is that I am extremely skeptical that GM could pull it off successfully. Fans of the idea of a mid-engine Corvette exaggerate, I think, GM’s ability to design a mid-engine car that works in today’s world. For instance, C&D reports that this C8 is likely to have all of 5 cubic feet of space in the front end and the rear end. C&D writes that “This will surely disappoint golfers who drive their C7s to the links with more than one set of clubs in their 10- to 15-cubic-foot cargo holds. The new Zora ZR1 will be for those who enjoy long drives without using clubs.”
Yeah, well, GM already has too many stories to tell of ignoring customers’ demands at GM’s own peril. Why not eliminate the sound system while you’re at it, and make drivers listen to nothing but the engine or their passenger? That’s the purist driving experience, after all.
You would think at some point car owners would get tired of being GM’s guinea pigs for technology not quite sorted out (the Vega’s melting aluminum engine, the Citation, Computer Command Control, Cross Fire Injection) when the car leaves the dealership. I can see maybe one-tenth of Chevy dealers being able to service a car with the engine in the wrong end. I can see service costs skyrocket, which would be good for GM and its Chevy dealers, but not so much for the owner.
C&D also reports that the C8 will not have a manual transmission, and won’t have a transmission designed by GM either, instead from the outside:
Our snooping suggests that the Corvette engineering group will develop just one transaxle for the initial phase of the C8 program, and that a dual-clutch automatic will be its choice. … After the inevitable weeping over the demise of the manual, life in Bloomington will continue. Mourners will probably be in the minority anyway — 65 percent of new Stingrays are delivered with automatics.
That’s a rather arrogant statement, whether it comes from C&D or its unnamed inside source(s). (The story was written by their veteran technical director, Don Sherman.) If two-thirds of C7 buyers are ordering automatics, then one-third are specifying manuals not because they’re faster than automatics, but because the driving experience is superior. Essentially GM is saying that manual drivers need not plunk down their money, which is a strange attitude for a corporation saved by taxpayer dollars, and a company that really needs to be more, not less, responsive to the public.
Then there’s this:
Alternative power sources are planned to keep the Corvette viable when regulations clamp down more aggressively on fuel consumption. Potent V-6s with and without boost are inevitable. Moving the engine behind the cockpit clears space for an electric motor to drive the front wheels; by 2020, a four-wheel-drive Corvette hybrid is a distinct possibility.
This is where I get off the train. GM, remember, has had more of its vehicles recalled in the past year than its entire 2013 production total, and for a rather simple (though potentially fatal) problem, bad ignition switches. GM’s hybrid, remember, is the money-losing Volt. GM has one, and only one, mid-engine car in its entire existence, the 1980s Pontiac Fiero.
Up until now, the Corvette’s success has been in large part not because of state-of-the-art technology, but because of high refinement of proven technology — for instance, pushrod V-8s instead of double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, except for the King of the Hill ZR1. (And even at that, C&D’s long-term test Stingray blew its engine at 6,000 miles, apparently because of a bad oil filter. Their engine was replaced under warranty; had the engine blown five years from now, you would have paid upwards of $100,000 for an expensive lump of fiberglass, carbon fiber and various other materials.) There used to be 6,000 Chevrolet dealers in the U.S., which meant you were pretty close to a dealer if something went wrong. And of course an entire aftermarket industry serving only Corvettes grew, but there is less you can buy to upgrade your Corvette because there is less the aftermarket can do.
The V-8, in small (up to 6.2 liters) or large (once up to 454 cubic inches) block size, carbureted (up to three) or fuel injected, has been part of the Corvette experience for all but its first two years of existence. If I wanted a V-6 and an automatic (and call it whatever you like, if it doesn’t involve a clutch pedal and the driver’s making every shift, it’s an automatic), I would buy a minivan. No automaker has proven that a turbocharged or supercharged gasoline engine lasts as long as a non-charged gas engine.
I am not one of these people who hates every advance in car tech. Fuel injection (now that it actually works) is superior to carburetors. I like air conditioning. I need tilt steering because of my size. But I have owned cars long enough to know that the older a car is, the more things stop working — sometimes things that prevent you from driving the car, but more often things that prevent you, absent a huge repair bill, from using the car as it was designed. (By the time our first Subaru Outback left the premises at 228,000 miles, one side marker light, the rear wipers, and various interior lights had stopped working. The cruise control on Outback number two has never worked in my six-year ownership experience.)
The irony is that the C4 and onward have each made great strides in turning the Corvette into a car you could conceivably drive every day. (If you have no more than one passenger, of course.) Purists don’t like the hatchback, but the aforementioned golf clubs, along with luggage for a weekend trip, groceries, or whatever else can now fit. Advances in traction control mean you could drive a Vette in a snowfall (assuming you have the right all-season tires). I don’t like the elimination of the hidden headlights in the C6 and C7, but at least owners don’t have to worry about them not working. The 2015 Corvette is EPA-rated at 29 highway mpg, and Corvettes have been at least in the mid-20s in highway mpg for years. And the price, as I’ve chronicled in this space, makes the Corvette the best high-performance bargain on the planet compared with its Porsche, Ferrari and other competition.
C&D reports that this Corvette will be sold with the existing C7 until it’s phased out around 2020. When that happens, all Corvettes will be mid-engined, all apparently will have automatics, and some may not even have V-8s. I’d question whether this is progress, but I’m betting I won’t be able to afford a C8 of any kind anyway due to the obvious steep price increase for all the new, yet unproven, GM technology.