America’s next sports car

Today is my birthday. (In case you couldn’t figure that out from one hour ago.) And as with my previous 45 birthdays, there is no Corvette in my driveway. Life is unfair.

There are, however, Corvettes in other driveways. (Probably few in journalists’ driveways, although I was surprised to see the kinds of cars parked in the media parking at Road America when I was last there.) And there will be more Corvettes in more driveways given that GM is reportedly designing the next Corvette, the seventh generation of America’s sports car. GM is spending $131 million on improvements to the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Ky., which also is the home of the National Corvette Museum.

First, a photographic tour of generations one through six:

This is the first Corvette design; C1s are considered to have been built from 1953 to 1962.
The C2 was built from 1963 to 1967.
The C3, the first Corvette I remember, was built from 1968 to 1982.
The C4 was built from 1984 to 1996.
The C5, whose creation was the subject of the book All Corvettes Are Red, was sold from 1997 to 2004.
Chevrolet has been selling the C6 — this is the 616-horsepower ZR1 — since 2005.

The current Corvette is one of the most accomplished cars on the planet. For between $49,045 (base coupe) and $110,300 (the ZR1), you can buy a car that will go from standing stop to 60 mph in no slower than 4.3 seconds, will race one-quarter mile in no slower than 12.6 seconds, will reach top speed of at least 190 mph, and will get up to 26 mpg on the highway. You can take your significant other and a weekend’s worth of luggage wherever you can reach in a day’s drive.

For those who want numbers:  The base Corvette costs $114.06 per horsepower, and the ZR1 costs $172.88 per horsepower. A Porsche Boxster costs $188.63 per horsepower, and a Ferrari California costs $423.84 per horsepower. The most expensive Corvette is more of a performance bargain than the least expensive Porsche.

But don’t take my word, watch the videos:

Corvettes have always been front-engine rear-drive two-seat coupes or convertibles. They have been powered by V-8s (all, except for the four-cam LT-5 built at Mercury Marine’s Stillwater, Okla., plant of the overhead-valve variety) in all but their first two model years, and they have had at least an available manual transmission (and with some engines it was the only available transmission) in all but three model years. Hidden headlights were featured in generations two through five, a triumph of styling over function.

As noted in my previous Corvette writings, the automobile media swoons (I was going to use another metaphor, but given what’s happened in the past week or so, give me some credit for taste) every time GM appears to be about to roll out a new Corvette.

The first heavy breathing about a new Vette that I remember was in 1973, when Motor Trend, the first car magazine I ever read, announced GM was going to introduce not one, but two new Corvettes, both powered by the then-exotic rotary engines. One was going  to be a two-rotor Corvette …

… and the other was going to be a ground-shaking four-rotor Corvette:

Neither of those predictions was correct, nor was the prediction nine months later:

motor_trend_magazine-1975-july

For one thing, GM (and everyone else except Mazda) abandoned rotary engines due to their poor fuel economy and emissions and other problems. The silver gull-wing-doored Vette had its four-rotor replaced by a 400 V-8 and, voila, became the Aerovette. And pretty much since then (and even before then), some Vette enthusiasts have pined for a mid-engine Vette, and auto publications have predicted that the “next” Corvette will be mid-engined.

(Motor Trend has a reputation for not being particularly critical about the cars it reviews. Motor Trend also has a reputation of making Corvette predictions into cover stories, as these covers demonstrate:

Many Corvette drawings over the years were drawn by designer Harry Bradley. Dean’s Garage helpfully put many of them in one spot. All of these were, to quote the December 1976 cover blurb, Vettes you’ll never see. But the issues sold well at the newsstands, I’m sure.)

Mid-engine cars (that is, cars whose engines are between the axles, whether in front of the rear axle or behind the front axle) are claimed to have better handling since the engine is closer to the drive axle (assuming it’s a rear-drive car) and there is less weight on the steering axle. (Anyone who has driven, say, a C3 with a big-block iron-block V-8 but without power steering can sympathize.) The Ford GT, built in 2005 and 2006, was mid-engined as was the Ford GT-40, the ’60s LeMans racer from which it was derived.

This strikes me as one of those be-careful-what-you-ask-for propositions. Yes, mid-engine cars are more exotic. GM’s experience with exotic technology over the years has been, shall we say, not entirely positive. (Four words: “Cadillac V8-6-4.” I also refer to my experience of briefly being locked inside a C6 at the Greater Milwaukee Auto Show, given that the C6 has no interior or exterior door handles.) GM also has worked mightily to make today’s Corvette a potential everyday-driver, including actual (though not much) storage space. Can golf clubs or a couple of overnight bags fit into the front trunk of, say, a Porsche 911? And imagine the reaction the first time you drive your mid-engine Vette to an oil change store, or the bill for an oil change at your favorite Chevy dealership.

The same warning about exotic tech could apply to other items on the Vette wish list such as all-wheel drive, features seen in the supercar class. (GM North America president Mark Reuss was quoted as saying he wants the next Corvette to be “a truly global competitor.”) I enjoy technology as much as anyone, but I’ve also owned enough cars to know that the more things the car can do, the more things on the car can break. Owners of C4 Corvettes, cars equipped with digital instrument panels, have discovered the digital dashes don’t work so well (as in, in some cases, not at all) as the cars reach their third decade.

The Corvette rumor mill started running in overdrive when the movie “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was released with the Corvette Stingray concept, which includes, of all things, the one-year split rear window:

Back in December, Rick “Corvette” Conti repeated Motor Trend’s report about the next-generation Corvette’s styling:

I’m not sure I like this. Corvettes have always had flowing lines (particularly the C3), and “flowing” is not how I’d describe this design, although from the A-pillar forward it does remind one of a C3, which is good. The reason the romantic split-window design was a one-year-only design was that, regardless of how owners thought it looked, drivers found it obstructed rear vision.

Then in March, Conti passed on Car & Driver magazine’s rendition of the C7 Vette, which is certainly preferable:

In addition to the Corvette’s being America’s most enduring sports car, the Corvette is also America’s most modified sports car, in concept and reality. One thing you may have noticed by now is that few enthusiasts ever seem satisfied with the looks of the car, and to borrow the old Ford phrase, they seem to have a better idea. (The Aerovette could never have been built, for instance, because of the federal 5-mph-bumper requirement, the reason the C3 lost its chrome bumpers. We won’t get into how consumers would have felt about gull-wing doors.)

Then there’s the issue of the engine. Reports for more than a year have claimed that the next Corvette will have a turbocharged V-6 and not a V-8 due to fuel economy concerns. (Which seems silly; even though the current Corvette is rated at 26 highway mpg, people do not buy Corvettes for their gas-sipping qualities.) The V-6 rumors have fallen back in favor of a more interesting rumor: a choice of a smaller version of the current V-8 (whose 405 horsepower propels the base model from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds), or a much smaller multiple-cam V-8, perhaps half the size of the current engine but with some kind of forced induction for maximum horsepower at higher rpm.

Either engine choice sounds intriguing, with two caveats. Conti’s Motor Trend report indicated GM was trying to get its cylinder-deactivation software to work on the engine, which should be anathema even if it works better than the aforementioned V8-6-4. All of the engines I’m aware of with cylinder-deactivation are hooked up to automatics. I have read about sequential gearboxes and automated manuals and other supposedly superior alternatives to sticks, but if there is a Park gear and not a clutch pedal, it seems to me to not belong in a sports car, at least not as the only transmission choice.

There is one more issue about creating a Corvette to compete with high-end Ferraris, Porsches, etc. Recall that the list price of the 2011 ZR1 is $110,300. The Porsche Carrera Turbo S coupe, with a 530-horsepower flat-6, lists for $160,700. The Lamborghini Gallardo, with a 550-horsepower V-12 engine, starts at $212,000. The Ferrari 458 Italia, with a 570-horsepower V-8, lists for $225,325. The base model Corvette is a performance bargain; so is the ZR1 when compared with its supercar brethren. But the Corvette lacks the international cachet of the Porsche, Ferrari, etc., and is unlikely to get more merely by adding more supercar stuff. One also wonders how many people would be willing to pay, say, $200,000 for a Corvette.

The old Army tagline was: “Be all that you can be.” At some point you were probably given the advice to be yourself. The current Corvette is not a “truly global competitor” not because of its performance (there is not a single car in this blog entry with a better power-to-weight ratio than the ZR1), but because of its poor quality interior more than anything else. So improve the interior. But if GM thinks someone in the market for a 458 Italia will switch instead to whatever the better-than-ZR1 is, I’m not sure that’s going to be happen. And GM will be making a mistake if in its attempt to be world-class it ends up losing potential customers because the Corvette has a world-class price tag out of the reach of potential customers.

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7 thoughts on “America’s next sports car

  1. Happy Birthday Steve!!!!!
    From a former ’73 red Vette owner, he he he
    You’ll get one someday….Maybe Michael will buy you one.

  2. It’s no secret that the UAW has also alsmot single handed run the Big Three Automakers into the ground with their incessant demands and unrealistic expectations from their employers. And with the modern tools and jigs and training programs a class full of first year auto students could put together a modern car. The designers, realizing the limitations of their workers, and at the insistence of the Unions have dumbed down the assembly process to suit the labour force available to them. These people are not auto builders; they are auto assemblers. I have been in auto assembly plants and most of the car assembly process involve bolting or screwing pre-assembled pieces together. Pieces; I might add that are built by non union workers in automotive suppliers plants for a lot less pay.

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