The Corvette of SUVs

The Detroit News decided to do a thought exercise:

What if Chevrolet made a Corvette SUV?

Maybe that’s not so far-fetched. Corvette is a singular car within Chevrolet, and in many ways is a performance brand unto itself. Almost every performance brand now has its own crossover; the most prominent of which is Porsche’s money-machine, the Cayenne.

If Corvette did make an SUV, what would it look like? Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar drew his own concept car, shown here. And The Detroit News talked to ex-GM big wigs, auto analysts and car enthusiasts for their ideas on what the high-performance SUV should be.

Since the first Jeep sport utility appeared in 1984, the automotive landscape has been transformed by high-riding, five-door SUVs with visibility and utility to spare. Even legendary performance brands that once built only ground-hugging sports cars have jumped in. Beginning with Porsche in 2003, SUVs have become a performance-maker’s goldmine. Nearly every performance badge wants a piece of the lucrative ute market.

Notably absent is the Corvette, America’s V-8-powered workingman’s superhero.

Though technically a Chevrolet product, the Corvette long ago became an iconic nameplate that’s equal to Europe’s elite sports car names. It’s faster than the Porsche 911, Jaguar F-Type, Alfa Romeo 4C and Lamborghini Huracan. And while those brands have all exploited their athletic images to expand into sport utilities — the Jaguar F-Pace, Alfa Stelvio and Lamborghini Urus — the Corvette remains a one-off.

“There’s certainly precedent for non-traditional SUV makers to jump into the market,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “Every time one of them has jumped in, it has worked.”

With nearly two-thirds of Porsche buyers opting for SUVs, Porsche makes up a whopping one-third of Volkswagen Group’s profits while generating only 2.3 percent of its sales, according to MotleyFool.com. “The idea of a Porsche SUV still rubs sports-car purists the wrong way, but it has been a spectacularly profitable product for the brand,” says John Rosevear, senior auto specialist for the website.

GM executives won’t talk about future vehicles — and even if they did, there’s no evidence a sport utility is in the works. But everywhere we went, car fans loved the idea. The consensus was if Corvette were to build it, it would be a home run.

The News story posits the Corvette XC7 or X06 as a five-door (four doors plus tailgate) all-wheel-drive SUV with one of the real Corvette’s 6.2-liter V-8s, the supercharged one going in the X06, and either an eight- or 10-speed automatic.

Right away you should be able to see the problems in that paragraph. The traditional truck engine was designed less for horsepower than for torque. (Of course, if your standard V-8 has 460 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque, with the upgrade adding 190 horsepower and 195 pound-feet, maybe that’s not an issue after all.) Corvettes have two doors, two seats and front-engine V-8s that power the rear wheels, along with a choice between manual and automatic transmissions.

Other details?

“XC7 and X06 (mirroring the high-performance version’s Z06 name) are great starters for naming,” says Tom Wallace, the retired GM engineer who ran Chevrolet’s Corvette program from 2006-08. “Stingray is off limits.”

It would be essential that any Corvette crossover share the sports car’s DNA.

“Front engine, rear drive, with AWD option. Lots of aluminum in the structure,” muses Wallace. “Aluminum is mandatory to support the theme that Corvette embraces to be the lightest vehicle in its class. The two V-8s from the Corvette stable are also a must.”

That means the 460-horse V-8 shared with the base C7 sports car — or for the Z06 version, the supercharged 650-horsepower V-8 for what might be the fastest SUV ever built. Considering the rear-wheel drive Z06 sports car is slightly slower from 0-60 than its all-wheel drive 540-horsepower Porsche Turbo rival, an all-wheel drive X06 crossover should be competitive with the all-wheel drive Cayenne Turbo’s 3.8-second, 0-60 romp.

“Maximum Bob” Lutz, the ex-vice president of GM product design who is revered for bringing back The General’s design mojo, agrees with Wallace’s assessment: “Like the Cayenne, the appeal of the ’Vette SUV would be RWD proportions. It should, in fact, have a silhouette not too different from a Cayenne.”

Start with the C7’s dramatic, sculpted lines created by Tom Peters and widely recognized as one of the best designs in Corvette’s 54 years. All performance SUVs are essentially vertically stretched, five-door versions of familiar sports coupes, giving them an inherently heavy look compared to low-slung two-seaters.

But angular designs like our mock XC7 or Lamborghini’s Urus show that it’s possible to break with the soap-bar shapes of the Porsche Cayenne and Maserati Levante. With Corvette’s trademark shark nose, scooped hood and quad exhaust pipes, it would drip with menace.

Inside, the XC7 would share the C7’s acclaimed interior: comfortable seats, stitched dash and quality trim materials. Naturally, the signature “oh, crap” passenger grab-handles from the sports car would carry over (for those times when dad is seized by the need for speed).

Other parts like transmissions and all-wheel drive systems could come from common GM parts bins, which has been key in keeping Corvette costs down over the years. “To engineer the vehicle, I would have to combine some of the Corvette team with some of the SUV team,” says Wallace.

Price? “More than the $40,000 Cadillac XT5, but about 10 grand below” a $60,000 base V-6 Cayenne, suggests Lutz.

But the chassis might be a deal breaker. “To be successful, this vehicle would require an all-new RWD/AWD architecture, which currently does not exist,” says Lutz. “That’s high investment for relatively low volume.”

Porsche was able to “lunch off” the VW Touareg chassis, which enabled Porsche to package its V-8 engine longitudinally. GM’s new C1XX platform is the backbone for the Cadillac XT5 and GMC Acadia utilities; it has been lauded for its stiffness and light weight. But its front-wheel drive, transverse engine layout appears ill-suited for our ambitious XC7.

“The Corvette ute probably would be a stand-alone architecture (or a major modification of an existing architecture), so volume would be critical to call it a business success,” Wallace believes.

Cost aside, Lutz says there is another obstacle to an XC7: “The reason a Corvette SUV won’t happen is the business case would be tough. Besides cannibalizing ‘normal’ Corvettes, it can also be expected to damage GMC and certainly the Cadillac XT5.”

And yet, Lutz acknowledges the unique draw of the Corvette: “Corvette is a powerful brand that should be developed. Go upmarket with a mid-engine sedan using big Cadillac CT6 architecture, and maybe eventually something like Cayenne. They would split it off from Chevrolet — nobody makes that connection anyway.”

Kelley Blue Book’s Brauer says financial analysts would grill GM on creating another brand so soon after it axed Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn in bankruptcy. “But history would suggest there is no downside to a performance brand expanding into SUVs,” he says. “Non-Corvette owners who couldn’t justify a two-seat sports car could finally put a Corvette badge in their garage.”

There are SUVs with similar performance numbers; besides the aforementioned Porsche Cayenne and its 570 horsepower in Turbo S guise for $161,600, Land Rover makes the Range Rover Sport SVR with 550 horsepower, for the bargain price of $111,350.

One of the problems with a Corvette SUV might be the price, weirdly. The real Corvette supposedly loses sales to Ferrari and Porsche because it’s not exclusive enough. (What kind of fool thinks a car is too inexpensive compared with its competition, particularly when its performance numbers are comparable?) That’s despite the fact the Corvette is one of the great performance bargains of all time. At $79,450, the Z06 costs $122.23 per horsepower. The standard Stingray costs $120.54 per horsepower. The top-of-the-line Porsche, the 911R, costs $369.80 per horsepower. The new Bugatti Chiron produces 1,500 horsepower (really) for a list price of $2.998 million (really), or $1,998.67 per horsepower.

The bigger issue, of course, is brand dilution. That’s what happened when Nissan added two back seats to the 260Z. (But when the Z was reintroduced in 2002, it lost the back seat.) That’s what happened when Porsche, the maker of 2+2 cars, added the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera sedan. Of course, buyers have sucked up Cayennes, and you’d think GM would have noticed that.

Corvette Online adds:

For some reason, the C7 has polarized more than a few folks on its looks. It seems that while a good majority of us love the latest generation Corvette, there are some who are steadfast in their disapproval. That said, we are doubtful that these images will do much to win them over.

Adding a shooting-brake style hatch to the lineup of Corvettes has been an on-and-off discussion for ages. The shooting brake style would seem to be pretty easy to pull off, given the expanse would cover the space already occupied by the large, curved-glass fastback hatch already in place. Just switch it out. The concept seems easy enough that we could see some developments on this in the near future.

Adding an extra pair of doors is a little bit more controversial. Ultra-luxury sedans are all the rage, but to us, it seems like a boxing ring more suited towards Cadillac, than Corvette. After all, the CTS-V is already there fighting. But four-door Corvettes aren’t entirely new, either. Concepts have been made in the past. Their downfall comes from trying to stretch the Corvette lines over a longer wheelbase. It’s close, but it never seems quite right.

Well, if GM would seriously consider an SUV, why wouldn’t GM consider a sedan too?

There is another major problem with this. The next Corvette reportedly will be rear/mid-engine — the engine will be ahead of the rear axle instead of in front — which, unless you’re talking about old Volkswagens …

… is incompatible with a sedan or a wagon. (As it is I have serious doubts about GM’s ability to pull off a mid-engine drivetrain given GM’s record of sending new technology into the world before it’s ready. Also, why GM, which makes money on every front-engine/rear-drive Corvette it has built for decades, wants to mess with success is a mystery to me.)

If a Corvette is going to happen (and there are numerous reasons already stated that it won’t), it might seem logical for GM to split off the Corvette brand into its own line. It’s one thing for a Chevrolet dealer to sell the current Corvette; it’s another thing entirely for a Chevy dealer to sell two-seat, 2+2, four-door and SUV Corvettes. That would also result in Corvettes being less geographically available, because the number of Corvette dealerships would surely be fewer than the number of Chevy dealerships. And given that GM is a decade removed from culling several of its historic brands — Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Saturn plus Saab and Hummer, which GM purchased — adding a brand seems less likely.

The News adds this:

What do you think a Corvette SUV should look like?

Create your own design and enter The Detroit News design contest. Our team of judges — ex-Corvette chief engineer Tom Wallace, Detroit News auto columnist Henry Payne and Detroit News presentation editor Jamie Hollar — will pick a winner. Top entries will be published in The Detroit News and at detroitnews.com.

Entries can be done in any medium: computer rendering, pencil sketch, watercolor, whatever you prefer. Send a high-resolution copy by email to Henry Payne at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

Deadline for entries is April 17.

If I only had drawing skills.

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