GM’s turnaround has been quick and decisive, with some astonishingly good cars. But the one that we’ve all been waiting for is the new Corvette Stingray. It’s a model transformed, writes Noel Ebdon.
The word “iconic” is used far too liberally these days. It seems to be on hand to describe pretty much any product that a marketing guru or PR person feels is vaguely worthy of praise. From shoes and mobile phones to fridges and sofas, they’re all “icons” according to the spin doctors. I even recently saw it used on a billboard to describe a particularly unsightly apartment building.
So what does merit being called an icon? According to the dictionary, to be iconic you need to be “characterised by fame” or be “an important and enduring symbol”, depending on where you look. I certainly don’t think that awful apartment block (or any fridge for that matter) falls into either of those categories.
But one of the worst industries for hyperbole and lionising products is the car industry, where pretty much every new car seems to claim to be iconic. But, in my mind, to make that claim a car needs to have history (chequered or not), to be loved by the populous and to have had an effect on its own peers and industry. Now, regardless of your own personal list, it’s pretty safe to say that almost every list of iconic cars will include the Chevrolet Corvette.
Launched back in 1953 and designed by the legendary (now I’m at it) Harley Earl, the Corvette was an instant hit, and each and every version has been a firm favourite of petrolheads ever since. Until now, there’s been a total of five reincarnations of the famous name rolling out of the GM lines in Michigan, Missouri and, more recently, Kentucky. All have been famous in one way or another, and many of the older models are now serious collectors’ items. But now GM has added a seventh, imaginatively called the C7. It’s currently available in the US from just $51,000 (Dh187,000).
The new car is exactly that: all new. It actually only shares two parts with the outgoing C6, so don’t expect to see anything that you recognise on the new car. It also uses the very latest materials, with a carbon fibre bonnet and roof, saving 8kg in one fell swoop. The car is 45kg lighter than the old model, but also 57 per cent stiffer. It’s also more compact than before, surprisingly measuring in at about the same size and weight as a Porsche 911.
You can see that in the way that it drives. Swooping through the countryside outside Washington DC, the Corvette feels far less of a handful than before. It seems to have shrunk around you (which it actually has), making it more a part of you than ever before.
The roads that I drove were all wildly undulating, with lots of decreasing radius bends, high cambers and roadside dirt, but the ’Vette never missed a beat. The front end went where I pointed it and the back end neatly followed. Even attempts at tearing apart the rears with the traction control off often ended in an IndyCar-esque sprint off the line, rather than the usual cloud of smoke and little forward motion that’s usually served up by American sports cars.
When you start to play, the Corvette is a great partner and provides that amusement value that’s starting to be dialled out of most of the high-end exotics these days. Before all the diehard Corvette fans start leaping from bridges, I assure you that it can still shred a set of rear tyres if you really try hard enough.
The suspension is firm but supportive, which it has to be to cope with the tough job of keeping the power from the engine attached to the road. The chassis itself is made from lightweight aluminium and is built in the newly upgraded Kentucky plant, on which GM spent $131 million (Dh481m) to help produce the new Corvette. More than a third of that went into the new body shop, enabling the company to produce the aluminium frame in-house.
It also looks absolutely fantastic, with an edgy design – that long, low bonnet and one of the nicest back ends in the modern motoring world. Importantly, it’s both contemporary and different, hopefully giving the design the longevity that it needs.
But perhaps the most important thing about the C7 is its interior. The squeaky and rattly trim has gone, so you can enjoy the power from the big V8 without the usual compromise on the touchy-feely bits. Sure, it’s not as well-trimmed and finished as some of the cars that GM will see as the C7’s rivals, but then it is, in many instances, at least half the price.
The seats are excellent and, importantly, look expensively trimmed in leather. Even the centre console switches and buttons all feel like quality items. It’s pretty much gone from having everything wrong to everything right. With that being one of the biggest complaints about previous cars, this will be a welcome sight for fans of the brand.
Power comes from a small block 6.2L, eight-cylinder engine, producing 450hp and around 610Nm of torque. This allows the top-of-the-range Z51 model to hit the 98kph (60mph) mark in just 3.8 seconds. GM has worked hard on making the unit as light as possible, which has enabled it to give the C7 a near 50/50 weight distribution. Mounting the gearbox in the rear also clearly helps, but for the first time in over 60 years, the Corvette handles like a sports car should. Buyers can choose either a six-speed, paddle-shift, automatic gearbox or a seven-speed manual with Active Rev Matching. Despite my continuing preference for manual cars, I have to admit that the auto is very good, and when you’re not pushing the limits, it’s probably the better option.
It also has some really neat tech hidden away underneath, including the clever tyre temperature system. GM sees this as being a huge help for anyone using their Corvette on track, as it allows them to accurately monitor the state of their tyres. It also improves stopping distances, as the car intuitively knows how much force can be applied to the brakes during an emergency stop. The company claims that it’s been approached by other manufacturers to license the system, but has yet to decide whether it will release the magic behind it.
The famous Corvette race team also had a hand in some of the engineering, giving some great advice on the aero used on the car. These guys are used to squeezing every ounce of power and performance from the C6, so they know a thing or two.
One of their inputs was to tilt the front radiator forward, effectively making it an internal wing, creating downforce for the front. It gives it a planted feel that helps keep everything in order, despite the power going through the back wheels.
Buyers also get a Driver Mode Selector, which can optimise the car for their personal driving preferences, as well as road conditions, via five settings (Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport and Track). Personally, I didn’t switch out of either Sport or Track.
But not everything is about making the C7 faster. It’s also the most fuel-efficient Corvette ever built. In Eco mode, the big V8 simply shuts down half the cylinders, using the cylinder deactivation technology that GM developed so well in the Cadillac range. The engine effectively becomes a 3.1L V4 when you’re taking it easy. The boffins worked out that when cruising at around 80kph, we actually only need around 12hp to keep the car moving. On the road, you don’t notice it all. If I hadn’t been told about it, I would never have known.
Fuel-efficient is not a term that I ever thought that I’d write about a Corvette, but it really has been very well thought out. If you (like me) are still picking yourself up off the floor from that one, let me knock you back down again. According to official figures, it’s more fuel-efficient than both the Porsche 911 and the Nissan GTR. Yes, a Corvette. No, really, I’m not making this up.
The new Corvette has also surprised the motoring world by reviving another famous name, with the reintroduction of the “Stingray” moniker. Weirdly, GM doesn’t own the rights to the name worldwide, so the car will only use the badge in some markets. These models are marked out by a special badge on the front wings, unsurprisingly shaped like a stingray.
Personally I would have saved that name for a fire-breathing special, as I think that the Corvette is now good enough to pull that off. It seems a shame to splash it across the whole range, but, hey, I don’t call the shots at GM. People will still love the C7, regardless of whether they get a fish on the side or not.
The key to the Corvette’s enduring legacy is its flexibility. Unlike some of the European supercars, you really can use a Corvette as a daily driver. It’s no more intimidating to drive than a standard saloon, yet it retains the ability to keep up (and, in many cases, outperform) some seriously exotic metal.
Just like the Ford Mustang, it’s a sports car for everyone. But where it wins over its fellow American rival is that it also looks a million dollars. A Mustang is cheap thrills, a job that it does well. But the Corvette wouldn’t look out of place outside a casino in Monte Carlo or on the driveway of a millionaire’s mansion. It just happens to have a very affordable price tag.
So will this Corvette be iconic? Absolutely. But perhaps the more important thing is that it will be seen as a turning point for the model, when it left behind the compromises and really started worrying the Europeans.
It really is that good. Frankly, if you are in the market for a serious sports car, for the price, you’d be mad to buy anything else.