DETROIT — There’s mounting suspicion Chevrolet is developing a mid-engine Corvette super car. The as-yet-unconfirmed car has become a hot topic of conversation among engineers, car lovers, auto writers and automakers’ strategists in the wake of the Ford GT’s triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race and news that GM is investing $290 million in major upgrades to the factory that makes Corvettes.
There have been rumors of a super ‘Vette for decades. The timing appears to be ripe for the car now, but not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
Building a faster Corvette might seem like a no-brainer, but how fast? Perhaps more important: How expensive?
The question has divided car lovers and automotive experts.
GM has toyed with the idea of building a super ‘Vette to compete with exotic cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini for decades. Notable examples include the 1959 Scaglietti Corvette, a one-off aluminum-bodied ‘Vette whose development involved Carroll Shelby years before the legendary Texan created the AC Cobra with a Ford V-8.
GM has walked to the brink several times, but always backed away before building a radical Ferrari-style super car under the Corvette banner.
There are many reasons for GM’s reluctance. The Corvette has been a performance icon and money maker for Chevrolet for more than 60 years. Part of its appeal is the affordability of sticking to a proven formula: V-8 power, front engine, rear-wheel drive.
“Corvette has a unique position in the industry. It’s already a super car,” says Automotive News engineering and technology reporter Richard Truett. “It already delivers more performance and better handling than most drivers will ever need or use. And it does that at a price no other automaker can touch.”
Why mess with success?
A couple of reasons come to mind. The current C7 Corvette Stingray pushes the limits of performance you can get from a front engine-rear drive car, IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley says. Mid-engine cars have their engine behind the passenger compartment and in front of the rear axle. That layout distributes the weight in a way that’s ideal for handling and acceleration.
“To build a faster, better-handling Corvette, you have to look at a mid-engine layout,” Brinley said. “The Ford GT may have given Chevrolet permission to build a car GM has always stopped short of.” The Ford GT, which won its class at the famous Le Mans endurance race this year and goes on sale shortly, has a mid-engine chassis and a price expected around $400,000. The GT ladles on technology you can’t afford at the price of a current Corvette, like strong, light carbon fiber body panels and a twin-turbo V-6.
Prices for the current Corvette Stingray start at $55,400, an incredible bargain for one of the world’s greatest sports cars.
Prices for the mid-engine Corvette will start at $80,000 and escalate rapidly, according to Car and Driver magazine, which has been out front with news about the car. The magazine reports it will debut in January 2018 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with a version of the current V-8 and a new dual-clutch transmission. The car’s code name within GM is “Emperor,” according to journalist Don Sherman, who has written extensively about it in Car and Driver. The magazine says it will replace the current ‘Vette.
The concept of a megabuck Corvette to compete with exotic cars is simultaneously appealing and perverse.
Former Free Press auto critic Lawrence Ulrich wrote a story titled “The Mid-Engine Corvette is a Terrible Idea” for the website the Drive.
Ulrich pulls no punches, writing: “It’s a death knell for the Corvette, at least in the (relatively) accessible, aspirational form that made it America’s Sports Car. Apologists will point to what people spend for Porsches or Ferraris with comparable performance, but that misses the point.
“The Corvette is still a Chevrolet. Corvette buyers are not Ferrari buyers. They demand unmatched bang for the buck, in part because they have fewer bucks.”
But what if the Corvette’s future is not an either/or question? If the current configuration is so great, and a mid-engine model could be that much better, why not build both?
That’s my hope.
GM has considered turning Corvette into a mini-brand within Chevrolet before. Porsche does something like that with its 911, another classic sports car. 911 prices range from $98,900 to well over $200,000.
Chevrolet laid the groundwork for this when it revived the revered Stingray name for the current Corvette. Why not continue building front engine/rear drive Stingrays with the beloved small block V-8, introducing a new model every six years or so, and add a $180,000 mid-engine Corvette built out of exotic materials, with the latest combination of electricity and gasoline for crazy power and performance? Something faster and more advanced than the Ford GT or Porsche and Ferrari’s exotic hybrids, for a fraction of the price?
That’s what I’d like for Christmas 2017, Santa Chevy. It’s OK if it arrives a few days late at the auto show.
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at [email protected].