The Corvette is known as America's sports car, and in recent years, it's certainly lived up to the billing -- the previous-generation Corvette could run with Europe's best, though it was a bit lacking in ambiance and substance. Now we have an all-new seventh-generation Corvette, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Is this a world-beater, or will it simply get beat? Read on.
First Glance: To change or not to change?
It's a funny thing about the Corvette: American car fans seem to be divided into those who think it's awesome and those who think it's awful. And yet any time GM says they're coming out with a new Corvette, everyone -- lovers and haters alike -- has an opinion. Should The General stay with the same familiar fomula or should they break with tradition and try something completely different? Lots of people would love to see a more exotic Corvette with a mid-mounted turbocharged engine and all-wheel-drive.
Alas, for the all-new 2014 Corvette Stingray, GM has chosen to give us more of the same: Plastic body over a metal space frame, big honkin' V8 in the nose, and a price so low you have to wonder how they can sell it at a profit.
Did they make the right move? From a business perspective it certainly makes sense given the Corvette's loyal (and numerically limited) fan base. But what will the gearheads say? Well, this particular gearhead thinks they made the right choice. Sticking with the same theme has allowed GM to perfect what they've been working on since the dark days of the 1990s. I'm sure you'll hear the old saw "best Corvette ever" bandied about a lot -- but it's true. GM just keeps making this car better and better.
There's no question that it looks like a proper Corvette. Compared to the outgoing (C6) Corvette, the 7th-gen car is more chiseled and better proportioned. I love the front end, where the fenders and "power bulge" are more sharply sculpted; the view from behind the steering wheel feels a lot like the 3rd-generation (1968-82) 'Vette, which I think is the prettiest one ever. But I'm not a big fan of the rear view, specifically the black trim around the taillights: It looks like the car is wearing too much eye makeup.
In the Driver's Seat: Quality arrives... and it's about time
No one ever accused the C6 Corvette of having a great interior. More commonly, 'Vette apologists (myself included) would point out the car's cheap price and note that the savings had to come from somewhere. But that’s been fixed on the new 'Vette: I could go on and on about the details, but suffice it to say that the design is smart, the ergonomics are excellent, and the material quality finally befits such an iconic car. (Compare the interiors: old and new.) There's been little dipping into the corporate parts bin; most of the visible components are unique to Corvette, although the excellent MyLink touch-screen stereo and navigation system is a shared piece -- and that's a good thing.
Speaking of screens, the Corvette now gets one in place of the tachometer -- a big color display that changes layout based on the selected driving mode (more on those shortly). The optional head-up display returns; it projects useful information into the windshield immediately below the driver's line of sight in bright, vibrant colors.
I found the seats comfortable, but I had a problem with the driving position: Try as I might, I could not get the steering column quite far enough away from me. I'm 5'6" and fairly evenly proportioned, but this wasn't a height thing; several of my six-foot colleagues ran into the same issue. Apparently, the Corvette's driving position is optimized for those with long legs and/or short arms. But one of my favorite features from the old Corvette has returned: The removable roof panel, which stows neatly in the Corvette's big trunk. (The roof can be had in transparent blue-tinted plastic, but I thought it let in too much light and heat; better to go with the lightweight carbon-fiber panel.)
On the Road: Drive like a god
Pop open the front-hinged hood and you'll find our old familiar friend, the 6.2 liter V8, now up to 455 horsepower (460 if you go for the optional active exhaust). Forget about dual overhead cams, multi-valve heads or any of that other new-fangled nonsense from the 1980s; this engine goes for strength over sophistication, with a single cam in the block, pushrods, and two overhead valves per cylinder. But the engine is fed by high-tech hardware, including direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, and a cylinder deactivation system that cuts out four of the eight cylinders when cruising to save fuel. Go for the seven (!) speed manual transmission, and you're looking at 29 MPG on the highway. (One 'Vette guru told me they would have scored 30 had they certified the Corvette in "Eco" mode.) (A Corvette with an eco mode? God help us.)
This bundling of old and new works brilliantly: The Corvette goes like stink, easily reaching 60 MPH in under four seconds and converting rubber to smoke at will, accompanied by a signature V8 bellow from the four-port exhaust. Drivers can fine-tune throttle, ride, and sound effects by cycling through the driving modes: Eco, Tour, Sport, Track, and -- for those who dare drive in snow -- Weather.
But the true magic of the Corvette is the way it handles: Imagine a 6'5" 380 lb. linebacker who can dance ballet like Baryshnikov and you'll have some idea of what it's like to drive the new Corvette. It grips like crazy and (unlike the base-model C6) steers like a proper sports car, but more importantly, the Corvette exhibits the delicate balance and forgiving nature inherent in all of GM's rear-drive performance cars.
If you really want the best the Corvette can offer, opt for the Z51 Performance Package ($2,800, includes bigger wheels and brakes, stiffer suspension tuning, and an electronic limited-slip differential) and the magnetic shocks ($1,795, includes the Performance Traction Management system). So equipped, the Corvette enables even the most ham-fisted helmsmith to drive like a god. Chevy turned us loose on an autocross course in just such a car with the Performance program selected, and I was able to click off a series of heroic power-slides in which I'd flick the tail out with the throttle, countersteer, and slide the car sideways through the turn, just like a wannabe Tanner Faust. I'd love to take the credit, but the truth is my skill level is not that high -- the Corvette's sophisticated electronics and supple chassis tuning put such antics within reach of mere mortals like me. (FYI, the performance mode will allow the car to spin out if you push too hard, so if you and your Corvette go butt-end-first off the side of the road, please make sure those handling your estate know I warned you and they should not sue me.)