The term “revolutionary” is a frequent target of abuse by marketing types, denoting as it does the idea that some paradigm might be shifted, some fresh epoch launched, by the release of the latest front-loading washing machine or cinnamon-scented mouthwash. More often than not such claims fail to pan out, and it soon becomes apparent that the promised miracle item is simply a reformulated version of a long-running model.
And yet, every once in a great while, a new product comes along bearing a credible claim to the “revolutionary” descriptor. Limiting our examples to the automotive realm, consider the Chrysler minivan, which helped pluck that corporation from the gaping maw of insolvency in the early 1980s, or the ’89 Mazda Miata, which singlehandedly recast that stolid brand as a purveyor of unvarnished driving fun.
Or consider the 2020 C8 Corvette, whose mid-engine layout is poised to elevate the already formidable performance of Chevrolet’s flagship sports car to heretofore undreamt-of heights. Though details on the eighth-generation Vette are still emerging as this is written, we’ve been able to glean enough information about the car since its August launch in Tustin, California, to form a few early opinions. Let’s take a closer look at what shows every indication of being the best Corvette yet.
While the idea of placing the powerplant behind the passenger compartment is hardly a novel one in the car world at large, it’s hard to overstate the significance of applying such a layout to the longest-running passenger car in America—especially when that car’s legacy is largely premised on its fealty to the traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. And yet the notion of a mid-engine (ME) Corvette has captivated racers and engineers for decades, encouraged in no small part by a series of officially sanctioned concept Vettes employing that arrangement.
Starting in 1959 with the first Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle, or CERV, Corvette engineering chief Zora Arkus-Duntov pressed his case for an ME sports car to GM management, citing the improvements in accelerative traction, handling balance, steering response and interior packaging made possible by that layout. But despite Duntov’s persistence—and the subsequent creation of ME concept Vettes such as CERV II, Astro II and Aerovette—the idea was repeatedly deemed impractical for production, especially given the Corvette’s consistently strong sales numbers through the 1970s. A generally grim fiscal outlook at GM militated against radical change in the years that followed, and by the time the C7 rolled out in 2014, few believed that the car would ever make the mid-engine transition.
So what changed? Put simply, the C7 outran its underpinnings. “Corvette has always represented the pinnacle of innovation and boundary-pushing at GM,” noted GM President Mark Reuss at the C8 press launch. “[But] the traditional front-engine vehicle reached its limits of performance, necessitating the new layout.”
More-efficient production methods also helped being Duntov’s dream to fruition, but the need to keep up with, and ahead of, the competition was the primary motivating factor behind the C8’s adoption of an ME format. As is typically the case with a new Corvette, the design process began with the figurative backbone of the car, its frame.
As with the C5/C6 and C7 before it, the C8 is notably more rigid than its predecessor, not an insignificant accomplishment given the attention lavished on the seventh-gen’s rail-type chassis. According to GM, the improvement is largely attributable to the low, aluminum center “tunnel” around which the new frame is built, an approach made possible by the car’s mid-engine drivetrain configuration.
Built around and atop that tunnel is a main structure comprising six high-pressure, die-cast aluminum parts known internally as the “Bedford Six,” a nod to their build site at a GM Powerplant facility in Bedford, Indiana. These components, which together amount for the most high-strength aluminum used in any GM vehicle, minimize the need for weld joints that can compromise frame strength. The result is what GM’s press material describes as “a solid, connected-to-the-road feel with minimal vibrations at high speeds or on long road trips.”
Beyond the obvious performance and refinement benefits, the C8’s fantastically stiff frame yields a couple of practical advantages. One is easy entry and exit, since no large side sills are required to provide additional structural support. The C8 will also continue Corvette’s long-running tradition of offering a removable roof panel on coupe versions, and a convertible model is on the way.
Carbon fiber also figures prominently in the C8’s structural recipe, as the material of choice for the car’s curved rear bumper beam. The beam marks the first such application of carbon in a production vehicle, and is primarily intended to reduce mass. Still, at a dry weight of 3,366 pounds, the C8 is likely to be around 120 pounds heavier than a comparable base C7 in final street trim.
Of course, none of the underlying components matter if the car itself isn’t special to behold. And while it would be a stretch to call the ’20 Corvette beautiful or even original, it is commendably handsome for what might best be described as an “accessible exotic.” GM cites both aeronautics and racecars as inspiration for the C8’s exterior design, but squint and it’s possible to discern elements of Ferrari 458, Acura NSX and even late-model Camaro (in the taillights). Blame for the stylistic mélange is largely attributable to aerodynamics and heat-management concerns, which dictate a function-over-form design approach with any modern automobile.
For its part, GM says the new Stingray (that appellation carries over to the base C8 model) has “bold, futuristic expression with mid-engine exotic proportions, but…is still unmistakably Corvette.” Fair enough, and stylists have admittedly done a yeoman’s job of incorporating boutique-car details while working on a production-car budget.
Note, for example, that the outside door releases are hidden under the large side radiator intakes, so as not to interrupt the flow of the design. See also how the rear brake-light nacelle and dramatically swept C-pillars follow a design motif that carries over to the engine’s intake manifold (visible under a 3.2mm-thick glass panel) and terminates with the Stingray badge on the deck. The C8 may not be a knockout at a glance, but its many inspired touches reward careful repeat viewings.
The C8’s ME configuration yields benefits on the inside as well, most notably in the form of an extra inch of seat travel and twice the available recline angle of the C7’s excellent buckets. As for the seats themselves, there are now three different designs available—GT1, GT2 and Competition Sport—reflecting an effort to better accommodate drivers of various sizes and driving preferences. The GT1 and GT2 roughly mirror the outgoing C7’s dual offerings, while the new Comp Sport bucket brings more-aggressive bolstering and super-durable “Impel” fabric sections.
Although this author didn’t have an opportunity to fold his husky, six-foot-two frame into the Stingray’s cockpit at the launch event, an average-size contributor noted, “While there was no power to adjust the seat, I found entry easy, visibility excellent and ample room for my five-nine build.” That visibility is aided in part by the steep drop-off angle over the nose, another benefit of relocating the engine behind the cabin.
In addition to the expected touch screen for operating the car’s adjustable functions, the C8 features supplementary pushbutton controls incorporated into a sail panel running alongside the center console. In keeping with the high-luxe standard established by the C7, leather, carbon fiber and aluminum surfaces abound in practically endless combinations, depending on one’s preferences and budget. The steering-wheel design is all new and exclusive to the C8, with a two-spoke layout that’s squared off at the top and bottom.
The familiar Drive Mode Selector remains, but in C8 guise supplements its carried-over Weather, Tour, Sport and Track settings with a “Z Mode” inspired by Corvette’s top-performing Z06 and ZR1 models. Although this new offering does not, sadly, unlock additional horsepower in the manner that its name suggests, it does allow a performance-minded driver to modify select engine and transmission settings within a preset range. Additionally, a new “MyMode” setting makes it possible to tailor and save certain DMS parameters so that they are preserved between key cycles, something that wasn’t possible on the C7.
For audiophiles, the available Bose Performance Series system packs 14 speakers and, according a Bose rep we spoke with in Tustin, a listening experience unrivaled in a Corvette to date. (A 10-speaker system standard.) That same rep confided that the unorthodox (by Corvette standards) layout of the C8’s interior meant that two full years of tuning work in Bose’s Massachusetts headquarters were required to dial the system to perfection.
In addition to providing a pleasant dwelling space for occupants, Team C8 strived to make the car suitably accommodating for their stuff. To that end, the ’20 Stingray features two compartments, a smallish front bin suitable for a typical piece of carry-on luggage, and a larger rear hold capable of ingesting a golf bag (or, during open-air motoring, the roof panel). Together, they offer 13 cubic feet of cargo capacity, just a jot less than the C7’s 15-square-foot hatch area.
Finally, in an indication that GM takes the “world class” designation both seriously and literally, the C8 will be factory built in both left- and right-hand-drive configurations, a first for a Corvette.
The reinvention continues under the C8’s skin, where a true coil-over suspension setup at all four corners replaces the long-running rear transverse leaf. The setup will be offered in three levels of firmness, starting with the base FE1, which includes all-season tires and tuning tailored to the driving preferences of a typical Corvette owner. FE3 ratchets up the aggression with the expected Z51 Performance Package, which in C8 form combines summer-only rubber with manually adjustable springs, larger-diameter brake rotors, front-brake cooling ducts, a shorter rear-axle ratio and a “performance” (read: louder) exhaust system. At the top of heap dwells FE4, which adds the fourth generation of GM’s brilliant Magnetic Ride Control to the mix.
Even the comparatively plush FE1 is said to be capable of nearly 1.0g of lateral adhesion, a credit to Michelin’s new Pilot Sport 4ZP All-Season tires. No grip figures were given for the similarly new Pilot Sport 4S rubber employed on FE3 and FE4 cars, but we can only imagine that they will offer significantly more stick. All three suspensions work in concert with a retuned electronic steering system whose ratio has been tightened from 16.25:1 to 15.7:1. The C7’s Performance Traction Management system (PTM), meanwhile, has been refined to work optimally in its new host vehicle.
Though it doesn’t benefit the car from a performance standpoint, the C8’s active front suspension deserves special mention for its ingenuity. This clever feature can raise the nose by around 40mm at the front bumper in 2.8 seconds, allowing the car to pass over potholes, speed bumps and other road imperfections that might otherwise have inflicted a costly crunch. And because it’s tied into the car’s GPS, the system can be set to “remember” up to 1,000 locations and automatically provide extra clearance when needed. Brilliant.
Horsepower has long played a central role in perpetuating the Corvette mystique, so we were a little surprised to hear that the otherwise all-new C8 would rely on an updated version of the existing LT1 small-block for motivation. But as we learned in Tustin, those “updates” were sufficient to boost even the base model into the big leagues of straight-line acceleration.
Assuming it proves accurate (and we have no reason to believe it won’t), the zero-to-60 time of “three seconds or less” cited by Reuss during his opening remarks in Tustin would put the ’20 Stingray on equal accelerative footing with the much more powerful C7 Z06 and ZR1 models, cars that previously represented a high-water mark for Corvette performance. How is this possible?
The answer has to do with both power and traction. The former can be traced to a targeted makeover of the LT1, performed by GM Global Chief Engineer and Program Manager for Small-Block Engines Jordan Lee and the talented staff at GM Powertrain. According to Lee, the major upgrades include longer runners for the intake manifold, to boost low-end response; additional duration for the camshaft; four-into-one stainless-steel headers that wouldn’t look out of place on a GT1 racecar; and a larger, lower-restriction air filter, made possible by the mid-mounted engine configuration.
Also doing its part is a revised dry-sump oiling system employing three scavenge pumps, which together reduce power-killing windage in the oil pan. Notably, the LT1’s cylinder heads and valves were carried over as is, a testament to the untold hours lavished on those parts during C7 development. The bore and stroke are also unchanged, giving what is now known as the LT2 the same 6.2-liter displacement as its antecedent.
Base output is up by 40 hp, to 495, while torque has climbed by 15 lb-ft, to 470. But while those are impressive enough improvements, they’re insufficient to slash nearly a full second from a car’s zero-to-60 sprint alone. That’s where second part of the acceleration-boosting equation—traction—comes in.
As effective as the C7’s launch- and traction-control systems were, there’s only so much forward adhesion available to a vehicle whose drive wheels and powertrain are situated at opposite ends. Accordingly, the simple act of relocating the C8’s engine so that it rests almost directly over the rear wheels went a long way toward enabling those eye-popping acceleration times.
In another departure from Corvette orthodoxy, the C8 is available with a single gearbox, and it’s not a traditional three-pedal manual. Rather, GM has at long last embraced the example of other top sports-car brands by equipping the ’20 Corvette with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, or DCT, capable of executing shifts in less than 100 milliseconds.
The new box, designed in conjunction with Tremec, features “drive by wire” actuation, meaning there’s no physical connection between the C8’s smallish shifter and the trans. This isn’t simply an example of tech for tech’s sake: Eliminating the shift cable allowed GM to fully enclose the aforementioned center tunnel, further bolstering its rigidity.
A very low First gear ratio makes the most of the car’s newfound traction, allowing it to get “out of the hole” quickly, while tall Seventh and Eighth gears facilitate low-rpm highway cruising. Though the obligatory paddle shifters are in evidence, it’s unlikely that even the most skilled of drivers could outthink the powertrain computer’s gear-selection algorithm on a racecourse.
Pricing and Availability
If the C8’s impressive acceleration times got your attention, here’s another surprisingly low number that’s sure to earn a double-take: $60,000. According to Reuss, the ’20 Stingray will sticker at less than that figure when it goes on sale later this year. Even if the final number comes in at $59,995, that would represent only a fractional increase over the ’19 base coupe. Given the comprehensive nature of the transformation Team Corvette has wrought with the C8, that’s nothing short of remarkable.
As for timing, that same contributor whose thoughts on the car’s interior we shared earlier informs us that, according to his Chevy dealership, his just-ordered C8 is purportedly due to arrive in December. Working backward from that date suggests that we’ll have the opportunity to drive a preproduction car right around the time you read this, at which time we’ll be able to form a definitive opinion of this transformative sports car.
Until then, we’ll have to be content in the knowledge that, regardless of where the final performance and pricing numbers fall, the 2020 Corvette is sure to be the most capable base offering in the marque’s long and storied history. And with Z06, ZR1 and other uplevel derivatives undoubtedly on the way, the mid-engine revolution is just getting started. Somewhere, Zora Duntov is smiling. m