The C8 wants to be your friend, to wrap you in a warm, carbon-and-leather embrace and whisper comforting assurances in your ear: “A little faster through that apex…a little deeper into that next hairpin…we’ve got this.” Nowhere is this more apparent than on the challenging road course at Spring Mountain Motor Resort in Pahrump, Nevada, where we’ve been invited to sample the latest Corvette in a controlled, high-performance environment.
During one fast, right-hand sweeper, the understated brilliance of the car’s all-new powertrain and suspension layouts comes sharply into focus. Having already endured several hard laps in the high-desert heat, our Z51’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4S ZPs have lost a just a jot of their stalwart initial grip. The car becomes minutely unsettled, the rear end stepping out ever so slightly midway through the banked corner. In the C7, this would be sufficient cause to cut throttle and prepare to counter-steer, but the C8 is utterly unfazed. Its newly enhanced Performance Traction Management algorithm settles the tail, and the car, trading on the traction afforded by its 40/60 front/rear weight distribution, explodes onto the next straight. Like we said, friendly.
Back in the paddock, armed with a heightened appreciation for the C8 and its capabilities, we realize that the question in need of answering here is not Why did Chevy decide to move the Corvette’s engine behind the driver? but rather Why the hell did they wait so long to do it?
We’ve written reams about the C8’s many noteworthy features, from its engine and transmission to its chassis and suspension components, but up until now we’ve not had the opportunity to experience how they all come together to define the driving experience. To address that, we spent two days in late February wringing out the car—actually, several of them—in various environments in and around Las Vegas.
Day 1 finds us paired up with Corvette Brand Manager Harlan Charles for a three-hour drive that meanders across the desolate grandeur of rural Clark County. For this outing, we’ve been assigned an Elkhart Lake Blue 3LT car kitted up with the base suspension, the Performance Exhaust, and a smattering of minor appearance upgrades. Stickering at $77,230, it represents what Charles describes as a fairly typical C8 in terms of equipment level and price.
Upon entering the car, we’re immediately struck by the dimensional contrasts it embodies as compared with its predecessor. Although the inward-sweeping center
console initially gives the impression of unwanted intimacy (remember that “embrace” we mentioned earlier?), the additional fore/aft travel of the driver seat, along with its increased recline angle, keep the space from inducing claustrophobia.
Your six-two, 240-pound author was less keen on the GT2 seats themselves, which are intended to serve as a “just right” compromise between the moderately bolstered base buckets and the track-ready Competition units. Though there is adequate play in the side bolsters to accommodate a largish torso, we found the hip bolsters to be a bit restrictive at even their widest setting. Unless you belong to that increasingly rare species of American male classified as “average size,” you’ll do well to sample all of the seat offerings before filling out your C8 order form.
Squirting through Vegas traffic in the low-slung Stingray proves a bit nerve-wracking at first. The large C-pillars effectively render the traditional over-the-shoulder glance before changing lanes impossible, and one must instead learn to rely on the panoramic view provided by the rearview camera. (Even Charles admits to needing time to make this adjustment.) And you’ll want to get comfortable quickly, as the C8 draws attention like nothing this side of a fuchsia Aventador. Cars draw up alongside, passengers (and occasionally drivers) wielding cell-phone cameras in the hopes of documenting their encounter with this American exotic. It’s an ego boost, to be sure, but it can be unsettling.
Once out of the Vegas metro area, the C8’s grand-touring bona fides quickly become apparent. With the Driver Mode Selector placed in the Touring setting, the car’s exhaust is muted to a barely discernible burble, and elements of its tactile feedback—specifically, the firmness of the steering, throttle pedal, and coil-over shocks—are softened to near-Impala levels. Should you desire a more engaging experience—say, for conquering a sinuous stretch of road—switching on Z Mode via a wheel-mounted button can bring quick satisfaction. This clever feature, named for the high-performance Z06 and ZR1 models of the past (and, almost certainly, the future), can be customized with virtually any combination of suspension, exhaust, transmission, and other calibrations from the Driver Mode Selector’s Touring, Sport, and Track settings. Our car has been preprogrammed with a mix of the latter two, and we find it to be just about perfect for moderately energetic, seven-tenths driving.
For those who were put off by the inherent compromises of the C7’s conventional eight-speed automatic, rest assured that the new dual-clutch transmission is as brilliant as advertised. Low-speed lurching—the undoing of many a past DCT—is a nonissue, and an intelligent algorithm does a commendable job of tailoring the shift character to suit one’s mood. Drive hard and it responds with perfectly timed, whip-crack shifts. Dial it down—as you might upon encountering a slow patch of traffic—and the DCT follows suit.
Manual mode, meanwhile, is just that: The trans will happily bounce the LT2 off of its rev limiter for as long as you keep the throttle pinned, but it will not change gears. “There was some debate about that,” Charles notes, “but I thought that if we were going to offer a manual mode, it needed to behave like a true manual.” He adds that he prefers driving the car in this configuration on challenging roads, even though there is no performance advantage to be gained from doing so.
The driving route selected for this portion of our C8 soiree is a delight, comprising vertiginous elevation changes and long, banked sweepers overlooking magnificent vistas. We find the base suspension to be thoroughly competent in this environment, with no shortage of grip from the all-season Michelins. Steering response is noticeably improved over the C7, as one would expect from a car with only 40 percent of its weight over the nose.
Soon we arrive at the Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, where a 35-mph speed limit supplies plenty of time to appreciate the blazing, brick-red sandstone formations that give the park its name. In some it is possible to discern leering faces, a tower of skulls, savage and ancient and terrifyingly beautiful. Here, the C8 toddles contentedly along in Tour mode, a silent partner when it needs to be.
On the leg back to the city, we swap places with Charles to get a feel for the C8’s passenger space. Here, the additional legroom and seat-rake angle supplied by the car’s mid-engine layout are easy to appreciate, to such an extent that we’re almost tempted to sneak in a quick recuperative nap. If you find yourself similarly inclined, just be aware that the button-laden center console is situated precisely where you’ll want to place your left arm, from which spot it’s sure to dial up the occasional unintended adjustment of the climate-control system.
With our eyes not focused so intently on the road ahead, we marvel at the forward visibility supplied by the C8’s plunging hood line, yet another benefit of the new powertrain location. That said, one brand styling hallmark—the brace of upswept “ridges” that have formed the tops of Corvette front fenders for decades—have been carefully preserved. “We wanted to provide some styling continuity there,” Charles says.
On the way back, we spot a couple of uniquely Southwestern road signs, one with a pictogram of a trundling burro and another designating a “No Shooting Area.” (The latter prompts a semiserious discussion of whether the remainder of Nevada essentially constitutes a free-fire zone.) Fortunately, we’ll have plenty of time for ballistic exercises at Spring Mountain the following day.
In our last visitation to this road course, we were alternately tantalized and terrified by the then-new 2015 Z06, a car whose ferocious speed took guts and skill to tap, if not master. Fortunately the C8 proves to be a far more forgiving performance partner, as we discover a warm-up autocross session.
Our first run finds us in a Z51-equipped car, this one with its Driver Mode Selector dialed in to the Track setting. The cones have been placed so as to create a short, quick course featuring a pair of sweeping turns where it’s possible to build a high, steady-state g-load. Though we’re initially hesitant to push to car too hard here and risk ungluing the back end, it quickly becomes apparent that the C8 is far more spin-resistant than its predecessor. Even when the tail does begin to slip, the refined PTM and the car’s finely balanced chassis work in concert to keep things from getting out of hand.
“The center of gravity is now right at the driver’s hip,” says Alex MacDonald, Vehicle Performance Manager for Chevrolet, during a break in the action. “And steering-response time is reduced, since the driver is closer to the front axle.” He also confirms our previous observation regarding the C8’s improved forward “down vision,” which makes it easier to place the car’s nose precisely in a turn.
A follow-up pass in a Z51 car equipped with the fourth and latest iteration of Chevy’s Magnetic Selective Ride suspension proves even more eye opening. MagneRide’s ability to adjust shock firmness in mere milliseconds keeps the car more resolutely planted and reduces body roll through turns, all without bludgeoning the driver in the way a pure racing setup would. It’s not an inexpensive option, at $1,895, but the system pays real dividends in a high-performance driving environment such as this one.
With our autocross session concluded, a clutch of engineers assembled in the paddock touch on various C8 topics of interest. Addressing the overheating issues that plagued the aforementioned C7 Z06, MacDonald notes that the C8’s cooling system was certified for “maximum sustained use at 100 degrees [ambient].” In other words, lesson learned.
Other revelations include that, for the first time, the Corvette’s Launch Control is truly the quickest way to accelerate to 60 mph and beyond. The key lies in the newly computerized actuation of the C8’s clutch, which eliminates any inconsistencies introduced by the driver. Though some will undoubtedly miss the viscerally satisfying experience of pinning the tach and side-stepping the clutch pedal, it’s hard to argue with the C8’s sub-three-second 0-60 showing.
Moving on to Spring Mountain’s North/South road course, we begin with a lead/follow session tailing one of the track instructors, who’s piloting a C7 ZR1. Gradually ramping up the speed as we learn the course, we come to appreciate the benefits of the electronic limited-slip differential (eLSD), whose effectiveness has been greatly enhanced by the C8’s rearward weight shift. Exiting a turn a bit too briskly in a C7 was an invitation to oversteer, but the new car evinces no such inclination.
Along with VIR, this track is one of the Corvette team’s regular tuning sites, so it’s not surprising that the C8 feels perfectly at home here. One of the course’s trademark features—a long, constant-radius right-hander where lateral acceleration can top one full g for seconds at a time—has even been incorporated into the car’s developmental lexicon, thanks to the high demand it places on the dry-sump oiling system.
“We call that ‘a Pahrump,’ as in, ‘The car is capable of one full Pahrump,’” says one of the engineers. In this corner and elsewhere, the extra side bolstering of the uplevel seating options is a welcome feature, tush-pinching lower cushions notwithstanding.
Over the course of a dozen or so laps, we push the C8 ever harder without ever finding its breaking (or sliding) point. By the end of the session, we’ve found something approaching a “rhythm,” albeit the carefully measured one of a nonprofessional wheelman.
Though the Corvette crew doesn’t provide any C7s for back-to-back driving comparisons, MacDonald does share that, on a two-minute course, the C8 Z51 runs 2.5 seconds faster per lap than a similarly equipped seventh-gen. That it does so in such confidence-inspiring fashion is especially impressive. The latest Corvette might not make you a better driver, but it will almost certainly make you a quicker and more consistent one.
Chevrolet VP of Marketing Steve Majoros notes that demand for the 2020 Stingray is currently running at five times the supply, a number we don’t expect to diminish considerably in the months ahead. So go ahead and get to know the C8. Making a new friend has never been easier.