A Star is Born

In a week behind the wheel, we subject a 2014 Z51 coupe to backroad blasts, track torture and the streets of San Francisco.

Photo: A Star is Born 1
December 19, 2013

Eyes fixed, gait determined, the teenager made his way, zombie-like, towards me. I was refueling my 2014 Corvette Stingray press car at the gas station across the street. Upon arriving in front of the C7, he let out a long, pent-up “Wow!” Given his skinny jeans, funky hair and body piercings, I assumed he knew little about the new model and was merely responding to its bold lines and bright yellow paint. I was wrong.

“It looks so much better in person,” he exclaimed, offering an opinion I would hear repeatedly during the week I spent with the car. Then, unexpectedly, he launched into an informed and thoughtfully delivered critique of the C7’s styling: “There’s a lot of California in the nose,” he said, obviously referring to the Ferrari model, not the state. This teenager knew his cars and was fully conversant about the brand-new Corvette in front of him. This car moved him—literally. He evinced exactly the response that Chevrolet had hoped to generate from his age group. Just as this thought crossed my mind, the teenager said, “Enjoy your Stingray,” and walked off.

I had just received the Z51-equipped coupe the day before and was nearing the end of a two-hour journey from my home in San Francisco north to Maxwell, where I was to meet up with a bunch of Corvette enthusiasts for a backroad cruise. This Hooked On Driving-organized event, which included a track day at Thunderhill Raceway Park (see page 38), had brought together members from a number of different Northern California clubs and no less than 71 Corvettes. As it turned out, mine was the only C7—and, boy, were these folks excited to see it. The moment I pulled up to the Maxwell Inn, our lunch spot and gathering point, the car was mobbed. Hardly had I exited the vehicle when a stocky older gentleman gave me a big barrel hug. “Thanks for bringing it,” he enthused.

Photo: A Star is Born 2

Though many of these folks had seen the Stingray at various shows over the past year, there was just something about seeing one on the road that really got their juices flowing. The questions soon flowed forth, too. “What to you think?” “What’s the 7-speed manual like?” “What kind of mileage are you getting?” I tried to answer them the best I could, happily sharing my enthusiasm for the car. But I was interested in getting their take on the Stingray, too.

Overall, the consensus among these Corvette cognoscenti seemed to be that they liked the styling. As with the skinny-jean kid, they felt it definitely looked better in person. Some people, though, said that it would take more time for the C7 to grow on them. Interestingly, the only recurring bone of contention did not concern the taillights—the sore point for many initially—but the large swath of black plastic beneath them. “It’s too much for me,” said Lee Brant, who has owned eight Corvettes over the years. He and several people felt that it should be painted body color. However, Brant did add that it can take him a while to warm up to new Corvettes, including the C5 and C6. Says Brant, “I didn’t like ’em for years.”

Jere Habein, who owned a C2 and two C3 in the past, and currently owns a pair of C5s, had no such problems with the C7’s appearance. “The styling really captures my attention,” he said. “It has a really Euro, exotic, race-car look. I like the edginess of it.” Habein said “there is no question” he’s going to buy a Stingray. His only a quandary was deciding on the exterior paint. “Every color looks good,” he added.

Photo: A Star is Born 3

A week in the Stingray confirmed my positive initial assessment. It is indeed a significantly improved Corvette, with incredible handling, impressive straight-line performance and more refinement. The extended seat time did, however, add some nuance to my opinion of the C7, including some wrinkles that went unnoticed during our initial half-day test.

Perhaps the most lasting impression the Stingray made was its speed; the car is just so unrelentingly fast. The 6.2-liter LT1 V8 is ever at the ready with a big, thick wedge of torque. While its powerband may be linear to a fault—something that I mentioned in our first drive report—this 21st-century small block spins just fine, and has loads of power at high revs. On paper, the C7 has only 24 more horsepower than its C6 predecessor, but it feels much faster in the real world, with a near-Z06 sense of urgency when driven hard. Given this impression, I was surprised by the number of Corvette enthusiasts I met who loved the C7, but were going to wait to buy one until a higher-output version becomes available. Really?

As for the 7-speed manual gearbox, the slight notchiness I experienced with the first stick-shift Stingray I drove back in August was not present in this higher-mileage test car. I wouldn’t quite call the shift action slick—swapping cogs requires some effort—but I generally found the gearbox satisfying to use. Part of this can be explained by the shift lever’s ideal placement in the cockpit; it just falls easily to hand. Though I had told myself at the outset that I would spend time heel-and-toe downshifting—something I’m accustomed to doing—I quickly surrendered to Active Rev Match. The system simply works too well not to enlist its services.

Photo: A Star is Born 4

Though the 2014 Corvette’s acceleration impressed me more than it had during my first test last summer, the car’s handling remains the star of the Stingray show. This point was really driven home on the morning of our Mount Tamalpais photo shoot. The car had been a joy to drive on the rural roads outside of Maxwell, but I was eager to subject it to some of my favorite Marin County backroads. Ultra-narrow, bumpy and littered with abrupt elevation changes, these twisty bands of pavement present a severe test for a sports car—and, frankly, the various C6s I have piloted on them barely earned passing grades. The C7 fared considerably better.

Though a bit wide in such tight confines, the Corvette felt both wieldy and unflappable. The quick and accurate steering, combined with the phenomenal amount of front-end grip, made it easy to slice through the corners. Understeer never impeded my rapid progress. The electronic limited-slip differential plays a big role in the car’s eagerness to turn in, as it can open up on corner entry. However, when it’s time to exit and put down the power, the eLSD quickly clamps down on slip, greatly boosting traction. Even though some of the corners were still slick with morning dew, and leaf-strewn in patches, I was able to get on the throttle fairly aggressively without fear of swapping ends.

There was also no drama when it came to hitting bumps. Even when loaded with cornering forces, this car’s Z51/Magnetic Selective Ride Control suspension (referred to internally as FE4) ate Marin County bumps for breakfast, allowing me to maintain speed with confidence. As was true most of the time I was behind the wheel of the Stingray, I had the Driver Mode Selector in the Sport setting. In addition to increasing steering weight, quickening throttle response and paying out longer electronic leashes on the traction- and stability-control fronts, this mode places the MSRC shocks into a stiffer parameter, allowing for higher damping rates.

Photo: A Star is Born 5

In addition to having less composure on these backroads, previous-generation Corvettes had the annoying habit of frequently scraping their air dams. This didn’t hurt the rubber flaps, but the sound was nevertheless a buzz kill. Since the new Stingray’s radiator is fed cooling air from the forward-facing front grille instead of from underneath, the air dam is no longer needed to perform its wind-deflecting duties. This means no more scraping—hallelujah.

The C7’s greatly improved cockpit also contributed to my driving enjoyment. The seat provided a snug embrace, allowing me to use the steering wheel solely as a turning device and not as an additional means of support. For several generations now, the Corvette has had its instruments arranged in an ergonomically sound manner. The same is true with the C7; the difference is that the instruments are now easier to read. I found that the configurable digital dash was simply spot-on in its sport setting, with a large circular tachometer and a numerical speedometer readout. Finally, the C7’s improved forward sight lines, which come courtesy of the scalloped hood, make it easier to place the nose—something that was very much appreciated on these narrow roads.

Over the course of the week, many Corvette enthusiasts asked me about visibility to the rear. Specifically, they wondered if the new C-pillars, which now frame the backlight, create a problem in this regard. Nope. Sure, compared to the wraparound rear glass of previous Corvettes, the view to the rear is slightly less expansive, but at no time was it a hindrance to my motoring. The C7’s wider, B-pillars, however, do create a problem. Changing lanes requires a little extra neck craning compared to a C6. On the other hand, the standard backup camera makes parking-lot maneuvers more confidence-inspiring.

Photo: A Star is Born 6

The adrenaline rush of my backroad blasts combined with all the goodwill the Stingray was generating made it easy to overlook some of the car’s weaknesses, but eventually a few issues did bring the experience down to earth somewhat.

Overall, the ride quality wasn’t quite as good as I had remembered. The Stingray may be able to handle mid-corner bumps with aplomb, but that doesn’t always translate into great ride quality, especially at city speeds. San Francisco’s notoriously bad Mission Street proved too much for the Z51 coupe. The MSRC shocks could only absorb so much in the way of low-speed bumps before exposing the occupants to the reality of the car’s stiff springs by way of some side-to-side jostling.

Unless you really like to drive aggressively or intend to track the car, I wouldn’t suggest getting a Z51-equipped Stingray. If you do decide to order this $2,495 performance package, I highly recommend pairing it with the MSRC shocks (they come bundled with Performance Traction Management for $1,795). The stand-alone Z51 option, or FE3 suspension, forgoes the magnetic-ride dampers for fixed-rate ones and offers an even stiffer, more track-oriented ride. We’ve already heard of at least one customer who was led to believe that FE3 was the softer of the two, much to his chagrin.
Photo: A Star is Born 7

While there’s no denying the fact the C7 posts superior EPA fuel-economy numbers than its predecessor, in the real world the difference may be academic. Excluding hard backroad driving and our hot laps around Thunderhill, the car was averaging about 25 mpg. No doubt, that’s a laudable figure for a 460-horsepower sports car; the thing is, C6 owners can get about the same fuel economy. Chevrolet also hasn’t moved the game forward all that much on the navigation front. Slow, complicated and only partially touch screen-enabled, the C7’s nav system was of little use.

The most annoying shortcoming of my press car was the fact that its rear hatch did not close all that well. Having to reopen it for a second, and sometimes third, attempt to get it to close completely quickly grew tiresome. After a week in the car, I’d put my batting average at about 700. While that statistic earned David Ortiz the MVP award in this past World Series, it is just plain lousy on a brand-new, $50K sports car. I can only hope that running changes at Bowling Green improve matters.

Same goes for the paint flaws I discovered. The inside trailing edge of the hatch had wavy paint lines resulting from what appeared to be a bad tape job. Another paint blemish was located on the rear bumper just below the rear license place. I don’t want to jump to conclusions based on a the close examination of a single vehicle, and I know that Bowling Green has stepped up not only its assembly techniques but its inspection process. But still, such flaws are troubling for a company trying to prove itself against the world’s best.

Photo: A Star is Born 8

Out on the road, these shortcomings quickly faded from my consciousness. The driving experience was just too good and the Stingray was generating too much excitement. In my 15 years as an automotive journalist—including eight years as editor of Sports Car International magazine, a position that allowed me to regularly drive home in flashy high-performance machines—I’ve never had a car turn as many heads as this one. Moreover, people were excited about the C7 in a nearly unanimously positive way. No scowls of disgust, no heads wagged, no birds flown. It was pretty much all thumbs up.

The fact that the test car was painted Velocity Yellow had something to do with the attention it received—and the black wheels and optional unpainted carbon-fiber roof made the exterior color pop that much more—but it was clear the C7’s edgy new styling was the main draw. The vented hood and rear fender top-mounted air intakes give it the purposeful focus of a race car, while the four cannon-like exhaust tips make it look downright lethal. Low, wide and swoopy, the new Corvette has the presence of an exotic supercar, and people respond accordingly.

The C7 even brought out the inner car lover among notoriously auto-averse San Franciscans. One of them left a note on the windshield. “Sexy Car!” the person wrote. I won’t divulge his or her exotic-sounding name, but I will share with you the parenthetical phrase that followed: “young musician.” Yet again, score one for Chevrolet’s marketing department.

Photo: A Star is Born 9

Wherever I went, the Stingray generated responses—sometimes from the most unlikely of people. Obviously, dudes in muscle cars felt obliged to, well, flex their muscles when the C7 hove into view, but I didn’t expect a middle-aged woman in Toyota Camry to gape or college girls in a Mini Cooper to point excitedly. I couldn’t believe how many drivers whipped out their phones and started filming.

Shortly before sunset one evening, I parked the car out in the Marin Headlands and went for a brief walk. Upon returning, I saw a man in his 60s hovering near the C7. Wearing hiking shoes, a daypack and a baggy pair of khakis, he had the appearance of a dedicated Sierra Club member. Instead of chastising me for driving a gas-guzzling sports car, he provided yet another informed assessment of the car’s attributes. He said that he had owned BMWs and Porsches in the past, and had never been particularly drawn to Corvettes—but this Stingray had definitely grabbed his attention. Interestingly, he said the appeal was not the fact that the 2014 model was more refined or better balanced, it was simply that the car looked so, in his words, “bad ass.”

The Stingray summoned particularly emotional responses from people. They seemed to be genuinely moved—and not just by its eye-popping appearance, but by the fact that it was built by an American automaker that just five years ago was teetering on the precipice of insolvency. At one point, while we were photographing the car in a beautiful redwood forest near Mount Tamalpais, a 50-something cyclist rode up and immediately declared, without equivocation, his appraisal of the C7: “The Best American car design in 40 years!” This and other displays of pride were not merely a matter of rooting for the home team, but a realization that Chevrolet had just hit a home run.

And indeed, it has.

Also from Issue 87

  • Supercharged C6 Convertible
  • 1981 Coupe/Late-Model C3 Buying Tips
  • Larry Shinoda
  • 1988 Coupe
  • 1999 Hardtop
  • Tech: Stingray Seats
  • 1964 Small-Block Coupe
  • Racing: C6.R Retrospective
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