Upon its launch in 1953, the Chevrolet Corvette's sticker price of $3,490 was high but not outlandish for a two-seat sports car — slightly more than a median family's annual income, and well below the Cadillacs and Imperials of the era. In the six decades since, that relationship between how much Americans earn in a year of toil and how much it takes to buy the nation's oldest sports car has stayed surprisingly consistent. Today, the median U.S. family of four earns $51,000 a year, and lo and behold, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray starts at $52,000.
But what Corvette buyers get for their money has varied wildly. In the '60s, they bought an uncivilized street race car wrapped in one of the most attractive fiberglass bodies ever made. In the '70s and '80s, they drove home smog-choked big blocks and the first digital dashboards. In more recent times, those loyal Vette shoppers often came home feeling like they'd snagged a bargain, since the aging Vette needed rebates to motivate its aging fans.
So what does the new 2014 Stingray offer a public that's tuned out all things Corvette over the past decade?
Here's one insight into how much this car means around General Motors: For the launch in California, Chevy decided to arrange test drives of every generation of Corvette, from a 1955 model through the outgoing 2013 edition. GM has its own museum, but its Corvettes from before the current model year were too rare and valuable to risk at the hands of people like me. Instead, GM North American chief Mark Reuss had Chevy staffers buy gently used examples of five generations of Vettes with his own money — which helped explain why a couple were never left with us alone.
Driving those cars back to back reveals a Sisyphean struggle against cost cutting and maximum performance. The 1955 version I sampled felt like wheeling a tugboat around, with a steering wheel the size of a Prius tire. The 1966 Sting Ray 427 had a monster under the hood that we could only poke at, and never unleash. By the 1970 LT-1 edition, the chassis had started to feel stable, and by 1985 the shape of the modern Corvette took hold, even if it would take another three decades to save the interior from the budget cutters. And after driving all six preceding generations, it's correct to say the 2014 Corvette Stingray marks the greatest advancement of the Chevy sports car since its launch 60 years ago.
Let's not set the bar too low; any new car has to be far better than a decade-old predecessor, if for no other reason than the march of technology. But given the delays of GM's bankruptcy, Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter and team kept pushing further, and when they finally stopped they had a car that shared only two parts with the previous Corvette.
Start with the engine. It's still a pushrod V-8, with two valves per cylinder, as familiar as the small-block Chevy began putting into the Vette in 1955. And yet, everything that touches or controls it is thoroughly modern, from the variable valve timing and direct injection that helps provide 460 hp and 460 lb.-ft. of torque, to the ability to shut off four cylinders at highway speed and keep the Vette loafing at 65 mph with just 12 hp. If your hand rests on the shifter when the system kicks in, you can feel a brief tremolo through the stick as the "V-4" light on the dash turns green. Otherwise, it's unnoticeable, and a key reason why the Vette has a 29 mpg highway rating (and can get to 30 mpg with a light foot).
To handle that power and produce a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds, Juechter and company caught the Corvette up with software. The 21st-century standard of world-class sports cars requires electronic driving controls as discreet as an English butler — always ready to help, always anticipating disaster, but never suggesting that the lord of the manor has lost authority. The new Vette uses a combination of technologies, from an electronic limited-slip differential to third-generation magnetorheological dampers, all tied together by sensors and programming that eternally wonder what's next.
Over 200 miles of driving and a few laps of an autocross course, I found I couldn't fool the Vette without directly telling it to play dumb. If I screwed up a corner, there was always either more torque to wheel me around faster or the right amount of braking to recover gracefully. In its standard "Touring" driving mode, the Vette devours highway miles with little wind noise and a non-fatiguing ride. In track mode, the display switches to a race-centric view of rpms, the engine growls deeper and those seats grip tighter. I miss the steering feel of the hydraulic units, but the Vette's electronic version ranks among the best I've sampled. Chevy engineers swapped a rubber bushing for a straight bolted connection to give the steering some sense of what's happening on the road.
On a lap of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with Rick Malone from Ron Fellows Driving School in Las Vegas, the Vette undramatically hit 125 mph and pulled 1.17 gs of turning force through a corner. If the Vette's five programmable driving modes aren't quite as refined as the Porsche 911s, they're closer than most drivers will ever discover — especially the track settings which can be further tuned to give plenty of room for disaster. (Malone, as you can tell, enjoyed himself.)
About that seven-speed manual transmission: The top two gears are almost superfluous, and even at 70 mph on a freeway I worried the V-8 might stall in top gear. Juechter says the team hasn't done its top-speed testing yet, but expects the Vette to reach somewhere north of 190 mph in fifth gear. In fact, from about 40 mph on, there's no need for anything but fifth — because the torque band of the V-8 has been stretched so wide. And the seven-speed's rev matching makes it the shifter of choice over the six-speed automatic. Turn it on, and that balancing act of throttle and clutch that scares so many stick-shift neophytes disappears; the Vette measures your speed and momentum, guesses which gear you're going to next (either up or down) and spins the engine appropriately. Clutch, shift, clutch — even a 16-year-old can look smooth doing it.
Exterior design chief Tom Peters wanted to give the Vette a look that would banish some of the previous model's anonymity; he talks of trying to create the next bedroom poster car for today's 10-year-olds. In that, he's succeeded, and even the hubbub over the tail lights has waned. From behind the wheel, the fenders of the Vette have been raised in homage to the '63 Sting Ray, a design refined by clay sculptors rather than in a computer because the shape had to feel right under hand. The composite and carbon-fiber body panels no longer need huge gaps to expand and contract; the Vette has the same 3mm seams as any steel-bodied model, and the interior finally banishes the last bits of Emerson-grade electronics and bad PVC for real aluminum and leather.
Were we to pick nits on every last thing about the Vette, we could come up with a few complaints. The interior still has a bit too much plastic for a $52,000 car. The electronic entertainments and switchable displays work as advertised, but fall victim to the auto industry's eternal 18-month lag with the latest tech, taking long pauses between a command or button punch and the right response. Those Michelin Pilot Super Sport run-flat tires will be expensive to replace. There's no spare tire.
And that's about it.
For a starting price of $52,000, and a properly Z51-equipped model for $57,000, the Corvette offers more performance for the dollar than any other new sports car. It's not that GM has hidden its cost cutting, although some switch gear will look familiar to Chevy Cruze owners. It's that without the Corvette Stingray, foreign sports car makers could get away with overcharging for things that shouldn't cost so much. Because the Vette will share an engine block with millions of GM's pickups and SUVs, and engineering talent for basics like safety tests and fuel economy, it costs far less to build than Porsche or BMW can ever match. In the world of performance cars, the Stingray's a bargain. Keeping the rest of the world honest is just gravy.