With its engine behind the driver instead of under the hood, General Motors’ new Chevrolet Corvette represents a huge change for one of America’s most famous cars. While the reason for the new design may not be immediately obvious, it will be later on when GM unveils more powerful versions of the company’s flagship sports car.
GM has not officially announced anything yet, but there’s no question that there will be faster, more powerful Corvettes to come. And these machines could take GM into the realm of true supercars, like Lamborghini and Ferrari.
But even in today’s base model, the 495-horsepower Stingray, there are advantages to the Corvette’s new “rear mid-engine” layout. For example, it shifts the car’s weight, changing how the car handles in curves and making it quicker in a straight line since there’s more weight over the back wheels where the power goes.
It also puts the driver closer to the center of the driving experience. The driver’s body is now near the engine, where the car’s weight is concentrated. And the driver sits farther forward in the car, closer to the front wheels that steer the car. Also, the hood is lower – since there’s no engine under it – providing an unimpeded view of the road ahead.
With the new Corvette, GM engineers and designers frequently use the term “bandwidth” to describe all of the advantages the new design offers. Basically, it enables engineers to create versions of the car with much more power and the ability to handle it.
It’s not as if the last-generation Corvette was a poor excuse for a sports car. The base model – the Corvette Stingray – had a 455-horsepower V8 engine mounted under the hood. It was frequently cited as one of the world’s great sports car bargains, providing performance on par with a Porsche 911 – but for $30,000 less. Added to that, the Corvette was eminently practical for a two-seat sports car. It even got decent fuel economy considering its power output.
The new Corvette maintains all those benefits while adding 50 horsepower. There’s ample storage space both behind the engine and up front under the hood. With a base price just under $60,000, it’s not a cheap car, but it’s still a spectacular value.
Corvette engineers I’ve spoken with admit that the old front-engined design’s limitations became apparent in more powerful versions of the car. As horsepower was increased to create cars like the 755-horsepower Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, race track lap time didn’t improve as much as could be expected.
The new mid-engined design, with more weight over the back wheels, will help to draw more performance – and sheer enjoyment – from future higher horsepower engines and, possibly, electric motors. (A high-performance hybrid is widely rumored to be in the works but, as with all future Corvettes, GM has not confirmed this.)
In February, I drove a well-optioned Corvette with a final sticker price approaching $90,000. The quality of the materials was nice. The interior was richly appointed. The new Corvette takes the idea of a “driver’s car” to the extreme. A long, narrow row of buttons, mostly controls for cabin heating and cooling, create a low wall between the driver and passenger. The central touchscreen is also tilted toward the driver.
One thing the Corvette no longer offers is a manual transmission. Most drivers probably won’t miss it. The new Corvette’s transmission is both quick, responsive and as smooth as well-oiled glass. Those things don’t often go together in an automatic transmission, but the Corvette’s 8-speed works amazingly well.
A knob with a comfortable hand rest above it is used to change driving modes. You can select from modes like Tour, for comfortable cruising, to Sport and Track for quick aggressive driving. Turning the knob changes things like steering responsiveness, gear shifting and, if the car has optional adjustable suspension, how firm the ride is. (The firmer ride translates into more control in curves.)
The steering wheel is nearly rectangular. It has a flat bottom to provide more room for the driver’s legs and a flat top to provide an unobstructed view of the computer screen that is the gauge cluster.
The Corvette remains a fast, responsive and comfortable (OK, maybe not if you opt for the thin and hard racing seats) sports car. It feels responsive and corners quickly. But just wait until GM unveils versions that are to come. That’s when we will see the real fruits of this redesign effort.