Imagine being on the development team for the latest Chevrolet Corvette - it's a task far more challenging than you might expect.
An enduring icon, the Corvette suffers from an enthusiast base that does nothing but age. Not only does the all-new 2014 Corvette need to satisfy a demanding core buyer, it needs to aggressively court a demographic almost diametrically opposed to its band of loyalists if it wants to eventually spawn an eight-generation model.
Marketing aside, the new Corvette has to be a jack of all trades unequaled in autodom by anything short of the pricier Porsche 911: Its owners expect to use it as a daily driver, a long-distance hauler, a track day athlete and a show field superstar.
It's a monumental task. But after whittling away the miles on some of Central California's nicest two-lane byways, we think the engineers at the bowtie brand's flagship model have succeeded. This is one hell of a sports car; it's the best Corvette ever and one of the finest sporting cars you'll find at any price.
Sized within a hair or two of its predecessor and powered by a pushrod V8 of the same displacement, the latest Corvette - now rechristened Corvette Stingray - actually marks a huge departure from before.
Still clad largely of composites, the Corvette now makes extensive use of carbon fiber (for its hood and its removable roof), as well as aluminum (for most of its structure, suspension and powertrain). Tipping the scales at less than 3,300 lbs. is no easy feat - especially at a hair under $52,000 before any options are selected - but the 'Vette is still about 250 lbs. chunkier than a 911.
Like Corvettes of yore, the latest model remains all about motor. The new 6.2-liter LT1 boasts variable intake and exhaust timing to crank out 455 horsepower and 460 lb-ft. of torque, figures that are improved by 5 ponies and 5 torquies, respectively, with an optional (but must-have) sport exhaust. Power peaks are high - 6,000 and 4,600 rpm, respectively, meaning the 'Vette isn't as snappy off the line as you might expect. But dig into the throttle and it'll vault you to 60 mph in just 3.8 seconds.
A new rev-matching seven-speed manual replaces last year's six-speed. Possessing such a well-oiled feel that we kept asking if it was supplied by BMW or Porsche, the gearbox keeps revs low enough at highway speeds to eke out an impressive 29 mpg according to the EPA. Fuel economy hasn't been announced for the optional conventional six-speed automatic.
Underneath, 'Vettes will be initially offered in standard and Z51 configurations, the latter of which offers more of a track day-style positioning stiffer Blistein dampers (and available magnetic ride control), Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber, upgraded Brembo brakes, an electronic limited slip differential, upsized (but still staggered) wheels and additional cooling.
A tale of two Corvettes
Both the standard 'Vette and its track-ready Z51 big brother revealed their own distinct personalities during our preview drives on the sun-parched curvy byways outside of Monterey, California.
Stiff to the point of being just the safe side of intolerable on rutted terrain, the Z51 comes alive on smooth pavement. By contrast, the standard Corvette provides a ride that's almost luxury car plush with more wheel travel to soak up undulating terrain. Some buyers might call the Z51 "too much," while others will argue that the standard car is "too soft." That split personality is just what Chevrolet had in mind - yet what surprised us the most was how both configurations corner with limited lean, meaty steering feel and unflappable grip (up to 1.03 g's).
The new, narrower tires might not win bragging rights at the bar, but they make the 'Vette infinitely more tossable without detracting from its ability to cruise for hours at highway speeds.
In a straight line, Corvette will spank just about anything short of a genuine supercar. Though its V8 isn't as smooth and sonorous as a Porsche flat six, or even, say, Chrysler's HEMI, the Corvette roars to life when the skinny pedal is mashed. The sport exhaust stays comfortably quiet until called upon. Power comes on delicately before 2,000 rpm; at that point, it's fire in the hole as the 'Vette bolts forward with authority.
Similarly new for 2014 is the Corvette's seven-speed manual gearbox. Though seven gears might seem like overkill, the extra cog helps keep revs ultra low to reduce fuel consumption. Rev-matching is available with the tap of steering wheel-mounted paddles that should be composed of a nicer material than plastic. The six-speed automatic, on the other hand, includes the same paddles but seemed overly anxious to shift into a higher gear.
Reeling things in are fade-free, no drama brakes; the Z51's extra pistons and larger rotors provide a little more bite without being too harsh and aggressive, but they cough up more brake dust.
In short, this is the easiest high-performance car to drive fast ever built, but, remarkably, it's only as docile as you want it to be.Centered between the driver and passenger in the wide transmission tunnel is a twist-knob to select one of five driving modes. Weather and Eco modes dial back the throttle, while default Touring provides just the right degree of zip.
Naturally, the real fun's to be had in the Sport and Track modes. Predictably, they tighten up the steering, increase throttle response, alter the automatic's shift points, firm up the ride and modify the traction and stability controls.
Looking more like a product of Maranello than Detroit, the Corvette Stingray is vastly more interesting to behold than before. Functional cooling and aero-enhancing scoops and vents abound, looking somewhat incongruous in their required dark metallic finish against most exterior colors. We bet that a full monochrome package is on the horizon. But even with the contrasts, the new Corvette seems more striking every time you look at it.
The changes are even more noticeable inside. Leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, Detroit's sports car finally has an interior worthy of its price. Deeply canted toward the driver, the dashboard is logically-arrayed and clad in mostly upmarket materials. Even base 'Vettes have virtually every surface covered in a stitched leather-like material. One note: we recommend the optional carbon fiber interior trim, which dresses up what is otherwise ordinary plastic around the center stack.
Driver and passenger finally sit on world-class seats with a "just right" degree of bolstering. Optional competition-style seats - which are basically racing seats with side airbags grafted into them - will be available late this year. Power seats are standard; heated and air conditioned thrones are optional.
A high-tech gauge cluster also brings the 'Vette solidly into the future. Flanked by conventional analog gauges, the tachometer is housed in a high-resolution screen. Depending on the drive mode selected, drivers will either see a digitized analog tachometer or one that looks like it was plucked from a C6.R race car.
Dimensionally about the same as its predecessor, the Corvette's relatively cramped cabin, wide center console and shallow cargo area remain. The Porsche 911 generally feels airier inside, even if there's not really any more usable space.
Leftlane's bottom line
Still dripping with charm, the reborn Corvette Stingray should have everything it takes to compete with the world's best. And, more than ever, it isn't just desirable because it's so much less expensive. It's a genuinely world-class sports car.
Moreover, its multiple personalities manage to offer every potential shopper just what the doctor ordered, but without the sensation that something has been compromised.
2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
base price, $51,995.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.