"Are you insane?" one GM engineer explained when we asked him to spill his guts about the next Chevrolet Corvette: the C7. "I like my job."
What else was he going to say? Engineers and suppliers are trained from the moment they're hired to never discuss future product plans with anyone in the press. And today, "the press" refers to virtually anyone with an Internet connection or cell phone.
There is, however, plenty of speculation out there about the seventh-generation Corvette (C7). Which isn't a surprise. Speculating about the next Corvette is a car media staple. Since 1953 when the Corvette first went on sale, the headline "Is This the Next Corvette?" has sold millions of magazines. And there isn't a Photoshop geek in the virtual space who hasn't pumped out a C7 rendering.
GM knows this and takes rumor suppression seriously. And that fact is not lost on GM employees. For example, when Popular Mechanics sent a writer to trawl for C7 details among the crowds at the Woodward Dream Cruise last summer, one GM employee told Inside Line, management solemnly informed everyone involved in product development that loose-lipped conversations at informal gatherings resulting in leaks wouldn't be tolerated. Even if there was beer involved. And after the magazine's story appeared they went looking for the leakers.
Still, there are some elliptical comments coming out of GM. "Corvette is a halo brand that has tremendous value for the company," said Jim Campbell, vice president of Performance Vehicles to Vette magazine (reported by Corvetteblog.com). "We will keep Corvette at the forefront of performance, technology and innovation. That is the car's heritage and what fuels our owners' passion for the car. The design of future Corvettes is driven by this objective."
Thin corporatespeak for sure, but encouraging.
The Mechanical Soul of the Next Corvette
Of all the rumors, the one that seems most solid is that the C7 will go on sale sometime during 2013 as a 2014 model. Incidentally, June 30, 2013 will mark the 60th anniversary of the first Corvette coming off the assembly line.
For GM insiders, one employee told me, this fascination with the next Corvette is a bit mystifying considering the massive gamble represented by the next generation of full-size trucks that are also nearing production. From a business standpoint, he's right. The next Corvette isn't going to make or break the future of General Motors, but the car does represent the soul of American automotive enthusiasm and speculating about it is just flat fun.
The next Corvette will, however, need to exist in the real world of tightening fuel economy regulations and GM's diminished financial resources, so the consensus of media reports is that those realities will be reflected in the C7's engineering. This car has to, first and foremost, make sense.
So forget about a midengine design or something radically different from the C6 we've all grown to respect a lot, and love a bit. The car will evolve, but incrementally. A front-engine design with a transaxle will remain at the heart of the package.
The most significant changes are likely to be a drop in weight and under the hood, where the Corvette's engine size is likely to drop significantly. It's still going to be a V8, but a smaller one.
Eisenstein Goes Very Small
Veteran reporter Paul A. Eisenstein went into detail about the C7's power plant on his site TheDetroitBureau.com. The May 25 report (next-corvette-to-target-euro-supercar-fans-with-small-high-revving-turbo-v8) is a stretch, but its assertions are fascinating. "TheDetroitBureau.com has learned that GM has approved the use of a very European-style V8 that will be only slightly larger than three liters in displacement," the report says. "The engine will be of an overhead-cam, rather than traditional overhead-valve design, using a dry-sump oil system that's particularly well-suited to high-performance road courses rather than straight-line acceleration. The engine is expected to feature a narrow 80.5mm bore and a long stroke, more like a Ferrari or Lamborghini powertrain than the approach used for traditional Motor City metal."
But that's just the appetizer to Eisenstein's report. "A very senior GM executive also confirmed that the new engine will be turbocharged," he continues, "which will help yield a broad torque curve and maximum performance under a variety of driving conditions. The engine is expected to deliver in excess of 400 horsepower, which means a specific output in the range of 125 hp per liter. That's the sort of number that would help the next-gen Vette stack up well against the likes of a Porsche 911 or Lamborghini Gallardo." Eisenstein further sees this engine featuring up to a 10,000-rpm redline and eventually migrating to Cadillac's V-series cars, too.
While Eisenstein contends that this "tracks in line" with comments from GM's North American President Mark Reuss that the Corvette will be "completely different" from previous Corvettes, it all may seem far-fetched.
Everyone Else Goes Larger
Eisenstein's report flies against a consensus headwind that has the C7's power plant based on the next-generation of GM's classic small-block, overhead-valve architecture. Back in 2010 there was a flurry of reports that have the C7's engine displacing 5.5 liters (down from today's 6.2-liter base power plant) while sporting, some say, a pair of turbochargers.
The September Popular Mechanics report that sent a shudder through GM reflects that consensus. "The Corvette probably will be the first car to feature the new, fifth generation of the Chevy small-block V8," wrote Colin Matthews for PM. "From what I heard, the new engine will still use space-saving pushrods to move the valves and will have an aluminum block and heads, direct fuel injection and probably variable camshaft timing. Beyond that, I kept hearing that the next Corvette's base V8 will shrink in displacement from 6.2 liters to 5.5 liters. ('Who told you 5.5!?' blurted Tom Read, communications representative for GM Powertrain, when I mentioned displacement.) To pull nearly 500 horses from 5.5 liters, I'm banking on Chevy using a significantly increased compression ratio of 12:1 or more." However, except for Read's inferred startled reaction, Matthews cites no specific sources. Beyond that, Tom Read is a PR guy for GM Powertrain and not someone working in the product development trenches. He may know. He may not know.
But that 5.5-liter displacement keeps showing up. In March, Car and Driver reported that number, adding that GM has invested $1 billion in plants to produce the next-generation small-block for use in trucks, Cadillacs, Camaros and Corvettes. Left Lane News reported that same displacement in August.
Given scant evidence, the logical inference is that, yes, the C7's base power plant will be an all-aluminum OHV V8 displacing somewhere near 5.5 liters and featuring direct injection, variable valve timing and cylinder cut-off technology to produce somewhere over 400 hp while delivering better fuel economy than before. After that, and following the leads of BMW and Mercedes, higher-power versions — for Z06 or ZR1 replacements — are likely to feature turbocharging instead of increases in displacement or less efficient belt-driven superchargers.
Just last week, however, GM Inside News (GMI) was indicating that the C7 will be an evolution of the C6 and be "more European-looking in nature," that it will soldier on with the 6.2 instead of a new fuel-saving 5.5-liter V8, and that the interior will get significant upgrades.
If Eisenstein's small, twin-turbo V8 shows up, it's likely to be later — think C8 Corvette available around 2020.
Inside Line itself reported in September that "a source with knowledge of the C7 project confirmed that the upcoming Corvette will offer a seven-speed manual transmission." There's no reason for us to believe anything has changed since then. In fact, GMI confirmed that fact just last week.
But how that seven-speed comes about is open to speculation. It could simply be a single-clutch version of an automated dual-clutch seven-speed that will serve as the C7 Corvette's automatic. It could be an evolutionary development of the current Tremec T-6060 six-speed. Or it could be an entirely new, true manual transmission developed by GM.
Remember, though, that GM is developing its new full-size trucks right now. And as one GM engineer said about more gears, "It's kind of a win-win for us. More gears are good for fuel economy and good for marketing." All the economies of scale rest with the trucks and if GM feels there's a significant competitive advantage in developing new transmissions for the trucks with greater numbers of gears, then that's likely to pay off for the Corvette, too.
Inside Line's supposition is that seven- or eight-speed automatic and/or manual transmissions are inevitable from GM so the new full-size trucks can better compete in their segment. And it's from that family of transmissions that new Corvette trannies will spring.
Spy shots of early C7 prototypes wearing modified C6 bodywork have been published and indicate the new car will still have the same general mechanical layout. That means engine in front, transmission out back between the rear wheels, and a backbone chassis. Essentially the same fundamental engineering that's been used since the C5 entered production back in 1996 as a 1997 model.
When publishing photos of the early C7 mules, AutoWeek noted that the wheelbase seems stretched longer than the C6's and the track widths seem a bit narrower. That's likely to result in a larger cockpit and more comfortable ride than before. Both would be good news.
AutoWeek further notes that the current C6 is produced using a chassis made of steel in the base Corvette or aluminum in the Z06 and ZR1. It's likely, the magazine contends, that the C7's chassis will be made exclusively out of aluminum to save weight across the line.
Practically no publication has speculated about the C7's suspension system. Mostly, that seems, because no one expects it to change much with the coming of the new car. As it has been since 1963, the Corvette's suspension will still be all independent. As it has been since 1984, the front and rear double-wishbone suspension links are likely to, again, be made from aluminum. The springing medium is probably transverse composite leafs again, too. This gets its share of criticism, but it works and it doesn't break the bank.
Way back in 2009, Ed Welburn, GM's head of global design, told Inside Line that the C7 Corvette will have a split rear window inspired by that of the '63 Corvette coupe. That may seem foolhardy; after all, the split-window design only lasted a year after customers complained about rearward visibility. But 50 years later, explained Welburn, "with the back-up cameras and blind-spot detection systems that we have these days, the visibility issue is much less of a problem."
At that point, speculation was that the Corvette Stingray concept, which had a split rear window and was featured in the second Transformers film, might be the basis for the C7's styling. But Bloomberg News reported this past October that Bob Lutz was claiming that the new Corvette would be more dramatic than that.
"It's a much bolder and more dramatic design," Lutz, now consulting for GM, said in a telephone interview with the business news service. But beyond that, the story contends that one insider relayed that "there are hints of Ferrari styling in the next Corvette, which will depart from the traditional looks of the last two generations."
Current Corvette design themes were established by the Mako Shark concept car in 1965 and entered production with the C3 Corvette for 1968. Every subsequent generation of the car has simply updated them, not changed them. It's about time they changed.
If those rumors prove true, the C7 Corvette could be the most visually provocative car GM has produced since the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. And it should be.
Meanwhile, the most recent rumor comes out of GM Inside News and features "confirmation" that the C7 Corvette will not have a split window.
And there's no reason to think the body will be built of anything other than fiberglass.
Corvette interiors have never been the high-quality driving environments they should have been. Cheesy plastic surfaces and cheap switchgear have kept the car from feeling as luxurious and tailored as a Porsche, Ferrari or, heck, a VW. That has to change with the C7.
What's out there about the interior is, essentially, nothing. However, it seems everyone talking about the C7 is hoping — hoping — that GM delivers a Corvette with a world-class cockpit this time.
What world-class means right now is sophisticated dash and door panel sculpturing. Plastic surfaces that are perfectly formed, nicely grained and soft to the touch. Seats that are shaped for long-term comfort, covered in hides that are supple, and intuitively and easily adjustable. And the steering wheel should be concerned first with communicating what the car's wheels are doing and not be covered by buttons that can hardly be learned, much less used.
Where GM has the greatest opportunity with the Corvette's interior is regarding onboard electronics. From customizable dash displays to voice-activated sound systems that self-integrate with cell phones, the C7 has to have all of that. And it all needs to operate more simply than ever before.
The possibilities are endless.
Right now, 65 percent of the people buying Corvettes are over 50. And for a lot of potential buyers under 40, it simply isn't on their aspiration radar. Now is the time for GM to step up and build a C7 Corvette worthy of the speculation it has inspired. A Corvette that can win every race it enters. A Corvette 10-year-olds dream about, 20-year-olds fantasize about and 30-year-olds actually buy.
And, of course, it ought to be crazy quick and stupid fast.