Combine the anticipation of every iPhone launch, American Idol finale and the latest mystery meat product from McDonald's into one event and you might have something approaching the debut of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette.
Yes, the seventh-generation (C7) 2014 Chevy Corvette is finally, officially here. It's the first all-new 'Vette since the C5 debuted in 1996.
GM laid bare to us the C7 and all of its guts, and it is impressive. With the C7 Corvette it is clear that GM is bullish about addressing the Corvette's shortcomings while enhancing the attributes that make fanboys out of grown men and women. It's not a new formula, but it works.
All New, yet Familiar
The philosophy of the modern Corvette has not changed. The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette retains the fundamental two-place hatchback body type, front engine and rear-mounted transaxle layout, and the presence of a leaf — er, transverse composite — spring suspension.
As far as hardware, everything about the C7 is new, and GM is making a more concerted effort to attract driving enthusiasts to the fold without abandoning the sensibilities of the traditional Corvette owner. To that end, two variants of the C7 will be available when the car reaches dealerships in late summer. The higher-performance variant will be called the Z51. The base C7 will be called Stingray, marking the first appearance of the moniker since the C3. Yet the Stingray badge is about the only thing that's unabashedly retro about the C7.
Both C7 variants are built on a new all-aluminum chassis manufactured right where Corvettes are born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That's right — unlike the C6 where the lighter aluminum chassis was the exclusive domain of more expensive Z06 and ZR1 variants, all C7 models use the same chassis.
Weight management was a priority during development. Assembly of the new aluminum chassis starts with hydroformed side sills that are joined to hollow sand castings front and rear, die-cast inner tunnel structures, stamped bulkheads and extruded crash sections at both ends. These segments are variously bonded, bolted and laser- and MIG-welded together to form a structure that is 99 pounds lighter than and 57 percent stiffer in torsion than the steel C6 chassis.
Hollow sand-cast aluminum subframes and front lower control arms also cut weight, and say good-bye to the previous balsa wood-core floor panels — they've been replaced with fiberglass preforms with a synthetic foam core.
Further weight savings are found in the carbon-fiber hood and roof panel — still removable, of course. The front fenders, door skins, rear-quarter panels and deck continue to be made from fiberglass sheet molding compound (SMC). This is still a Corvette, after all.
Despite the mass reductions above, the C7 Corvette will be heavier than the C6 due to its laundry list of new hardware and improved crashworthiness. GM was not specific about curb weight other than acknowledging that, yes, the C7's curb weight will be higher than the current car. Our guess is that the new car will gain about 100 pounds over the C6. Weight distribution is not yet finalized, but we expect a slight rearward move to 49/51 percent front/rear.
Improved Driving Experience
Modern Corvettes are plenty fast, yet lack finesse. 'Vette boys have turned this into a badge of honor, claiming that rough-and-ready-ness is the essence of the Corvette's appeal. Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter appears to disagree, saying that improving the driving dynamics was one of the priorities for the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette.
To help address complaints of vague steering, the C7's rack-and-pinion steering system was substantially beefed up and is said to be five times stiffer than that of the outgoing car. It's also made the predictable switch to electric power steering rather than hydraulic assist. Suspension geometry has been revised, and we're told the unusual, confidence-sapping lateral rear end motions endemic to C5s and C6s have been mitigated.
If that's not good enough, there's now a knob on the console that changes the car's personality according to five discrete settings. Numerous chassis and powertrain parameters change with each setting — throttle mapping, steering assist and ratio, stability control, cylinder deactivation aggressiveness, as well as the differential and suspension calibrations of Z51 models (more on these below). And if you don't like the way that GM set them up, you can reprogram the five settings yourself.
When asked which car was the C7's primary ride and handling benchmark, the answer is unequivocal and comes without hesitation: "911." That might help explain why Goodyear has been kicked to the curb for the C7. Michelin Super Sport summer tires are now found on base and Z51 models, and they're the same width as those on the outgoing base C6 — 245/40 in front, 285/35 in rear. The larger-diameter wheels of the Z51 package, of course, wear lower-profile tires front and rear — 245/35 and 285/30, respectively. The brakes, too, are upsized for the Stingray and again for the Z51 model.
Whatever its final weight, the Corvette C7 promises to perform at the top of its class, and then some. Consider this: The Z51-equipped C7 is said to corner at 1.0g and click off faster lap times than today's Grand Sport model. The Z51 will run also sub-4.0-second 0-60 sprints and brake from 60 to zero in 11 fewer feet. So, again, Corvettes go fast and stop quickly.
You've already read all about the C7's direct-injected, 6.2-liter LT1 pushrod V8 power plant, still preliminarily rated at 450 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. Contrary to rumor, there is no dual-clutch automated manual. Instead, the two available transmissions are a conventional six-speed automatic and a new seven-speed Tremec TR6070 manual gearbox. The manual includes a throttle-blipping rev-matching feature for downshifts à la Nissan's SynchroRev Match and receives a new twin-plate clutch and dual mass flywheel.
If you're hoping that the presence of 7th gear signals a move away from the tall-geared character typical of Corvettes, you will be let down. The Stingray has the same ratios in the first six gears as the base C6, and 7th gear is simply a super-ultra-mega-tall overdrive cog to improve its highway fuel economy. Expect the base manual-equipped C7's EPA fuel economy numbers to land somewhere north of the manual C6's 16/26 mpg, but not by much.
The Z51 Is Serious
This is where things get really good. The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette's Z51 package includes a host of performance upgrades to improve the car's trackworthiness in a big way. Z51 models get a dry-sump oiling system, slightly shorter gearing that is similar to that found in today's C6 Grand Sport, larger-capacity Bilstein dampers, a rear stabilizer bar (the Stingray has no rear bar) and stiffer leaf springs. Forged wheels are added, which grow an inch over those of the Stingray to 19 inches in front and 20 inches in the rear.
The Z51 package also adds some functional tweaks to the bodywork — a rear deck spoiler reduces lift and prominent air inlets atop each rear fender feed heat exchangers for the transmission and differential. Air to these coolers is internally ducted from the fender vents and then discharged into the low-pressure area at the back of the car through vents adjacent to and beneath the rear taillights. Spotter alert: Those fender vents will be used on autobox-equipped C7s, too.
Z51-equpped models receive a trick differential — an electronically controlled hydraulic clutch pack modulates the rate at which the differential apportions torque across the axle. GM chassis gurus reckon that the so-called eLSD is the single most significant addition to the C7's handling portfolio, and it's not hard to imagine why. For instance, the differential can act like an open diff at turn-in to help reduce initial understeer, and then progressively engage the differential as power is applied in order to manage the car's traction and handling balance.
Additionally, Z51-equipped cars have the option of Magnetic Ride Control, which ought to provide similar handling prowess and a more compliant ride. This option includes the next generation of GM's zoomy electronically variable magnetorheological dampers, as well as — relative to the Z51 — smaller stabilizer bars and revised front leaf springs.
The End of a Legacy of Bad Interiors
Faced with endless whining about the C6's flaccid seats and dime-store interior appointments, designers wiped the slate clean for the C7's cabin. We pored over an interior mockup said to comprise production components and came away impressed. The new cabin looks to be a tremendous improvement.
Bare plastic is gone, replaced with soft-touch surfaces and leather everywhere. Two different seats will be available — a base version and a more aggressive Sport Competition seat. Both appear to be significant upgrades over the outgoing commodes of the C6, but grinding our tuchuses into them will have to wait.
The focal point of the cabin is the driver; the sweep of the dashboard cants its controls accordingly. Faceted styling elements of the exterior are reprised here, notably in the instrument binnacle and HVAC controls. It looks aggressive and purposeful without encroaching into cheesiness. Even the optional carbon-fiber trim pieces are the real deal and lend a convincingly exotic look to the surroundings.
Dimensionally, the C7 Corvette is a hair larger than the base C6. Overall length increases by 2 inches to 176.9 inches, and width is up by an inch to 73.7 inches. Wheelbase grows an inch to 106.7 inches. Track widths increase roughly an inch at both ends to 61.7 inches in front and 62.9 inches at the rear.
It doesn't look any bigger, though. The evolutionary styling has been tightened and refined, creased and fussed-over. Though you can pick up elements of the GT-R in the rear three-quarter views, the C7 doesn't stray far from the theme established by the Mako Shark II showcar that preceded the C3. The rear contains what will surely be the C7's most controversial styling elements. It's all creases and vents back there, with aggressive trapezoidal taillights similar to those found on the current Camaro and quadruple-barreled tailpipes lined up in a neat row in the center of the rear valance.
What strikes you is how much better integrated the new car is. It looks less slapdash now, like someone actually cared how the disparate components fit together. Some of its design decisions were rooted in practicality. For instance, roughly one-third of the air that enters the grille exits through the vent in the hood in order to reduce front end lift and improve cooling system performance.
Another example is the use of fixed inlets in the fenders and the new rear-quarter windows, both influenced by GM's C6.R ALMS racecar. The race team had punched NACA ducts into the horizontal sections of the C6's rear hatch to keep the racecar's transaxle cool. But every time the rear hatch was opened during service, they had to decouple the ducts and then reattach them before closing it. This hassle led to the cutouts on the sides of the C7's hatch to make room for the fender-mounted vents, which, in turn, led to the C7's fixed rear quarter windows. That's race provenance right there.
Taking on the World
The Corvette C7's extensive battery of new hardware won't come for free. Pricing is still under wraps, though we anticipate just enough of a hike in base price that the 2014 Corvette will be cost-competitive against the Ford Shelby GT500, or around $54,000.
It's a sum that will buy what appears to be an awful lot of car. If GM can deliver on the considerable potential shown by this early look at the 2014 Chevy Corvette, there will be some sleepless nights in Germany... and Italy, Japan and elsewhere in Michigan.