On July 18, Chevrolet will launch the eighth generation of its iconic sports car — what it calls the “first-ever mid-engine Corvette.” Not true.
While the “C8” Corvette will be the first mid-engine version to reach showrooms, it is not the first to be designed, engineered or even green-lighted for production since the model’s 1953 launch. So, why is it happening now?
“It brings the Vette closer to exotic cars — the Ford GT is an easy comparison,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds. “It’s GM’s time to shine with a technology showcase. Performance will be extremely impressive, but the price point, expected to be over $100,000, will give Chevrolet more room to put in technology.”
When Tesla sedans out-run your corporate flagship, it’s time for revolution, but if base Corvettes rise from today’s $55,900, it could make the car prohibitively expensive for enthusiasts.
“People who aspire to own a Corvette could be slightly left out,” Caldwell said. “It gives opportunity to Camaro, but there could also be something between Camaro and the mid-engine Corvette. The new car is definitely going to attract a different audience.”
Almost as long as there have been Corvettes, there have been mid-engine concepts percolating in the shadows. Chevrolet showed the CERV II in 1964 with a 550 horsepower V-8 engine and all-wheel-drive. The curvaceous XP-880 Astro II followed in 1968 with a 390 horsepower V-8. Styling expressed clear lineage to contemporary Corvettes, but GM management rejected it too. Mid-engine cars were deemed too expensive to build, especially when front-engine Corvettes were selling well.
One of the more notable mid-engine Corvette concepts was the XP-882 that debuted at the 1970 New York Auto Show with a 400 cubic-inch V-8, beefy styling, and positive crowd response. GM then pushed further with the aluminum-bodied 1972 XP-895 and compact 1973 XP-897GT that ran with a two-rotor Wankel engine. Strong sales of the third generation C3 precluded both, but development of the C4 was underway.
That car was almost a silver gull-wing exotic that looked like a Stingray had relations with a DeLorean. It debuted in 1973 as the “Four-Rotor Corvette” powered by connected Wankel rotary engines, but became the “Aerovette” in 1976 when a traditional V-8 engine was transplanted.
In an interview with the auto editors of Consumer Guide, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Corvette’s first engineering chief, reflected on this period. “In 1974, I had a conversation with the chairman of the board,” Duntov said. “He said, ‘Let’s wait. Right now, we cannot build enough cars to satisfy the demand.’ I tried to promulgate the mid-engine car. If I was not forced to retire, (the 1984 model) would probably be a mid-engine car. The mid-engine design in ’69 and ’73-’74 was in the picture on and off. I think I would have won the fight given time.”
Dreams persisted as Chevrolet rolled out its futuristic Corvette Indy concept in 1986 sporting a 2.65-liter V-8 from GM’s racing program, glass canopy, carbon composite body, all-wheel-drive, four-wheel steering and hydraulic suspension. The Indy evolved into the more conservative 1990 CERV III, packing a 650-horsepower twin-turbo 32-valve V-8. It was visually connected to Corvettes but was ultimately passed over for production.
Front-engine Corvettes persevered because engineers extracted ever greater performance. The 1984-1996 C4 had a “front-mid-engine” design, which placed the engine far beneath the dashboard to balance weight. The ZR-1 edition eventually boasted a 405 horsepower 32-valve V-8, 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds and 180 mph top speed. Moving transmissions to the rear in 1997-2004 C5, 2005-2013 C6, and 2014-2019 C7 generations further balanced handling with today’s ZR1, delivering 755 horsepower, 0-60 mph in 3.1seconds and over 200 mph top speed.
Corvette’s current architecture has served well but is unable to accommodate all-wheel-drive and electrification — both crucial for ultimate performance. If Corvettes are being outrun by Teslas, they’re certainly no match for top McLarens, Porsches and Ferraris.
Noting a mid-engine C7 was green-lighted before his 2010 retirement, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told Autoline in September: “We wanted to do a mid-engine Corvette before the ‘07/’08 financial melt-down. We had to cancel that investment-intensive program to do one more iteration of the C6, which turned out to be the C7. We were at the limit of what we can achieve with the lay-out. To achieve superior lap times, the car has to go mid-engine.”
After decades of dreaming, a mid-engine Corvette is reality. The question is, how will enthusiasts respond?
“I like the design and believe it is overdue,” said Steve Riebe, president of the Chicago Corvette Club. “People seem rather excited about this, not like when the C6 and C7 were introduced. Many complained about the taillights which looked like a Camaro’s. People also complained about non-retractable headlights. All those negative feelings seemed to clear out in a short time. I have warm and fuzzy feelings this will be the best Corvette ever.”
If handling is a mid-engine car’s key advantage, then limited interior space and a higher price are its negatives. Not everybody will be pleased.
“Every design change requires time for fans to adjust,” said Jon Thorn, Corvette Club of America board member and owner of a 2007 Black Corvette Z06. “Every new generation brings out critics. ... We all want Corvette to be successful, and the C7 had pretty much run its course.”
Why is this car such a big deal?
“They’re actually doing it,” Caldwell said. “It is such a beloved car with history, a piece of Americana. It’s very cool, the pinnacle of GM. It’s for people who love cars and is an emotional lift for the brand. The Corvette represents freedom and fun.”