There are moments in the automotive industry when a new vehicle arrives that changes everything. The Ford Mustang created the market for small, sporty coupes. Chrysler’s minivans proved there was a better way to build a station wagon. And Jeep created the SUV market.

But then there are cars that aren’t necessarily first in their class, but change the class they’re competing in. The BMW 2002 took the Mustang’s idea one step further, pushing it into the luxury leagues. And the Jeep Grand Cherokee established the preferred way to shuttle rugrats than by minivan. SUVs are truly the station wagons of the 21st century differentiated only by lifestyle marketing.

Which brings me to the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette.

The Corvette was not America’s first sports car, but it’s remained in production longer than any other although its design had calcified as tradition dictated too much of its look. Its voluptuous Coke-bottle form, despite becoming edgier in recent years, could be traced by decades. Similarly, its front-engine, rear-drive engineering had adeptly handled ever increasing amounts of horsepower, until Chevrolet engineers hit a wall, unable to add more. But by this point, its iconic status and perceived image were also holding it back, despite its world-class engineering. So, the time had come to build a mid-engine Corvette.

As far back as 1959, Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette’s legendary chief engineer, had fielded a number of experimental mid-engine Corvettes, culminating in the Aerovette, with spectacular styling thanks to GM’s equally legendary design chief, Bill Mitchell. Commonly used by racecars and supercars, a mid-engine car places the engine behind the driver, but ahead of the rear axle, so the car can accommodate greater horsepower.

Of course, moving the engine to the middle of the car greatly affects styling, although the 2020 Corvette retains some styling cues from preceding models. Still, some of the faithful are not convinced, even though the 1953 Corvette looks very different from one built in 1974. Previous GM stylists thought nothing of going for what’s new; why should they now?

But there’s much to take in. Walking around its aggressively sculpted form, it’s hard not to love its yawning maw, sinister headlamps, massive side air intakes, and quad exhaust. The most beautiful site, however, is large rear glass hatch with seven air vents that showcase the heart of the beast: GM’s eternal 6.2-liter V8 that produces 495 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque, when equipped with the optional Z51 Performance Package. Without it, power drops by five for each figure, while adding one-tenth of second to its 0-60 mph runs.

The V8 channels its power through a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, a GM first, and the reason why a manual transmission will not be offered for the first time since 1982.

A dual-clutch transmission is a manual transmission with two clutches actuated by the engine; there is no clutch pedal. The first clutch engages the odd gears, the other pre-selects the gear that follows. This eliminates shift shock, that moment when the car is between gears, as in a traditional manual transmission. Those tenths of a second saved provide faster acceleration. Originally developed for Formula 1 racing, it has been used since 1983 and can shift quicker than you can, although you still can if you want. Chevy’s new dual-clutch transmission has a very low first gear to get the car off the line quickly, gears two through six to keep the engine near the power peak for the track, while tall seventh and eighth gears allow for relaxed cruising.

The Z51 Performance Package, which the test car had, adds performance tires, larger brakes, an electronic limited slip differential, more aggressive gearing in the transmission, additional cooling capacity, and a front splitter and rear spoiler. With it, 60 mph arrives in 2.9 seconds — making it the fastest Corvette ever — while it attains the quarter mile in 11.2 seconds at 121 mph. Top track speed is 194 mph.

But the bigger change comes once you climb behind the wheel.

Although the car retains its low, cockpit-like driving position, you’re farther forward in the cabin, which quickens your reaction time. Certainly the powertrain facilitates that, with gobs of power and lightning quick shifts. It’s compelling, intoxicating and incredibly capable. It surpasses every parameter you can throw at it on your favorite two lane, eliminating any disrespect this nameplate engendered.

And it still can carry two sets of clubs, or the car’s removable roof.

Possibly the only complaint comes from the interior, and it’s not the interior quality, which is impressive. It’s the long row of switches that separates the driver and passenger. Initially, off-putting, they prove easy to use within a week, and are logically arranged.

If you can’t get a 2020 Corvette, the 2021s are around the corner, with only a couple changes. First, wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto are now standard. And you no longer have to order the Z51 Performance Package to get the Magnetic Selective Ride Control suspension — a very worthwhile option. Finally, Chevrolet is adding “Buckle To Drive,” which prevents the driver from shifting the vehicle out of park if the driver’s seat belt is not buckled for up to 20 seconds. Who asked for that? GM’s legal team?

Nevertheless, as automotive events go, the arrival of a new Corvette is a rarity; just eight generations have appeared over 68 years. While its birth was GM’s answer to European sports cars such as the Jaguar XK-120, the newest iteration is perhaps its most radical transformation to date, one long anticipated and, like the first, an answer to European competition, albeit Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini and McLaren.

Try buying any one of those new cars with this level of performance, engineering, and technology for less than $59,000 to start. You can’t.

That why the 2020 Corvette is the finest ever built — and the best sports car you can buy.

Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in South Florida. Readers may send him email at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.

Tribune Wire

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