Living vicariously through The Smoking Tire creator and fellow R&T contributor Matt Farah is a hobby of mine, particularly when he’s doing things that I wouldn’t necessarily have the patience and time to do. Last Friday, he put a picture on his Instagram that he took at an RM auction. It was the final sale screen for a non-turbo, 1,900-mile Pontiac Solstice. What do you suppose one of those is worth? The answer in this case: $24,000, commission. In other words, more than it sold for new.
The Pontiac Solstice and its Saturn Sky/Opel Speedster/Vauxhall Speedster siblings didn’t get a lot of respect from anybody outside the SCCA National Solo community, but they were remarkably competent and exciting to drive. The problem was they couldn’t match a Miata for everyday usability. There was a reason for that, and if General Motors had made a bigger deal of that reason I think the Solstice story might have turned out very differently. You see, the Solstice and Sky were more than budget roadsters. They were not that far away from being four-cylinder Corvettes. Which, I believe, is a time whose idea has now come.
The Kappa platform which spawned the Solstice and Sky wasn’t a Corvette with a different body on top. But it was significantly related to the C6 Corvette, and it used a lot of preexisting Corvette architecture. Kappa cars also used a variety of off-the-shelf GM hardware, from a truck-sourced transmission to a Cadillac CTS rear axle and the HVAC module out of a Hummer H3.
It’s no surprise that the resulting car didn’t have the efficiencies of the Miata, even the NC-generation MX-5 which shared some engineering with the RX-8 and was therefore a bit bigger and thicker than it truly needed to be. Yet I’ve always thought that the mistake GM made with the Solstice wasn’t about engineering—it was about branding and positioning.
The sixth-generation Corvette, like the current one, spawned quite a few variants: Z51, Z06, ZR1, and Grand Sport, each more capable and more expensive than the base car. I’ve heard all the arguments as to why this is so. Corvette buyers don’t like the idea of a "cheaper" model—the entry-level FRC six-speed was a failure; the primary volume car is an automatic convertible with the maxed-out 3LT option package. I have to admit those are powerful arguments against a hypothetical "Corvette 1LS" with a cloth interior and three grand knocked off the base price. The market for such a car would be sharply limited. Nobody saves up their whole life for a Corvette to buy the loss leader.
What hasn't been considered is whether the market would buy a Corvette-derived two-seater with a youth-friendly mechanical package and visual links to the “regular” Vette. In other words, a hardtop “Corvette Solstice” sold at Chevrolet dealers right next to the original car, with a more modest equipment list and a significantly lower cost of entry. This wouldn’t be just a cost-cutter Corvette, but a separate, smaller vehicle using the same basic platform engineering with styling more or less like a Corvette. And here’s the most important part: It would be powered by a modern turbocharged four-cylinder.
Some of you are probably already rushing off to Facebook to post comments about how crazy I am. Don’t I understand that “Corvette” and “V8” are inseparable ideas? Haven’t I griped about the relatively uninspiring nature of the modern turbo fours in the past? The answer to both is “yes, but...” Yes, I understand that mainline Corvettes need to have a V8—but there is room below the 1LT Corvette for a two-seater Chevrolet sports car with obvious Corvette DNA. Yes, I think most turbo four-bangers suck—but, I see the potential for a 300- horsepower two-seater weighing 2,900 pounds, and to me that outweighs the lack of powerplant character.
Now, to the important part: Cost. I don’t see any reason why a re-skinned four-cylinder Vette would have to cost more than a four-cylinder Camaro. Sure, the underlying platform is more expensive, but Bowling Green has the production capacity to spare, and it would be nice to amortize some Corvette engineering across more units. And there’s nothing to say it has to be as profitable as the Escalade. There’s a case to be made for the product just based on the long-term benefits of getting high-achieving young people into a Chevrolet showroom where they can then spend a lifetime buying things like the Tahoe RST.
The current turbo Camaro runs an easy 14.0-second quarter-mile at a rated power of 275hp and a 3339-lb curb weight. It’s hard to think there isn’t any more power to be had out of that engine, or that a Kappa-style junior Corvette couldn’t beat the turbo Solstice GXP's 2976-lb curb weight. I think a low 13-second quarter-mile is within reach. This would be usefully faster than the four-cylinder and V6 ponycars. On a road course, naturally, the two-seater’s light weight and low polar moment of inertia would make it even more formidable.
There’s really just one question: What would you call it? My suggestion: Resurrect the codename that’s always been attached to various ZR1- and Z06-style super-Vettes during development: Zora, after famed Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. After all, the man was passionate about affordable performance, and he never missed a chance to stick it to the competition, both foreign and domestic. I think the name “Zora” belongs on an affordable Vette derivative more than it belongs on the fanciest, priciest one-percenter model.
Just as importantly, a $29,999 two-seater Chevrolet would help position the idea of Corvette as a brand ladder, rather than an automatic-transmission, convertible-top Florida retirement cruiser. It puts young people in the pipeline. You’d have 20- and 30-somethings buying it new from the dealer; that’s a rarity with the current product lineup. Finally, it would expose a bunch of “import intenders” to the surprising excellence available from a performance Chevy today.
When we crowned the 2014 Stingray as that year's Performance Car of the Year, it was due at least in part to the way it caught even our most experienced staffers completely off guard. The C7 Corvette isn’t just a fast car, and it isn’t just a “good Corvette." It’s an all-around winner that would benefit from a larger audience. Look at it this way: GM has spent more money on worse ideas. Even if sales never reached their targets, it would serve as a love letter from the General to its most deeply-desired potential customers—and it would certainly make for some interesting auction results in the years ahead.