Like General Motors, its perennially remorseful, recovering father, the Chevrolet Corvette is a survivor.
For every historic high in the Corvette family album, there are fallow periods and red-faced snapshots: the car's underpowered, six-cylinder youth; the leisure-suited dissipation of the 1970s. Or, as Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter puts it, the overwrought "Tokyo by night" electronic dash of the fourth-generation '80s Corvette.
The Corvette has even suffered near-death experiences, with forces both in and out of the company plotting its demise. Until legendary chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov put the car on a path to power and glory-the gifted Russian émigré applied at GM after seeing the Corvette "dream car" at New York's Motorama in 1953-it looked as though the Vette might not see many birthdays.
Sixty winters later, as Chevrolet prepares the seventh-generation (C7) Corvette, the model is at another crossroads. As we toast the rare sports car that can snuff so many candles, the Corvette seems healthy as a horse-or 450 horses, the prodigious output of the C7's new 6.2-liter V-8. By most metrics, including Nürburgring lap times, the outgoing Vette is more competitive with the Ferraris of the world than ever.
But beneath the surface, issues are bubbling, not all of which are under the control of GM's engineers. Corvette sales have fallen to a near 50-year low, thanks largely to an economic recession that has withered new-car sales across the board. In an age of 662-hp, factory-built Ford Mustangs and SUVs with tire-roasting grunt, all-out thrust, long a Vette strength, is no longer a trump card. Feedback, build quality, and emotion, rarely Chevrolet hallmarks, are now paramount.
Juechter is just the fifth chief engineer in the Corvette's history. Part of his mission is restoring the car's enthusiast appeal. We couldn't help but wonder: What's it going to take? And just as important, what does the man in charge really think of the competition?
We posed those questions to Juechter at GM's Milford Proving Ground in suburban Michigan. To make things interesting, we also brought along presents: an Audi R8, a Nissan GT-R, and a BMW M3. These are the barbarians at the gate, the cars the Corvette has to better; GM purchased an example of each during C7 development for benchmark purposes. The General provided the Chevy's perennial rival, a Porsche 911 Carrera S, just purchased by GM and used for various wind-tunnel and engineering tests.
Juechter, a mechanical and aerospace engineer with a Stanford MBA, spotted our convoy but let us through Milford's hallowed gates. Suburban-driving security led us toward the 67-acre "Black Lake" asphalt test pad. Camouflaged C7s rolled tantalizingly nearby. Juechter, acknowledging second thoughts over the whole silly idea, graciously saddled up the interlopers and let us pick his brain.
Amazingly, the man largely responsible for the next Corvette has never driven an Audi R8. His first time begins with a wink: "It's a stick! Oh my God, how'd you know I could drive a stick?"
Juechter's car-building acumen lets him absorb myriad details in the time it takes me to locate the ignition switch. He notes the Audi's beautifully linear powertrain, but also how the high-revving V-8 "feels pretty gutless" below 4000 rpm. He rattles the retro-Italian gated shifter and peers into its visible linkage—"that surprises me, its underwear is showing"—and calls it a surprising outlier in the Audi's otherwise modern cabin.
But it's Audi's lauded design approach that most interests Juechter. "That's quality hardware," he says, running a hand over the R8's center stack. He sees Audi as "the master of perceived quality, details, and artistic solutions," including cabin materials that feel expensive and resist fingerprints.
In 1993, Juechter interviewed to become the right-hand man for then-new Corvette chief engineer Dave Hill. Brashly, he brought a list of five non-negotiable demands for the upcoming C5 Corvette, including addressing the C4's "plastic fantastic" interior.
"If they didn't fix them, I wasn't going to work for them," he recalls.
Two decades later, with C6 production winding down, Juechter still sees room for improvement. The C7's cabin redesign, he believes, turns a longtime Corvette "weakness into a strength," a mantra that guided overall development. Participants in one of GM's consumer clinics slid into an R8, a GT-R, a previous-generation (997) 911, and a C7 interior mock-up, their exteriors hidden and cabin badges erased. Juechter claims test subjects chose the Audi two to one over the Porsche and Nissan-but preferred the C7 by two to one over the Audi.
Apparently, the odd quirk is acceptable, as Juechter twirls the R8's throwback shifter one last time before climbing out: "I'd probably learn to love this," he decides.
Compared with the Audi, the M3 is less of a design paragon. Instead, Juechter praises its sightlines and the way the BMW has carved out a niche.
"You can see why it's so popular," he says. "You've got a sedan seating position and a usable rear seat, but a sports-car driving experience."
He finds the interior functional but a bit conflicted, and clearly isn't left quivering by the 4.0-liter, 414-hp V-8. (Perhaps few cars feel strong to a man who helped develop the 638-hp ZR1.)
As for that ever-rising tide of horsepower, we asked Juechter whether many sports cars, including Corvettes, are approaching the limits of usable force.
"I wish we could call a global conference and end the horsepower war," he says, "but I don't see that happening." A few true believers, he agrees, will prefer the light and lightly powered approach of a Lotus, but most buyers still want bragging rights.
"For a lot of people, it's 'mine's bigger than yours,' even if most people only use a fraction of that capability."
With 545 horses powering four wheels and sub-three-second 0-60-mph times, the Nissan GT-R lives for humiliating numerical comparisons. Yet, of this group, the GT-R likely has the least to teach the Corvette, and the least in common.
"That sounded industrial," Juechter says after pushing the GT-R's start button. He calls the Nissan an impressive exercise in systems integration-a kitchen sink's worth of computers and smart differentials working in transparent harmony.
Juechter is diplomatic, but he's obviously less impressed with the GT-R's tuner-car styling and two-ton personality. The Nissan also lacks immediacy due to its excess weight and lagging turbos: "This car must be faster than it feels," he says over slurping induction noise, spanking through paddle-triggered shifts. The press long ago labeled this car Godzilla, but crushing monsters don't do nuance.
"They've made this elephant dance," he says. "But anyone can drive it fast; there's not a lot of skill required."
Balancing performance with an expectation of reasonable driver skill remains part of the Corvette philosophy. Juechter says the C7 will eschew performance Band-Aids or gadgetry, such as adaptive cruise control, that don't improve the driving experience. Of course, "handling" and "steering" are slippery and subjective notions. Even as the Corvette and its rivals have scaled the 1-g lateral-grip Olympus—"Never thought I'd see that in my lifetime," he says—Juechter sees a "ridiculous overemphasis" on maximum grip on the part of enthusiasts and the industry that serves (and panders to) them. Instead, boosting the Corvette's fingertip feel and driver engagement-and not simply as tires reach their limits-has been a recurring theme in C7 development.
And that leads us inexorably to the Porsche 911, that bastion of steering sensibility, the German high priest of acute feeling. Mein Gott, after six decades, Corvette people must be sick of this holy-roller crap.
If that's the case, Juechter doesn't let on. Like Americans themselves, the new, post-bankruptcy GM can't afford many weekend toys: The 911 is currently the only direct Corvette rival in the company fleet. (Hence our supplying the other three.) And the Corvette's perennial bogey, and bogeyman, does pretty much everything well, he says. The Porsche is a willing partner, light and dynamic yet forgiving. Its low-inertia powertrain never lashes out after a poorly timed shift. Like the Corvette, it's livable, with a decent ride and fuel economy, an airy greenhouse, and luggage-loving rear seats.
Interestingly, Juechter grew up in a Porsche household, in the New York suburb of Chappaqua: He devoured car magazines, riding belt-free in the back of his father's 356 convertible and, later, a 911. The 55-year-old spent his formative years strapping lawn-mower engines to skateboards, building a full-suspension bicycle from cribbed shop-class parts, and terrorizing his neighborhood in a homemade go-kart.
The C6's steering feel "wasn't terrible, but it wasn't as good as the 911's, so that's what we benchmarked," he says.
Like most modern sports cars, the C7 will use fuel-saving, yet feel-suppressing electrically assisted power steering. Suppliers, he says, would no longer
even bid to deliver hydraulic steering components, so fully has the industry switched to electron-aided tillers. In contrast to, say, electric-steering engineers at BMW or Porsche-who, like stockholders in Trojan, steadfastly deny any loss of sensation in their product-Juechter is welcomely honest: EPS, he says, can help isolate unwanted noise and vibration, yet electric motors and digital algorithms unavoidably cut feel. It will take a few generations to approach the analog connection of the best hydraulic helms, he says.
"I'm not going to claim we've achieved perfection," he says of the Corvette's EPS unit. "All we can do is take what Porsche and others have done and make it better."
For those who've wondered or whined over the Vette's occasionally uncommunicative nature, its inability to inspire confidence on narrow snaking roads, don't forget the 911's architectural advantages. The rear-engined Porsche's relatively modest front mass forges a chain of gains: Lower front load allows less power assist, which begets natural feel.
"That's one of the things that's always been so special about the 911," Juechter says.
The Corvette will look to press its own historical advantages. While some Corvette generations overstayed their welcome, and the C6 was only a subtle makeover of the C5, Corvette designers have been willing to push the styling envelope. Compared with the 911's sacrosanct shape, today's Vette has almost nothing in common with the original.
"Their car is less visually exciting than what we shoot for," he says.
Chevrolet is also expected to hold the line on current pricing, at just over $50,000 for a base coupe. That's nearly half the price of a 911 S. Still, asked if his team worries about the relentless price creep of sports cars, Juechter's eyebrows lift: "Hell yes," he says.
Juechter acknowledges that the Corvette's biggest enemies might not be other sports cars, but external factors.
"Sports cars are a discretionary purchase, and when people don't have money, they don't buy them," he says.
A decade ago, one of every 500 cars sold in this country was a Corvette. Now it's one in every 1000. The car has found roughly 13,000 customers each of the past four years. That's a sickly level unseen since the Mercury astronauts were gunning Corvettes in 1961. The car's premium segment, which includes the 911, has seen sales plummet by two-thirds since 2006.
Juechter also acknowledges that Chevy is fighting a wicked demographic tide. The traditional boomer audience is graying. And there's no clear sign that younger people will aspire to the model.
"We spend a lot of time talking about that," Juechter says. "How do you get younger people who think the Corvette is an old man's car, when every driver they see has white or no hair?"
The Corvette, for all its performance gains, must restore a faded reputation on America's critical coasts. If that's not gloomy enough, studies suggest that younger generations care less about cars, preferring the connection of the latest smartphone.
"I wish I could say we have it figured out, but it's a pretty intractable problem," Juechter says. "We have to convince younger people that it's a special car." At least the feds were convinced: Jump-starting the C7 became a top post-bankruptcy priority for GM. Treasury Department consultants, including a few Corvette geeks hoping to glean secret insight, reviewed the books and flashed the green light.
"It was in the interest of U.S. taxpayers to continue the [car]," Juechter affirms. Later, he adds, "if we can double where we are today [in sales], we'll be okay. We can pay back our investment, turn a profit, and then the Corvette can continue to exist.''
Willie Dixon once sang about the mythical Seventh Son; the one that could see the future, raise the dead, and "make you little girls talk out of your head." Here's hoping the Corvette's Seventh Son makes a similar mark, for little girls and boys alike.