There’s never been a new Corvette like this one.
Actually, there’s never really been an automotive transition like this one. The Corvette is, undoubtably, among the most iconic brands in the car world, right up there with 911 and Jeep and Bronco and Mustang. Yet while all these icons have shifted and changed over time, none have every made a change so drastic as to move the engine from in front of the driver and passenger to behind them.
Yet it’s a change that’s been a long time coming for the ‘Vette. The car’s first chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, dreamed of shoving the engine between seats and rear axle from the early days of the car 60 years ago; since then, it’s been somewhere between a pipe dream and just-around-the-corner goal, subject of endless Area 51-esque rumors and top-secret discussions. General Motors actually considered making the switch for the seventh-generation car, but the financial crisis of 2008 and GM’s subsequent bankruptcy and bailout torpedoed those pricey plans, forcing the company to stick with the front-engined, rear-drive layout that’d defined the Corvette since 1953.
Still, the dream never died. In fact, the C7 ‘Vette had only been on sale for a year when its maker commissioned the first mid-engined C8 test mule — an amalgam of parts (including a repurposed Porsche dual-clutch gearbox) wrapped up in crude bodywork with the front end of a Holden Commodore, in order to make it look a little like one of the Australian brand’s El Camino-like utes. It was so secret, only one — dubbed “Blackjack” — was ever made, and only a handful of people within GM knew what it was. The engineers whipped up a special cover for it that could be tossed on in seconds, should, say, a passing helicopter try and catch a glimpse of it. (Which, in fact, happened.)
Yet even in spite of more than half a century of precedent for the idea of a mid-engined Corvette, it still came as something of a shock when it became clear in 2018 that GM was pulling the trigger on the idea. Some people assumed that it would be a Cadillac halo car, not a Chevy; some people assumed it would be a terrible idea, because it would certainly be priced to compete against similarly-powerful mid-engined sports cars like the Audi R8 and McLaren 570S; still others assumed the C7 would continue being sold as a base model alongside an exotic-baiting mid-engined range topper. (Admittedly, your humble author fell into that camp.)
But as it turned out, the all-new, eighth-generation Corvette…is an awful lot like the one that came before. The engine is still a 6.2-liter, naturally-aspirated smallblock; it still fits two people and a pair of golf bags; it’s still all sharp angles and wide flanks; and, most importantly, it still starts around $60,000. Even the name’s the same: Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. The engine just happens to be behind you.
What We Like
Well, obviously, that’s not the only change Chevy made. The rearranged architecture meant all sorts of other details had to change as a result, but perhaps none was quite as shocking as the decision to ditch the venerable manual gearbox (and, for that matter, the torque-converter automatic) for a dual-clutch transmission. (It wasn’t just packaging concerns that mandated the move; sadly, the low take rate for stick shift C7s made the decision an obvious one.) Like Porsche’s newest PDK, it offers eight forward speeds to choose from
A few minutes behind the wheel, though, is enough to leave any nostalgia for the stick shift fluttering in the ‘Vette slipstream. The eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox was made for this car, and it’s the first thing you notice when setting off in it. The shifts click off seamlessly and practically instantaneously, whether left to its own clever programming or commanded through the metal paddles jutting from the squared-off steering wheel (which, for the record, isn’t weird at all once you’re driving).
It, not the engine’s change of address, is what defines the car’s straight-line acceleration; it’s a seamless, rising torrent of thrust, the gear changes notable more for the moves of the digital tachometer and the sound of the engine than any interruption in thrust. Like the new Shelby GT500 (whose seven-speed dual clutch is also made by Tremec), it’s every bit as good as the dual-clutches from Germany.
Sooner or later, though, you hit a turn ideally while carrying some speed and the new layout makes its changes instantly known. Like the best mid-engined cars, the 2020 Corvette feels like it’s pivoting around you the front axle unencumbered by weight, the nose darty without so much mass to move. Partially as a result (and likely partially because Chevy dialed the suspension in that way), it’s far, far less prone to oversteer than its predecessor, which could drift with the best of them.
Instead, it handles neutrally — though with a dash of understeer that’s more noticeable on the track. It’s a move that makes the car reward skilled driving more in a different way than its predecessors; you steer it with the throttle a little less before, depend on the steering a little more, and have to find your line and commit to corners with more aggression than you might expect. It’s a big enough difference that those upgrading from past ‘Vettes might benefit from some expert guidance behind the wheel before taking their new C8s to the track.
Stil, once I started opening it up and pushing the car both on the Spring Mountain Motorsports road course and, admittedly, on some of the deserted desert roads outside Las Vegas — the biggest issue I had with the car was that the engine didn’t feel powerful enough. The driving experience feels so much like a mid-engined supercar — a Ferrari 488, a McLaren 720S — that, having become acclimated to those, the comparatively-wimpy Corvette feels wimpy when you floor it from a roll. That 2.8-second 0-60 mph time Chevy brags so much about is more about launch control wizardry than brute force; in the real world, it feels much more like the 500-horsepower car it is.
Apart from whatever understeer-y adjustments made to make sure the Corvette’s many senescent drivers don’t wind up over their heads, the suspension, as in the past generation of Corvette, is a delightful balance of handling and impact absorption far from flinty, but never loose or floppy. (Granted, the fresh, smooth pavement of our Nevada drive route didn’t offer much in the way of bumps.) Most of my time was spent in a Z51 performance pack-equipped car with the adaptive magnetorheological suspension, but a brief autocross dally in a Z51 with passive dampers revealed it to be ever-so-slightly less capable, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice without repeated back-to-back comparison.
Relaxed stretches of open road proved a prime time to check out the new car’s interior, which is driver-oriented in a way few cars can match at any price. If a Porsche 911 is a 2+2, this is practically a 1+1 — a car for the driver, with the passenger’s needs second. Every control lies within a matter of inches from the steering wheel, from the shift
lever buttons and drive mode selector (which sits beneath a leather hand rest in a place most cars would put the infotainment controller) to the touchscreen display and volume knob. It’s very handy for everything the driver needs…once you lock the purpose and location of the dozen-and-a-half buttons on the ridge between the seats into your muscle memory.
The Corvette may have once suffered from a lack of good seats, but these days, there’s almost too many choices. Lying between the comfort-minded GT1 seat and the sportier the GT3 lies the GT2, the Goldilocks-approved middle ground that combines the racy look of the latter with the long-haul comfort of the former. It’s just one part of an interior that benefits from an extensive redesign, bringing better materials to bear across the board. Gone are the days when you’d spy a shared steering wheel with a Malibu or the same radio controls as a Park Avenue in your GM sports car; just about everything you see and touch is, if not bespoke to the ‘Vette, at least tweaked for duty here.
Likewise, the materials are far, far better than in the Plastic Fantastic Corvettes of Old GM — or even the far better That Bailout Was Money Well Spent New GM guts of the C7. Opting for the top-shelf 3LT trim Corvette used to seem like a waste of money; with the C8, though, the extra $4,650 over the 2LT for supple Napa leather everywhere, carbon fiber accents and standard GT2 seats seems like money well spent. Plus, as in days of yore, you can order the Corvette with a dizzying array of stand-alone options, in a crazy variety of colors and accents both inside and out.
And it’s not so much a C8-specific note, but the new generation of car hammered it home once again: people love Corvettes. They love them with a genuine enthusiasm that makes other cars’ fanbases seem phony by comparison. (Before there was The Jeep Wave, there was The Corvette Wave — a two-fingered salute ‘Vette drivers give one another from behind the wheel.) Our sole stop while driving was at a remote rest stop on the far side of Valley of Fire State Park, yet even there, Corvette fans began finding their way to the car, curious to know all about it.
Watch Out For
In spite of GM’s best efforts, the C8 isn’t quite as usable as the C7. It’s an issue that pops up most noticeable in terms of the trunk space. The eighth-gen car has a total of 12.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity, 2.4 cubes less than its predecessor — but unlike the C7’s broad cargo bay, which could easily take both its occupants’ checked and carry-on bags, the 2020 Corvette splits that space up between a front trunk the size of a Yeti cooler (“That’s where I’d put the ice and beer if I was your age,” an passing septuagenarian said half-jokingly as I poked around the frunk at a rest stop) and a short-but-wide-and-deep bay behind the engine.
Chevy went out of their way to show us that two golf bags will, indeed, fit into that trunk, but it requires surgical precision compared with the ease of tossing your clubs into most car. More unfortunately for those who might want to use the ‘Vettes as grocery getters, that stern cargo bay gets hot, thanks to the engine next to it. When I fished my backpack out of it after a couple hours of driving, I was briefly worried that my MacBook Pro had been fatally cooked.
The interior is roughly the same size as the previous car, but it feels subjectively smaller, thanks to the seating position. The car’s project manager swore to me that they added an inch of length to the cabin, but between the bulkhead behind you separating cabin from engine, the tall sills on the side and the high-rise center console, you feel ensconced in a way you don’t in most cars. I can’t remember the last time I drove a car that felt quite so driver-focused which is great for when you’re hustling, but not as much for those times you wanna sit back and cruise.
In addition, while the angled starfighter cockpit is extremely useful for drivers though figuring out what buttons do what in the long control strip takes a little more time than in the average car — the driver-focused orientation makes it awfully difficult for the passenger to change the radio or fiddle with their climate controls. The C7 was smart enough to give the passenger a redundant temperature and fan control; the C8 doesn’t even offer that, forcing shotgun riders to awkwardly contort their arms to adjust anything but seat position and the window.
Admittedly, this penultimate con is subjective: while it’s still a sexy car, the C8 doesn’t look quite as good as the seventh-gen ‘Vette. It’s undoubtably more exotic, especially in bright colors that make the lines and creases of its centered-mass shape pop, but the mid-engined shape is simply less classically attractive than a front-engined, cab-backwards sports car.
And rather surprisingly for a sports car with 500 horsepower that accelerate and can rip around corners at 1 g …there’s no “oh, shit” handle for the passenger to grab.
The Porsche 911 Carrera S ($113,300+) comes closest to matching the ‘Vette in both performance and timeless appeal — but at a significantly higher price. Porsche’s 718 Cayman ($57,500+) and 718 Boxster ($59,600+) start around the same price, and while they’re far less powerful, they’re still a blast to drive. And Ford’s Shelby GT500 ($72,900+) may still keep its engine in front, but its 760-hp V8 and track-tuned suspension mean it’s capable of sticking close to the ‘Vette in turns and catching up on the straights.
The eighth-generation Corvette isn’t better in every way than its predecessor. Those who use their Corvettes for long road trips more than back-road ripping will miss the last-gen’s cabin and cargo space, and drivers who’d rather glory in lurid drifts than slice and dice apexes will probably find the new car frustrating. Luckily, Chevy dealers can direct those buyers a few feet down the showroom to the Camaro, where they can grab all the V8 roar and easy-access power oversteer they want for as little as $34,995. (Or, alternately, to the used car section of the lot, where you can probably find a lightly-used C7 for similar money.)
For everyone else the people who buy Corvettes for their incredible all-around performance, the folks who grab them just for stoplight drag races and high-speed highway tears, and the ones who get it just to show off — the eighth-generation Corvette is nothing short of revolutionary. Moving the motor hasn’t just improved the performance and made it look more exotic; it, along with the other changes Chevy made, have elevated the Corvette from sports car bargain to the world’s first affordable supercar.
We can’t wait to see what comes next for the Corvette: a high-revving flat-plane crank V8, a turbocharged engine, an all-wheel-drive hybrid making 1,000 horsepower? They’re all in the cards. But for now, we’re happy to just reflect on our first time with America’s best new sports car…and wait for the next chance to drive it.