American Idol Corvette Stingray Mike Duff drives the new Vette on Route 66. The Corvette is one of US motoring’s most famous names, but its appeal to British audiences has always been limited. We travel to California to find out if the new, seventh-generation version can change all that. Text by Mike Duff. Photography by Andrew Yeadon.
A red 2019 Chevrolet Corvette C7 sits in the sun beside a lonely diner in the desert, right next to Route 66. It feel s like a film set – or a horrendous cliché. In truth, it’s a bit of both. And barring the sudden arrival of a squad of cheerleaders, or a marching sousaphone band playing ‘Louie Louie’, the scene could hardly look more stereotypically American. It feels like the Fonz will show up if we hang around for long enough.
The reality is different. This bit of Route 66, reputedly the ‘dark desert highway’ of ‘Hotel California’, has long been bypassed by Interstate 40. Now the sparse traffic is a mixture of nostalgic tourists, US Marines being acclimatised to desert warfare at the vast Air Ground Combat Center – and film companies looking for locations. Despite the promise implicit in its neon sign, Roy’s Motel and Café can’t offer a bed for the night or even a hot meal. These days, other than selling souvenirs, its main purpose seems to be as an all-American location for filming and photo shoots.
But it’s the Corvette, the all-new seventh-generation version of American’s original sports car, also known by its brought-back ‘Stingray’ name badge, that is probably the thing in this image that has diverged furthest from your expectations.
A preliminary scan of the spec sheet for the C7 Vette is likely to highlight the similarities to its predecessors rather than its differences. Under the bonnet sits a big 6.2-litre V8 that, somewhat improbably now we’re well inside the second decade of the 21st century, still operates its valves via pushrods. This works with a rear-mounted transaxle to give near optimal 50:50 weight distribution – another familiar character trait. And yes, before you ask, the rear suspension does still use that infamous transverse leaf spring.
But keep digging and you find there’s plenty of new tech here as well. The V8 boasts both direct injection and selective cylinder shutdown. The bodyshell is aluminium, with plastic panels and a carbonfibre bonnet and roof. Multi-mode stability control (including an aggressive Track mode) and switchable dampers are standard across the range, too.
But the real jaw-dropping moment comes when you see the price tag. Admittedly it’s artificially deflated by the pound’s uncharacteristic strength against the dollar, but our test car’s basic $53,800 works out at around £33,000. Even with pretty much every option box ticked, including the one for the sports exhaust that brings power up to 465bhp, the car GM has provided us with is $62,085 – around £38,000 at current exchange rates. Of course, those numbers don’t matter.
When Corvettes cross the Atlantic their price tags swell as much as their relevance shrinks. We already know the official EU-spec car will cost £61,495 when it gets here, and that’s with a steering wheel on the wrong side for us Brits. But in the US, the Stingray is $30,000 (c£18,500) less than a base Porsche 911 991.2 and has a better power-to-weight ratio. It’s enough to get me considering how to get a green card.
Before today, I’ve only seen the Stingray on show stands. But now I’m staring at this Torch Red example in bright Californian sunlight, and it looks good. Indeed, it pulls off the neat trick of looking both new and instantly familiar. For my money the C7 looks vastly better than its recent ancestors: lines sharper and tighter, mass better proportioned. Parts of it have clearly drawn inspiration from elsewhere: the front end bears a distinct resemblance to the Ferrari 599 and there’s a hint of Nissan GT-R in the side view and the shape of the glasshouse. And yet it’s still instantly recognisable as a Corvette. During our time together the car is correctly identified by almost everyone we meet, including (and I promise I’m not making this one up) a one-eyed grandmother.
Get close and it stays good, which isn’t something you could say for any other recent Vette. Knowing how popular Drive-My is in certain parts of the US where the Corvette is still held in almost devotional regard, I’m not going to say anything too rude about previous ones. Let’s just say I know someone who once traded a C5 Corvette against a TVR Griffith because he wanted something that was better-assembled. To get picky, it’s clear that the Stingray’s paint quality isn’t up to premium European standards, with slight ‘orange peel’ distortion on the lower panels obvious in the Californian sun. But the shutlines are impressively tight and details like the Stingray badges on the front wings stay classy up close.
The interior is good, too. Even a diligent fingertip inspection of the lower reaches of the cockpit doesn’t turn up any areas of obvious cheapness – earlier Corvettes often felt like they were going to come to pieces in your hand. The instrument panel has a central TFT rev counter with crisply rendered fonts and a respectable refresh time, although the speed, fuel and temperature gauges that flank it are conventional. You could quibble with the light weighting of some of the switchgear, while the decision to release the doors electrically via buttons rather than having simple catches feels like a gimmick. But overall this is a Corvette you don’t have to apologise to passengers for. The biggest and most welcome surprise, however, is finding a proper gearshift protruding from the centre console. America might be the land of the automatic, but people who buy sports cars here tend to prefer exclusive responsibility for shifting their own gears. The C7 gets a seven-speed manual ’box as standard, with a six-speed torque-converter auto an option – none of your fancy double-clutches here.
Of course, there are some good reasons why the majority of Californians prefer to just stick their cars in Drive. Leaving Los Angeles on congested freeways gives both the gearbox and my left leg a proper workout. The engine is tractable and happy to rumble along in stop-start traffic, and even at low speeds it feels great. But the clutch is heavy and its biting point isn’t the easiest to judge. The gearshift has a short throw and what feels like a slightly artificial weight to it, making it heavier than it should be. I’m also struggling with seventh gear, both physically and as an idea. Unlike the new 911, there’s no inhibitor when you change up from fourth to ensure you go straight into fifth, making it hard to slot fifth neatly. And as sixth shows less than 2000rpm at an 80mph freeway cruise, there really doesn’t seem to be any point having an even taller ratio on top of it. There aren’t many Autobahns in North America, after all.
Our test car is fitted with both the Z51 performance pack and the $1195 option of a multi-mode sports exhaust, with the total 465bhp making this the most powerful C7, at least until the Z06 and ZR1 versions arrive. That’s a respectable output in anybody’s book, but initial impressions are that this car doesn’t feel that quick. Maybe I’m getting too used to turbocharged low-down torque and fast-reacting automated gearboxes. Despite the promise of its vast capacity, the V8 isn’t a low-rev slugger and needs to be pushed to deliver. It starts to pull properly above about 3000rpm, and only really comes on song with 4500rpm showing. Not the sort of behaviour you can get away with for long on a Californian freeway, where it feels like there’s a police interceptor every couple of miles.
I’ll be meeting photographer Andrew Yeadon in Palm Springs, and we’ll be heading into the desert tomorrow morning to take some pictures on what I’m promised are some of California’s quietest roads. But Yeadon has already warned me that this means there isn’t going to be a huge amount of steering input: apparently I’ll be getting to see what a 26-mile straight looks like. So today’s mission, via some internet-assisted photo reconnaissance, is to find some corners. Google Maps suggests that turning off Interstate 10 at Banning and heading south on High way 243 will bag me more bends than the rest of southern California put together.
Part of me is expecting that, despite the praise that’s been heaped on the Stingray in the US, it’s going to struggle when asked to deal with something resembling an Alpine pass. On the freeway it feels like a nice enough place to spend time, but there can be few roads less well sui ted to stretching a car than an American interstate. Yet, within a couple of miles on some properly challenging tarmac, the Vette proves itself genuinely impressive.
The C7 feels both smaller and lighter on its feet than any of its forebears. In terms of physical dimensions it’s a very similar size to its immediate predecessors, but it’s in better control of its mass. The dampers feel relatively soft in their default Touring mode, and there’s noticeable lean in corners even with these turned up to Sport. But the chassis doesn’t let Highway 243’s ridges and imperfections throw it off course: it stays on line even as the figures on the slightly gimmicky G-meter that’s built into the (optional) head-up display start to rise: 0.8G, 0.9G – and this is without really trying.
As for the transverse leaf spring, a fixture on Corvettes since the 1963 C2, its main purpose is to make the rear suspension as compact as possible. It still acts via double wishbones at each corner, and has no role in locating the rear suspension, just springing it. On the road, it’s a complete non-issue.
The steering takes a while to get dialled into. While the rack is quick, the weighting is light and you need a few turns to build trust in the front end’s responses. Assistance is electrical, but it feels more like an old-school hydraulic setup, so much of the ‘noise’ that gets filtered out by most electrical systems – bumps and camber changes – still comes through to the thick-rimmed wheel. Behind the lightness, feedback is muted but it is still there, with a perceptible lightening in longer turns as you accelerate the front tyres close to the edge. The sheer level of grip generated by the Michelin Pilot Super Sports, however, means you’re carrying serious speed before sensing the edge is approaching.
In fact, the Corvette feels over-tyred at first, a sensation exacerbated by the engine’s relative lack of low-down torque. In anything above second gear you have to wring the engine to feel any influence on the back end. You suspect that, when rear-end grip does run out, it will be sudden. The flip side is that, with the stability control doing its thing, you quickly build a confidence that on warm, dry tarmac, the Stingray’s raw adhesion will enable you to unleash the glorious-sounding V8 pretty much everywhere. Forget pushrods (officially still used to enable the engine to be built lower): it never feels old-fashioned from the driver’s seat. Throttle response is clean and accurate, and although the 6500rpm red line isn’t that high, the Stingray’s enthusiasm to get there and the noise it makes doing so is addictive.
I’m still not sure about the gearbox. In truth, a tall final drive means you aren’t too taxed by changing ratios on a road like this: third runs out beyond 100mph. But there’s still a hesitation in shifting across the transmission’s planes that’s at odds with the speed of the steering responses. The manual Corvette also comes with an automated throttle blipper to match revs on down-changes – although it h as to be activated each time you turn the ignition on via one of what would, in the six-speed automatic version, be a steering wheel gearchange paddle. It works cleanly and, as the distance between the brake and throttle pedals defies most attempts to bridge them when you want to heel-and-toe, it’s a good addition. The brakes themselves are strong and resist fade well.
I reach Palm Springs after my circuitous detour feeling more positive about this Corvette than any of its ancestors, but still wondering just what happens when you pass beyond its towering limits.
The next morning brings a rendezvous with Yeadon, and then the Mojave Desert proper. There are going to be fewer corners today, but undoubtedly higher speeds too. Indeed, Yeadon promises that the road that connects Twenty-nine Palms to Amboy, where Roy’s Café and Motel is waiting, is more than 40 miles of pretty-much nothing. It’s a road that goes from literally nothing to almost nothing, one so quiet that even California’s notoriously keen police patrols tend to ignore it.
The Corvette, unsurprisingly, feels at home in this scenario, tracking arrow-straight at speed, devouring the sun-drenched landscape in a cascade of V8 noise. Even the sky-high gearing starts to make sense at the sorts of velocities encouraged by the road’s utter emptiness. We stop to manhandle the removable roof panel off the car for a picture – the boot is full of cameras, so we just leave the roof lying at the side of the road for 20 minutes. And with the Corvette targafied and the warm wind rushing past, it really does feel like I’m driving through my own B-movie. I half expect to find a 1970 Dodge Challenger heading the other way.
But there’s little out here to challenge the Corvette. This was the sort of journey that earlier Vettes were built for: great American road trips of straight lines and inexpensive gas. But after yesterday, I know that this one can stand up to tougher challenges as well. If only this desert landscape could deliver a few medium-speed corners as well…
Then we find some – a road to nowhere just past Amboy heading towards a vast volcanic crater, but boasting some actual bends. The surface is dusty, but the Corvette takes the challenge in its stride. And, as grip levels fall, so the chassis improves. With everything switched off, the Stingray has both a neutral balance and an easy driftability on the sandy surface. It’s hardly a scientific test. But it is fun.
I once heard the Corvette being likened to an alligator, in that it is a highly effective predator that hasn’t had to evolve for several millennia. The C7 feels different: more international in outlook and better to drive. I can’t promise that it’s going to make much sense over on our side of the Atlantic, what with a £60k price tag, wrong-hand drive and all. But in America, it’s simply brilliant.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51
Engine V8, 6162cc
Max power 465bhp @ 6000rpm (with sports exhaust) / DIN
Max torque 464lb ft @ 4600rpm (with sports exhaust) / DIN
Transmission Seven-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, electronic limited-slip diff, ESP
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers rear suspension Double wishbones, transverse leaf spring, adaptive dampers
Brakes Vented discs, 345mm front, 338mm rear
Wheels 8.5 x 19 in front, 10 x 20in rear tyres 245/35 R19 front, 285/30 R20 rear
Weight (kerb) 1499kg
Power-to-weight 315bhp/ton (with sports exhaust)
0-60mph 3.8sec (claimed)
Top speed 190mph (claimed)
Basic price £61,495 (EU version)
On sale late spring 2019
Drive-My rating: 4.5
Opposite page: sequences of corners are a rarity in the Mojave Desert. Below right: interior finish is vastly improved, but UK cars will still be le –hand-drive. Bottom: oversteer is tough to generate on dry surfaces – unless they’re dusty, too. Below: seventh speed of manual feels like one too many. Right: venerable 6.2-litre V8 puts out 465bhpwhen optional sports exhaust is fitted.
‘THE C7 FEELS DIFFERENT: MORE INTERNATIONAL IN OUTLOOK AND BETTER TO DRIVE’
‘THE CORVETTE FEELS AT HOME, TRACKING ARROW STRAIGHT AT SPEED, DEVOURING THE SUN-DRENCHED LANDSCAPE IN A CASCADE OF V8 NOISE’
‘WITHIN A COUPLE OF MILES ON CHALLENGING TARMAC, THE VETTE PROVES ITSELF GENUINELY IMPRESSIVE’
‘THE C7 LOOKS VASTLY BETTER THAN ITS RECENT ANCESTORS: LINES SHARPER AND TIGHTER, MASS BETTER PROPORTIONED’