Tadge Juechter and his team can surely sense the shadow of the late Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Russian-born, German-trained engineer who is recognized as the father of the Chevrolet Corvette. And in 2013, with General Motors forging a promising comeback – but without guarantees, of course – Juechter and his team must also feel the weight of an entire company's expectations.
This is what it means to be the chief engineer of the 2014 Corvette Stingray.
The 'Vette is a halo car for the entire company, not merely the Chevrolet brand. The 'Vette speaks to GM's expertise in every aspect of the car business, from styling to performance, from technology to lightweight materials. The 'Vette is a metaphor for the "new" GM, the global colossus that emerged humbled from bankruptcy in 2009. The promise from the top GM executive since 2009 has been to do better than ever, to focus on building "world class" products, ones not in need of any apologies. Juechter has no apologies for the 2014 Corvette Stingray.
"I've worked on Corvette for 20 years," says Juechter, a lean engineer in old jeans and racing shoes. We're here at the ride-and-drive for the seventh-generation 'Vette, the C7, and Juechter is speaking inside an airport hanger, surrounded by static displays intended to tell the development story of this 'Vette Stingray.
"It's long been a goal to do a car worthy of the 'Stingray' name. We did not set out to do a Stingray and we only gave it that name when we decided the car was worthy." Worthy of the legendary 1963 Sting Ray, of course.
Juechter talks about how, when planning began in 2008-2009 for this latest 'Vette, the dealers said the old C6 was fine mechanically, that its performance was never questioned. What the C6 needed was a new body and better seats. Juechter and his gang disagreed. That just wouldn't do, not if this new 'Vette were to legitimately challenge the likes of super sports cars like the Audi R8 and the Porsche 911 Carrera.
No, the plan, he says, evolved into something simple: take race-car attributes like "very sticky, very big tires" that demand the use of a rear transaxle, put them in a street car, and sell it for – well, in Canada the starting price of the 2013 'Vette is $52,745.
They went back to the drawing board, developing an all-aluminum structure designed for open-air driving. Indeed, while a 'Vette convertible is due at the end of this year, even the coupe has a lightweight removable roof panel that you can store in the cargo hold under the rear hatchback.
So Juechter led a team devoted to championing race-track credibility for a street-legal 'Vette. Sound familiar? To me, this sounds much like what Arkus-Duntov did back in 1953 with the first 'Vette.
That car was stylish but mechanically lame. Indeed, the Corvette shown at the January, 1953, Motorama in New York was powered by a wimpy, 150-horsepower straight-six-cylinder engine mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Two forward speeds! Automatic! A performance joke.
Arkus-Duntov arrived on the scene in 1953 and, by 1955, he'd put a Chevy small-block V-8 engine under the hood. That was followed in 1957 by the fuel injection system Duntov designed for Corvette's V-8, a first for an American car. Those moves made the Corvette an American muscle icon, according to Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette by Jerry Burton. Arkus-Duntov passed away in 1996, but his spirit is here with Juechter, right down to his emphasis on the small-block V-8 (460 hp/465 lb-ft of torque) at work in the latest 'Vette. Still, being the chief engineer of an icon is no small matter.
So as good engineers do, Juechter and his co-conspirators dug into the work and ignored the worries. They insisted on building a car about the same size as a 911, a little lower and wider. This latest 'Vette also weighs within 23 kilograms of the 911, convertible to convertible. That's the only fair comparison because Porsche does not make a 911 with a removable panel, like the 'Vette's. The secret is an all-new, all-aluminum frame, lightweight composite materials in the body and underbody, and a roof panel and hood made of feathery carbon fibre. Juechter doesn't need to be pushed to describe the car as "aircraft-like."
Juechter says the team was also sensitive to the oft-repeated criticisms of the C6's interior. In a word, it looked cheap and the seats were terrible. The team decided early on that they'd use "nothing but premium materials," he says, pointing to generous use of carbon fibre, aluminum and leather throughout.
"[We] only spent money where it enhances the driving experience," he adds. The cockpit is a "real cockpit," with a smaller steering wheel (360 mm), bold graphics and displays and new seats with a magnesium frame.
What they've wrought, he says, is a fast car that holds a corner pulling better than 1.0 G. "It's a track weapon with huge bandwidth," he says, pointing out that while the car can eat up a race track, there are any "number of things it can do well" in your everyday commute. Such as not punishing you, not bouncing out your filings when you drive over a manhole cover.
As friendly as it can be in the cut and thrust of a commute – and yes, it is comfy in Touring mode – the numbers speak volumes about the car: 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds; 1.03 G cornering; 60 mph to 0 in 107 feet.
Now I mentioned Touring mode. This is one of three configurable driving modes you can dial up with the twist of a knob beside the driver's armrest. Very handy there. Touring is for days when you're feeling calm and restrained.
The steering effort is less demanding, the throttle progression the mildest, the Magnetic Ride Control is the most forgiving and launch control is off. The electronic instrument cluster has a subdued effect, with emphasis on giving the driver information – from navigation to infotainment.
If you dial in Sport mode, all the performance elements are dialled up: steering tightens, the ride control is firmer, the exhaust bolder and so on. The cluster changes to a look intended to reflect a more classic race car theme, with the tachometer big and bold and right in the middle of the cluster. There's even a friction bubble display measuring lateral and longitudinal G-forces.
In Track mode, everything gets hard-edged and hairy. Launch control is available and a competition mode for the stability control system is also available. The third instrument cluster variation has a built-in lap timer, tire-tread temperature gauge, programmable start-stop timer and shift lights.
This 'Vette is available with a good seven-speed manual, but what sets this one apart is active rev-matching for up and down shifts – throttle blips sound bad and smooth your shifting if you're not a heel-and-toe expert. The seven-speed autobox is excellent, too, and has paddle shifters to put you in control.
These gearboxes mesh well with the 6.2-litre, 460-hp small-block V-8. This, Juechter happily points out, is an engine with more guts than any of its competitors, yet fuel economy is class-leading, too.
The 911 Carrera S, for instance, has a six-cylinder engine rated at 400 hp, and is rated at just 27 mpg (versus the 'Vette's 29). Jaguar F-Type S: 5.0-litre V-8 rated at 495 hp, but fuel economy at 23 mpg. The Audi R8 with the 5.2-litre V-10 is rated at 525 hp, but gets just 19 mpg. And even the BMW Z4 sDrive28, smaller and with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder rated at just 241 hp, gets just 34 mpg.
The 'Vette has a fuel economy story because the 6.2-litre can shut down four cylinders when you don't need the power. Indeed, on some highway runs I found myself in sixth gear, with the engine churning over at less than 2,000 rpm at 70 miles per hour – saving fuel all the time (the manual is rated at 12 litres/100 km in the city, 6.9 on the highway and 9.8 combined).
Yet if you need extra grunt, it's there at a nudge of the throttle.
After the better part of a day sampling this new 'Vette, it's hard to argue with the excellence. Yes, it's a snug fit in that cockpit, but not uncomfortable. All the electronic features are easy to manage.
And the performance is breathtaking – especially when the pricing story is front and centre. Juechter doesn't like to hear people like me say it's an amazing car for $53,000. He'd prefer to hear it's just an amazing car, without any equivocation or comparison to R8s and 911s twice the price or more.
So I can only say this: Zora Arkus-Duntov would surely approve and the company's expectations have been met.
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