Hemmings contributor on Oct 8th, 2019 at 8am
The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray has a mid-mounted engine, in case you haven’t been paying attention. Why? Several reasons. Let’s drive right in.
First on the list is demographics. The front engine Corvette, on the market since 1953, and one of the first postwar American sports cars, has an increasingly older audience. The average age of the buyers was said to be 59, and male. What’s wrong with that?
Chevrolet wants to have at least one model with a youthful image, a progressive we-like-innovation type audience. But no matter what changes and updates they made to the front-engine Corvette, the audience remained stubbornly middle-aged, even beyond what you could call the age for a mid-life crisis.
You could blame that situation partly on price. Younger buyers, in their mid-30’s, are busy getting mortgages and still paying off college loans. The older guys are able to walk into a dealership and buy one in cash. But with the booming economy, it seems like $60,000 is not a barrier anymore. There are code writers that are skipping college and getting that salary out of high school. When they buy a sports car, not enough of them choose a Corvette to shift the average age younger. Front-engine Corvettes just aren’t cool enough for the younger crowd.
Another problem with the old front engine Corvette was, some theorize, a nostalgia sale. In other words, a guy reached a certain age, he has some spare money, maybe from selling a house at a huge profit, so he buys a car he remembers as “cool” when he was young. Nostalgia sales are good, if you just want to ride that horse ‘til it drops, but there’s no growth potential. After showing as many as eleven mid-engine prototypes in the past, Chevrolet had to step up and make it real or look like some nostalgia cover band. Not the Eagles, but a band that sounds like the Eagles.
So Chevrolet has to go where the current state-of-the art is, even if it means losing a reliable source of buyers. And the current performance state-of-the art is a mid-engine. The drawbacks of a front engine are nothing you would notice in ordinary driving, but on a twisty road, or sampling a race track with your car club, it becomes a handful at the limit. Even the pro drivers were wary of the front engine Corvette not handling consistently on the edge, although that was greatly improved over the last two generations. While every car since the C5 generation uses a transaxle to even out the front-to-rear weight distribution, the mid-engine setup focuses more mass between the two axles and makes the car more predictable and consistent.
Then there’s the chip on Chevy’s shoulder about the Corvette punching above its weight with performance numbers that look good against European exotics, not to mention the Ford GT stealing the supercar spotlight. The Ford is almost eight times the price so it’s hardly in the same ball park, but I think the Corvette will steal the limelight back with Ford GT production ending soon and higher-performance Corvette variants on the way.
Chevrolet also expects to pirate sales away from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Why? Ferrari’s average buyer is said to be 47, Lamborghini’s 48, and Porsche 911 buyers 52. If the new Corvette actually scores buyers in their ‘30s, it will be achieving Chevrolet’s dream because those buyers will be role models for future Corvette owners.
The youth appeal even extends to the new Corvette’s color choices. Chrome wheels have been banished, for example, and hues like Rapid Blue, Accelerate Yellow, and Zeus Bronze join the exterior paint selection this year.
In a damn-the-car-with-faint praise article in a recent issue of Esquire, the author imagined a scene where a new buyer will disassociates from the stereotypical Corvette owner by saying “Just so you know, I’m not a Corvette Guy. I only drive this because it’s the best way to go zero to 60 in 3 seconds that doesn’t cost $150,000. It’s only $59,995. And look at it.” That’s Esquire‘s interpretation, but I can’t help but think this is exactly the idea Chevy is going for with the C8.
The Corvette C8.R is Chevy’s first mid-engine GTLM race car. The No. 4 car dons a new silver livery, inspired by the color of iconic Corvette concepts. The No. 3 car will feature a traditional yellow color scheme with silver accents.
I predict that Chevrolet will not go to great efforts to sponsor events that reek of the past and focus on things like the racing program to promote the car. They are cutting the old fans loose to some extent, but not completely. One indication of how torn Chevrolet was in doing this was that they still, for the 2020 model, kept “Stingray” in the name. It seems unnecessary, but all the automakers do it (Porsche has revived the name “Speedster” several times). A more clean break from the past lies in the decision to drop the manual transmission in the new car. The time had come to lose the third pedal, however. Even Ferrari no longer offers manuals. Modern kids coming up have never driven a manual.
Of course, marketing the Corvette to 30-year-olds is a sure-fire way to get youthful 50-year-olds to buy it. So we’ll see how much the demographic really shifts. As a former Corvette ad copywriter , back in the ‘60s, I even hope there will be an ad campaign similar to the famous one for the ’66 Shelby Mustang where the headline was “How to make an Italian cry.” I think there should be billboards showing the new Corvette with the headline “Arrivederci Ferrari.” Of course some elitists will still buy Ferraris and Lambos and McLarens so they can brag about the price, but Chevrolet has basically weakened their sales argument by showing how overpriced those brands are.
THE AUTHOR Wallace Wyss, who started out in Detroit writing Corvette ads for Chevrolet, has advised many automakers on marketing, including Chevrolet, Toyota, Mazda and Lancia. The artwork is his, and prices for prints are available from firstname.lastname@example.org