The 2020 Chevy Corvette Proves the Small-Block V-8 Will Never Be Outdated
The Corvette runs blistering laps on track and ruins back roads for the price of a Porsche’s option list.
The spiritual home of the sports car in North America isn’t Detroit. It’s not Southern California. It’s not even Bowling Green. It’s upstate New York, specifically Watkins Glen. A tiny American town with an outsize reputation.
From the November/December 2020 issue of Road & Track.
After World War II, sports cars followed returning service members to America. Lithe, light, and low-powered, they were the antithesis of the American way of travel. Cameron Argetsinger, a Watkins Glen local, saw an opportunity. In 1948, he staged the first Watkins
Glen road race, an event that became an annual showcase of the country’s bravest drivers on challenging country roads. In 1951, legendary General Motors designer Harley Earl attended the race to show off a concept LeSabre and was inspired to build a purely American sports car. In 1953 he came back to the race with his creation: the Corvette.
The first generation wasn’t quite up to its world-beating task. But through seven generations and more than 65 years, the Corvette evolved into a car that did everything a Porsche or a Ferrari could for less than half the price. It’s one of few cars at home in every possible environment. It’s underrated to the point of disdain by those who simply don’t want to believe that an American sports car can beat the hell out of models from Europe.
Part of that may be the working-class price. Another may be the lackluster interiors. The biggest knock may have been the perception that the engine was in the wrong place. And for decades, rumors insisted that the Corvette’s V-8 would move behind the driver. It was always just about to happen, with a string of mid-engine concept cars giving credence to the rumors. But a series of false starts, including one C7-generation plan scuttled by bankruptcy, saw hopes continually fall. Until now.
The C8-generation Corvette is easily the most anticipated American car of the last 20 years, one with impossibly high expectations from customers, journalists, and GM itself. It must be a grand tourer, sports car, track car, drag racer, and golf-club hauler, displaying versatility not expected of any other model. That’s the Corvette’s dilemma: Because it has doubters, it must to do everything flawlessly.
Our first drive of the C8 for Performance Car of the Year saw us get behind the wheel of a preproduction model, one not 100-percent finalized. At the time, it seemed the Stingray was very good but best considered as a building block for higher-powered versions of the car to come, variants that would truly take advantage of the mid-engine architecture.
But the completed car stands on its own. This is the performance bargain of the century.
Like the Corvette, Watkins Glen has evolved. Racing moved from public roads to a purpose-built facility decades ago, but the track is no less daunting. This circuit hosted the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix for two decades and still sees professional sports-car racing each year. It’s one of the old-school tracks, iconic blue barriers lining a course carved out of the land by men on tractors, not mere algorithms. What you get is a gorgeous, flowing track, a fast 3.4-mile goliath as intimidating as it is iconic. This is where we reacquaint ourselves with the C8.
It gets you the first time you push the start button, the familiar small-block bark smacking your brain from behind, the unrefined lope a brief reminder that you’re not in something from Europe. The new engine, dubbed LT2, is an evolution of the V-8 we saw in the C7, now producing 495 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque with the Z51 package. That gets it to 60 in 2.8 seconds, better than the last-generation Z06 and ZR1, cars with at least 150 more horsepower.
The C8 gives the illusion of ever-present grip. It’s a rear-wheel-drive car with an almost all-wheel-drive character, able to fire in any direction at any time. That acceleration from a dig is thanks to the mid-engine layout and aggressively short gearing from the eight-speed, dual-clutch gearbox. Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter said shifting weight toward the rear axle would allow the C8 to put more power down, hence the move to a mid-engine layout. Perhaps the C7 Stingray and Grand Sport had no traction issues; the C8 has less than none.
You do lose the dance of clutch, accelerator, and steering, of making sure you have the right mix to stay straight. On the track, going for lap times, that’s undeniably a good thing. But losing that theater is noticeable on the road, where instead of worrying about controlling the rear end, you need to worry about hitting imprisonable speeds within seconds of touching the throttle.
Unlike Corvettes past, the controls are delicate, with light steering and paddle shifters. A sign of modern trends. While it was a sad day when the Corvette lost its third pedal, the gearbox has vastly improved since we first drove the car months ago.
Shifts from the Tremec-designed transmission are crisp and rapid in manual mode, thanks to paddles wired directly to the box. Downshifts are quick and perfectly rev-matched, when you get them. That’s one annoyance. In a heavy braking zone, like into Turn 1 at The Glen, you’re snagging gears quickly. Occasionally the gearbox takes more than one pull to react, likely because a paddle was pulled before the engine was ready to allow a shift. Instead of delaying that shift slightly, the gearbox denies it, then forgets you ever asked. Exercising more patience with the paddle results in delay-free downshifts. Driven in automatic, it’s telepathic, keeping the engine in the powerband at all times and banging off shifts without issue.
Chevrolet has recently compared Corvette automatics to Porsche’s PDK gearbox, and every single time Chevy’s automatic has been a letdown. The PDK is still the best you can buy, but this Tremec is leagues better than any automatic ever fit to a Corvette, a half-step at most behind the best.
Tucked in the hills just outside the hamlet that bears the same name, Watkins Glen International is one of America’s greatest and most challenging tracks.
1. TURN ONE
A fast right. Get your braking done beforehand, hit an early apex, and use all the track for the fast run up the esses.
2. THE BUS STOP
The place to be brave. Brake late and clobber the curbs. The Vette was touching 150 before the braking zone.
3. THE BOOT
Quicker than it looks. Use the track’s compression to get back to power early, maximizing that short straight.
4. THE TABLETOP
Secretly the most challenging turn on track. An off-camber left, get this one wrong and you’ll end up in the wall.
Like the gearbox, the brakes have gone digital, a brake-by-wire setup bypassing the physical connection between pedal and braking system (though there is a mechanical backup if the by-wire system fails). This means the computer can change the pedal feel depending on the driving situation, which is gimmicky—and disconcerting, since brakes should be a constant—but also a likely sign of an upcoming hybrid system. But left in Sport mode the pedal is linear and accurate, the brakes showing no fade after repeated use at more than 150 mph through The Glen’s bus-stop chicane.
The delicate controls, light steering, and paddle-shift gearbox may lead you to believe that the Vette needs a light touch. Not the case. In fact, it’s the opposite; in corners like The Glen’s Turn 5, a long, downhill right-hand sweeper, you need patience with the throttle lest you make the front push. A big swing at the wheel or an aggressive move on the pedals is needed to make the Corvette come around. Steering, while accurate, is numb, meaning your inputs must be informed by something other than your hands.
Vague steering is always a letdown. But as the pace gets higher, the chassis comes alive. It may not be as adjustable as the last car, likely a design choice made to save drivers from the 6.2-liter pendulum behind their backs. Still, speeds become very serious very fast, although the car remains stable and predictable, two confidence builders. The last thing you want in a car this accessible to so many people is a tricky experience. Otherwise we’d likely be hearing about a lot of owners who aren’t thrilled with GM after wrapping their C8s tail-first around a tree.
But get on the power at the right time, and from apex to corner exit there isn’t much that drives like this. A big part is the fantastic Performance Traction Management (PTM) system, hyper-advanced traction control that actually cuts spark instead of using the brakes to bring the car back in line. This is racing-level stuff, and it works excellently, though we’re not sure it’s being fully exploited. The sheer rear-end grip is so massive that traction control is more safety net than necessity.
Stopwatch estimates from pit lane put the Corvette at a sub-2:10 lap at The Glen, positively blistering when you consider that this is a lightly optioned base Corvette putting up numbers that are tough for any car to match.
On the road, heads snap when it drives by, some innocent bystanders wondering what the hell it is, some refusing to believe it exists at all. The front three-quarter view is the winner, a mixture of angles and shapes invoking stealth fighters. The rear view is inelegant at best, the need for golf-bag storage creating squarish hips, denying the Corvette the lithe, tapered beauty of other mid-engine cars. No matter what you think of its looks, it has serious presence.
The ride quality is simply outstanding. Magnetic Ride Control shocks make this the most comfortable sports car you can drive that doesn’t cost more than $300,000. It’s truly a feat, keeping the Corvette comfortable for hours. And this iteration has an excellent interior.
The seats are normally a Vette low point. The GT2 buckets in our car were supportive and on the verge of being too tight, though that’s honestly a sign that I need to spend more time on the bike than I do eating cookies. It’s a great place to be, especially if you’re behind the wheel.
Everything is angled towards the driver, including a raised panel housing the ancillary controls, which creates a border wall the passenger must summit in order to change the radio station. On the track or a solo drive, it’s wonderful, a cocoon that lets you focus without distraction. But trips with a friend or significant other feel like you’re in two different cars, particularly if your passenger is short. There is one blessing of the control wall: Passengers with music ADD won’t change the radio as often.
While companions struggle to find some way to turn off the Gin Blossoms, you can focus on driving. The gearbox’s on-track blindspots are eradicated on the road. The dual-clutch system begs you to put it in manual mode, as if it knows it can do everything itself but would really rather have you as part of the fun. There may not be a clutch pedal, but the transmission feels visceral enough that you can forget it’s not there.
The C8 Corvette is years of anticipation made real. On first impression, it does all the right things. It tucks crisply into corners, the engine has that perfect lope, it attracts the eye, and it feels like you’re driving a car worth three times the price. It’s a wonderful road car you could use daily, in any location, without worry. Unlike any other mid-engine car, it’s relaxed around town, a gentle cruiser, perfectly at home. On a good road it comes alive, quick and agile, the small-block V-8 once again proving it will never be outdated. It’s an outstanding combination.
Yet something undefinable is missing. The C7-generation Corvette had layers, getting better the more time you spent behind the wheel. The C8 seems to throw everything at you from the first drive, shouting its inherent specialness from minute one, relentlessly showing you every trick it has. It’s the same with its appearance. The C7 flew under the radar, eliciting knowing nods and glances and occasional waves, but nothing that’d attract a civilian crowd. The new car may as well come with a disco ball and DJ air horns. A drawback? Perhaps not. But if you’re running an errand, expect it to take twice as long as planned. Grocery run? Everybody on the dance floor! WAH-WAH-WAHHHHH!
Put it all in perspective. The Corvette’s base price is $59,995, with our tester coming in at $86,710. Either price is a bargain for a car with Ferrari/McLaren levels of performance. It’s impressive on every level, and the mid-engine platform will pay bigger dividends as engineers add power, hybrid systems, and handling packages that truly exploit the layout, if you actually need more performance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone does; more speed usually leads to sacrifices in comfort, usability, and—most importantly—price.
After every run at The Glen I had the same thought: This is the first car from Chevrolet with the engine behind the driver since the Corvair. Their corporate history is not mid-engine unobtanium but budget performance. And now they have a mid-engine Corvette that runs blistering laps on track and ruins backroads for the price of an option package on a high-end supercar.
If this is the future of performance, we’re going to be all right.
TRAVIS OKULSKI for Road and Track
The Chevrolet “small-block” might never be outdated, but it might not remain as a pushrod engine, either.
October 15, 2020 at 12:07 pm