Look beyond the hype. Beyond the blimp hangar intro event, the astronauts turned hucksters, and all the magazine covers. The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette C8, the one with the engine in the middle, is important for reasons practically no one is talking about. Not even General Motors itself.
What matters about the eight generation Corvette isn’t what it will be when it first goes on sale, but how it will evolve over its production life. No one who cares about keeping their job at GM will discuss future product plans, but there have been plenty of rumors. And how this car evolves may forecast how GM develops all its cars going forward.
2020 Corvette reveal video. (Video: Chevrolet)
Speculation follows. Indulge me.
Chevrolet had been twerking about with mid-engine Corvette concepts for 60 years. What’s changed isn’t that GM has suddenly developed a fierce determination to take on Ferrari and Lamborghini at their own game. The reason why the C8 is here is because the world has changed and to remain viable in the 21st century, the Corvette practically had to go mid-engine. Yes, there are solid dynamic reasons to put the engine where it should have been all along, but the mid-engine placement also facilitates a whole buffet of possibilities. And, more importantly, a lot of those should lead to greater profits.
The first 1953 “C1” Corvette was primitive even by the standards of its time. But all the way through the 2018 “C7” Corvette, all these two-seat sports cars were built on a similar structure. That is a ladder frame – two parallel frame rails with cross supports – capped by a fiberglass body. And those frame rails were themselves limiting.
The new mid-engine Corvette embodies a host of firsts for Chevrolet. (Photo: Chevrolet)
On the Bowling Green, Kentucky assembly line, where all Corvettes have been built since 1981, C4 through C7 generation vehicles would have their powertrains lifted up between the frame rails during assembly. Because the rails are relatively close together that meant the engines being fitted had to be narrow enough to fit between them.
Notoriously this led to some engineering challenges developing the dual overhead cam, 32-valve “LT5” V8 that powered by the 1990 to 1995 Corvette ZR-1. Multi-cam engines are by their nature wider than single, in-block, single-cam V8s and the Lotus-designed LT5 had to slim to fit.
In contrast, the new C8 Corvette is the first built without a ladder frame. Instead the almost-all-aluminum structure is built around a cockpit strengthened by a large, centered, box-section backbone to which are attached front and rear subframes. And for the 2020 Corvette at least, that backbone box is empty.
A new engine in a new location is probably just the starting point for C8. (Photo: Chevrolet)
Because the driveshaft or torque tube used in front-engine Corvettes has been eliminated, that backbone box can be filled with batteries in say, a hybrid version of the C8. Meanwhile, the front subframe can be swapped out for, let’s just guess, one that accommodates electric motors to drive the front wheels. And the rear subframe can easily accommodate wider, multi-cam engines or turbocharger systems to up the available power up substantially. It’s not even that farfetched to imagine an all-electric version of the C8 with electric motors at all four wheels and a whole rack of batteries in between.
It’s the engineering versatility of the C8’s design that makes this car such a peek into the near future. It may not seem it at first, but a modular, mid-engine design like the new Corvette allows a vastly greater variety of powertrains and hybrid systems than traditional front engine designs. In an age where electrical connections are increasingly replacing mechanical ones, the C8 is primed to be GM’s testbed for new technologies as they become available.
That flexibility will also be critical in making the C8 program profitable. Much has already been made of the C8’s keen $59,995 base price. Of course, most new Corvettes will be optioned up well beyond that even at launch. But it’s the higher-performance versions that will come in the next few years that will bring in the bucks for GM.
Former astronauts Dr. Mae Jemison and Capt. Scott Kelly at the reveal of the C8. (Photo: Chevrolet)
Chevrolet extended the profitability of the C7 generation Corvette with the much higher priced Grand Sport, ZO6 and ZR1 versions featuring enhanced handling, improved suspension systems and incredibly powerful supercharged engines. A base 460-hp 2019 Corvette Stingray coupe is $56,995 while the monstrous 755-hp ZR1 Coupe starts at $125,090. Of course it costs GM more to build a ZR1, but more than twice as much? Hardly.
Compared to European exotics, the C8 Corvette will still be relatively affordable, but a hybrid version with front electric motors and a turbocharged V8 engine behind the driver could have a total powertrain output exceeding 1,000 hp. It’s likely this beyond-ZR1 would/will be the most expensive production Corvette ever built with a price tag approaching $200,000. There’s a lot of profit to be had in such a car. And in the car business, making money always matters.
And even at $200,000, such a C8 Corvette would still be several hundred thousand dollars cheaper than supercars with similar specifications and performance.
There’s already been some criticism of the C8 for its supposedly archaic 6.2-liter internal combustion engine. This is, after all, an era when electrification and minimal carbon production are supposed to matter. All those things are coming, but the C8 is designed to be flexible enough to make money for GM now; make even more money in the near future; and change the engineering paradigm for all vehicle development programs. Over the next 10 or 12 years, the C8 will molt, mutate and be mangled into versions that we can’t even imagine now.
The best thing about the C8 isn’t what it is. It’s what it promises to be.
General Motors President Mark Reuss at the reveal of the C8. (Photo: Chevrolet)