A wonderful V8 soundtrack, plus complementary chassis balance | by Andrew Frankel
It’s been more than 60 years since Chevrolet first named a car after a fast, small military boat, a period during which the Corvette brand has come to mean even more than its parent marque. This year marks the introduction of the seventh generation Corvette, and with it another name exhumed from the past. Welcome, then, the Corvette C7 Stingray.
Now there’s a name to mess with at your peril. Calling a car Corvette gives you a reasonable amount of latitude in the result: it should of course be fast and be driven through its rear wheels by a V8 engine in its nose, but it can be tuned for sporting purposes, touring purposes or any blend of the two.
But call it a Stingray and you’d better be sure the car delivers in full.
But this Stingray is no special high-performance derivative – that’ll be the forthcoming 625bhp supercharged Z06. This is the base model, the burger and fries version that will be bought by thousands of Americans still in love with this blue-collar working class hero. And they’ll pay just $51,995 (about £32,600) for the privilege. Less enticingly, given that the car remains unavailable in right-hand drive, over here that price almost doubles to £61,250, or £64,250 if you want the convertible. That pitches it straight at the Jaguar F-type. Is there a single thing such a car could learn from one that retains a plastic body, pushrod engine and transverse leaf suspension? Plenty, as it turns out.
I must now declare an interest. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for a Corvette. Indeed, when I sit and sketch my ideal sports car it always has a large normally aspirated engine at one end, driven wheels at the other, a lengthy wheelbase between the two and lightweight, shark-like clothing. A Corvette, in other words. I like the noise they make, I like their classless nature and I’ve always liked their shapes.
But I’ve never been blind to their failings and I know as well as anybody how cheap, shoddy interiors, crass ride and lack of long-distance refinement let them down. I know also that when you drive them as fast as you can, their handling reverts to that of a large puppy – fun but hardly fluent.
The interior of this Corvette isn’t going to cause insomnia at Jaguar. The cabin appears less cluttered, but its materials still feel more Walmart than Waitrose and the switchgear is fiddly and less intuitive than you’d wish. It’s progress, but hardly a transformation.
The car I drove had a seven-speed manual gearbox, which suggests there remains in the engineering department a lurking suspicion that quantity can still make an effective substitute for quality. It can’t. And even if its shifts were as sweet as jam in treacle it would still have one gear too many. I’d happily have a 20-speed automatic transmission, but if there are three pedals for your feet then six ratios suffice for your hand.
It is possible that at first I failed to accord this car the respect it turns out to deserve. I drove it initially on the road and was mildly irritated by its still unremarkable ride and having to drive in the ditch, because the car was so wide that’s where its left-hand-drive configuration put you. So when a straight came and I pressed the throttle to the floor, it was more in the spirit of due diligence than eager anticipation. I heard a sharp growl and then expletives filling the air as the Stingray appeared to want to leap into the next county. A cooking Corvette it might be, but it still has a 6.2-litre engine producing 460bhp and a kerb weight on the interesting side of 1500kg, giving it a power to weight ratio comparable with a brand-new Porsche 911 Turbo. Pushing on a bit harder, the car felt precise, taut and communicative, words I’ve not always associated with its predecessor.
This warranted further investigation and a theatre less restrictive than these narrow country lanes. The car was better, far better than I’d expected on the road, but a racetrack is a somewhat tougher discipline. Would it behave like most cars set up for the road and start to struggle when subjected to loads you’d never put through it in public, or would it reveal talents that ran more than skin deep?
I’ve thought hard about which word to use to describe what happened next and I think ‘incredible’ just about covers it. That’s because the track happened to be Castle Combe, which is not only very fast but also exceptionally bumpy. Truly there are places here where a road car is more likely to find itself out of its comfort zone than anywhere this side of the Nürburgring.
Yet the Corvette performed as if its engineers had done the entire chassis development programme at this Wiltshire circuit. It clung on hard, generating massive grip, but that was perhaps not too surprising given the car’s weight, double-wishbone suspension and four vast contact patches. That merely made it fast. What made it memorable was its absolute refusal to become upset, flustered or even mildly inconvenienced by the worst Combe could throw at it. It would approach Quarry corner at better than 140mph, soak up the bumps, shed the requisite speed and flick left over Avon Rise in one smooth, majestic unflappable movement. Indeed it had that kind of high-speed stability you usually only find in cars with at least a little bit of downforce. But the Corvette was still able to demonstrate what’s possible with considered tuning of those leaf springs and anti-roll bars, plus just a little bit of black magic in the form of magneto-rheological dampers and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential that can vary the degree of lock according to traction requirements.
This is why it streaked away from Combe’s chicanes yet felt balanced through its quicker curves. It will do the smoky sideways stuff too if you want, but you have to know how to ask it, for it is no longer the car’s natural state.
So once you forget all you thought you knew about Corvettes and get over that rather inelegant interior, what’s left is a remarkable, capable and enjoyable high-performance sports car, one that’s quicker and better to drive than any Jaguar F-type and stands comparison to the best 911s, save the GT3.
So will the Stingray become the first Corvette to make it big in Britain?
I doubt it very much. The fact it’s left-hand drive only will back it into the smallest niche imaginable. Even were that not the case, the sad truth is that when people who wish to spend more than £60,000 on a sports car are faced with the choice of a great car or a great badge, they’ll opt for the badge almost every time. But don’t blame the car: this is not just a great Corvette, but a fine sports car by the standards of the world’s best.
Engine: 6.2 litres, 8 cylinders
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 464lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: seven-speed manual
Top speed: 180mph