The last front-engine Corvette
Last week, Chevrolet surprised the automotive world by releasing several photos of the next-generation Corvette and announcing an official reveal date of July 18, 2019. Even though we’d caught camouflaged prototypes in the wild plenty of times, that was the first time Chevrolet had said anything on the record about the upcoming C8. The photos also clearly show a mid-engine design, which means the era of the front-engine Corvette is officially coming to a close. Some (including us) had speculated that the C7 might live on to be sold alongside the C8 as a lower-cost entry to the Corvette brand. But GM auctioning the final seventh-generation Corvette at Barrett-Jackson later this year effectively puts that theory to rest. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the C7 and how it’s evolved over the years.
On January 14, 2013, Chevrolet revealed the 2014 Corvette Stingray at the Detroit auto show. Compared to its predecessor, the seventh-generation Corvette’s styling was much more radical. And according to Chevrolet, every bit of the aero kit was fully functional and race-tested. Under the hood sat a naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V-8 that made at least 450 hp and sent its power to the rear wheels via your choice of a seven-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. But perhaps most importantly, for the first time in recent memory, the cabin looked and felt like it belonged in a car with the Corvette’s price tag. We couldn’t wait for our first chance to drive it.
That chance came almost exactly six months later, and from the beginning, it was better than we’d expected. That’s because the engine had been officially rated to make 455 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque, not the 450 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque that Chevrolet had originally quoted. In our testing, that was enough to launch the new Corvette from 0–60 mph in 3.9 seconds and return a quarter-mile time of 12.2 seconds at 117.3 mph (188.8 km/h). On the track, the stiff chassis, optional magnetic-ride suspension, and optional electronic differential combined to make the Corvette Stingray Z51 one heck of a track car. But with a significantly nicer interior, drive-mode selector, and 17/28/21 mpg (13.8/8.4/11.2 L/100 km) city/highway/combined rating, it still made an impressive daily driver, too.
Chevrolet ended up not being able to get a C7 to us in time for our 2013 Best Driver’s Car competition, which was a huge disappointment. But that did give us the opportunity to put together an oddball comparison test a few months later. In that test, the BDC-winning Porsche 911 took on the new Corvette and the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. Ultimately, the 911 placed first, but in a truly surprising upset, the Corvette came in second despite the Ferrari’s 731 hp.
“For the first time in my professional career, I can honestly say that a new Corvette is a complete package,” Jonny Lieberman wrote at the time. “There’s nothing anywhere to betray America’s favorite sports car. Stuff like crap seats, crappier interior, and an indismissible feeling of cheapness have been banished to the dustbin of automotive history. The new Corvette absolutely rocks. Around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I found it nearly as planted as the 911.”
Unless you count the Corvette Stingray Convertible that Chevrolet revealed at the 2013 Geneva motor show, the first variant Chevrolet introduced for the C7 was the 2015 Corvette Z06. Its supercharged V-8 made at least 625 hp and 635 lb-ft of torque, and in addition to the seven-speed manual transmission, Chevrolet added a scandalous eight-speed automatic as an option. With a track-tuned suspension, optional carbon-ceramic brakes, and a serious aero kit, the Z06 promised to be an absolute track monster. If the 455-hp Corvette Stingray was already so good, the 625-hp version had to be incredible, right?
In November of 2014, we finally got our chance to test the new Z06, and initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. “The power felt great,” Randy Pobst told us. “Honestly, I want another hundred more. It’s stable enough. You don’t feel threatened.” Why Randy wanted more power, we weren’t sure. The Z06 recorded a 0–60 mph time of 3.2 seconds, a quarter-mile time of 11.3 seconds at 126.2 mph (203 km/h), and stopped from 60 mph in only 91 feet. Oh, and in our figure-eight performance test, it posted the second-fastest time we’d ever recorded. To post a faster time, you needed to upgrade all the way to the Porsche 918 Spyder.
Even crazier, when we eventually got our hands on the automatic version, it matched the manual’s 0–60 mph time and ran a 0.1-second and 0.8-mph (1.3-km/h) better quarter-mile. It also beat the manual’s braking distance by an entire foot. And even though it was a tiny bit slower through the figure-eight, we found that the “chassis was far better balanced and neutral with no obvious tendency to under- or oversteer at corner entry or mid-corner.” Not bad for a slushbox.
Godzilla Grudge Match
In early 2015, we got our first chance to see what the Corvette Z06 could do against a serious challenger: the all-wheel-drive, 600 hp Nissan GT-R Nismo. In our initial testing, the rear-drive Corvette destroyed the GT-R’s figure-eight time, beating it by almost a second. And yet, when Randy Pobst took both cars around Big Willow, the heavier, less-powerful GT-R flipped the script, beating the Corvette’s lap time by 1.4 seconds. How did that happen?
As it turned out, there was a problem with our test car’s suspension. Specifically, instead of running 0 degrees of rear caster, it was running 2 degrees of positive caster. With the alignment issue fixed and a new Rough Track mode installed, we went back to the track. The second time around, with the tires better able to put down the power, the Z06’s time improved by 2.1 seconds. That meant it was 0.7 second quicker than the GT-R Nismo. The Corvette might have lost the comparison test, but it ultimately proved to be the superior track car.
A Disappointing BDC Debut
Everyone has off days once in a while, and for whatever reason, the Z06 with Z07 package just couldn’t get it together for our 2015 Best Driver’s Car competition. “It didn’t work,” Jonny Lieberman wrote at the time. “The damn Z06 retarded spark by 8 degrees, and the 1.7-liter TVS supercharger refused to make boost. No one knows why. Chevrolet came up with a ‘bad gas’ theory, but Big Nasty got filled at the same Chevron stations as everyone else and even swallowed 8 gallons of 101 octane in an attempt to get the supercharger to wake up. No luck. What we have here is a failure to compete. What a pity.”
The Corvette Z06 was unable to finish the events of BDC, and as a result, scored a DNF in that year’s competition.
Learning to Live Together
Following the Z06’s triumphant retest at Big Willow, we decided to add a Corvette to our long-term fleet. But instead of going for the supercharged supercar-fighter, we went with something a little more practical. In April, a silver, manual-equipped Stingray rolled into our garage, complete with the Z51 performance package. Over the next 12 months, it proved to be a great daily driver. Thanks to its large rear hatch, it ended up being surprisingly practical, too. We even found that we preferred it over the Z06 despite its relative lack of power.
That said, our year with the Corvette wasn’t all positive. In addition to a troublesome electronic parking brake and a faulty center display, our test car also developed an unacceptable number of creaks and rattles. “The removable targa top rattled like a train click-clacking over rails, the steering wheel squeaks like a mouse, the driver door creaked when opening and closing, and the brakes squealed excessively,” we said. “The only thing worse than your new car’s interior making a noise it isn’t supposed to be making is your new car’s cabin making four separate noises it isn’t supposed to be making.”
Back at the Track
The Corvette Z06 may have fumbled in Best Driver’s Car, but that only meant it had more to prove. In January of 2016, we lined it up against the Dodge Viper ACR and the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, two of the fastest cars available for less than $1 million USD. But despite making the most power, lapping Laguna Seca slightly quicker than the GT3 RS, and being the most comfortable daily driver, the Corvette still came up short. In fact, it placed dead last.
Why? It simply couldn’t put its power down. As we put it at the time, “The Z06’s livability evaporates on track, where it reveals itself to be a bit of a handling disgrace. The Z06 turns in just fine and then transitions to explosive mid-corner oversteer. This mother isn’t happy until you’re at full opposite lock, puckered to the point of Preparation H Code Red.” In the right situation, that can be fun, but it’s not the best for on-track confidence.
Best of Both Worlds
A few months later, Chevrolet introduced the Corvette Grand Sport to satisfy buyers who wanted Z06 handling but didn’t necessarily want to pay for Z06 power. And when we finally took one to the test track, we were surprised to see it do exactly that. The 460-hp Grand Sport with a manual transmission ran the figure-eight in 22.3 seconds, tying with the 650-hp Z06. And even though the Porsche 918 Spyder, and Dodge Viper ACR posted quicker times, the Grand Sport proved to be the fastest sub-$100,000 USD car we’d ever tested.
“For $92,060 USD in the case of the manual or $92,385 USD for the automatic, the Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport delivers world-class performance without forcing you to sell your firstborn,” we wrote. “You might still have to rent them out occasionally, but that’s none of our business. If handling is your primary motivator, you definitely want to go ahead with the manual. Numbers don’t lie.”
Porsche 911 Killer?
For decades, we’ve pitted Corvettes against 911s. Due to the difference in base price, it’s not quite as fierce a rivalry as the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, but it’s pretty heated. This time around, we put the Corvette Grand Sport up against the 911 Carrera S. On paper, you had 460 hp versus 420 hp. But there was more at stake here: Front-mid-engine versus rear-engine. America versus Germany. And surprisingly, at the end of the day, there was still no clear winner. “I think that the issue of which one of these two cars is better partly comes down to a head-versus-heart battle,” Jonny Lieberman wrote. “Logically speaking, I think the 911 makes great sense and would easily satisfy all of my everyday needs. The only problem is that I’d be daydreaming of driving the Grand Sport while I’m out grocery shopping in the Porsche.”
To break the tie, we set Randy Pobst loose on Big Willow to see which sports car could turn the fastest lap. With a 0.82-second lead, the Corvette Grand Sport eeked out a win.
The Grand Sport Takes on Best Driver’s Car
How do you follow up a big win in a comparison test? For the Corvette Grand Sport, it was the 2017 Best Driver’s Car competition. And the list of much-more-expensive cars it beat was impressive. When the final votes were tallied, the Corvette ranked ahead of the Aston Martin DB11, McLaren 570GT, and the Lexus LC 500. But due in part to a comparative lack of power, it wasn’t quite impressive enough to earn a podium finish. It placed 7th.
As Jonny put it, “Uphill: Needs 100 extra horsepower! What a weird feeling, but 460 hp felt slow. Downhill, the Grand Sport comes alive. It has wonderful handling, enormous stopping ability, and tremendous grip. It’s a car you can trust. Graceful even, the ballerina of the group. It’s very impressive. It just needs some extra zip. I wish Chevy could come up with an engine solution in between the LT1 and LT4—a naturally aspirated V-8 that makes 550 horsepower. If that were the case, the Grand Sport might have placed higher. Like, a lot higher.”
Your Move, Hellcat
The Z06 may have more power than anyone could possibly need, but for some reason, that didn’t stop Chevrolet from building an even more powerful Corvette. In late 2017, it took the wraps off the ZR1, a 755-hp track monster that only a few months later set a new track record at Virginia International Raceway. Even crazier, Chevrolet built a convertible version, too. Understandably, we were beyond excited to get the ZR1 to the track. And yet, when we did finally test the ZR1, we had a bit of a problem. Its figure-eight times were actually slower than the Z06’s. Not only was it difficult to put down the power, but the ZR1 was also twitchier than other Corvettes and could oversteer in an instant.
“Brakes are killer—you can drop the hammer at virtually the last second. Turn-in feels like lateral suction, but after that there’s a bit more understeer than I’d like,” testing director Kim Reynolds wrote. “Midcorner grip is great, then exiting, the tail walks (using third gear). It steps out in a digital way—just pops out a notch very quickly, and you have to respond very modestly to it to avoid a ‘tank slapper.’ Tremendous power—wow wow wow.”
Still a Driver’s Car?
Regardless of our First Test’s results, there was no way we wouldn’t invite a 755-hp Corvette to our 2018 Best Driver’s Car competition. Especially with that humongous wing and VIR lap record. When we were able to get the tires to hook up, it proved to be seriously quick, especially in a straight line. It managed to run the quarter-mile, for example, in 10.8 seconds at 133.1 mph (214.2 km/h). But its inability to reliably put down all that power proved to be a serious issue.
As road test editor Chris Walton put it, “The front obeys, but I never, ever trust the rear.” There were also issues with the slow-shifting automatic transmission. “I’m tired of the excuses,” Jonny Lieberman wrote. “It’s the equivalent of driving an Igloo cooler with 755 horsepower.”
Last October, we staged another comparison test between a Corvette and a Porsche 911. This time around, however, it wasn’t Grand Sport versus Carrera S. It was the 755-hp ZR1 versus the 691-hp GT2 RS. And with nearly 1,500 hp between the two of them, we knew we had to call in Randy Pobst to make sure we got the best out of both of these rear-wheel-drive beasts. In the end, unless you’re all about machismo, the ZR1 couldn’t quite impress Randy enough to win the day.
“What I see in the Corvette ZR1 is potential; what I feel is frustration,” he wrote at the time. “The car is outrageously good at so much and comes tantalizingly close to providing supercar performance. Just find the secret to calming that hyperactive rear end in the lower gears, switch back to the Z06 brake pedal, and you’re there, Chevrolet, at a relatively bargain-basement price for performance, complete with your own muscular, extroverted style.”
Until Next Time
If there’s one thing the Corvette ZR1’s struggle to put down its power shows, it’s that Chevrolet has reached the limit of what a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car can do. To improve from here, it would either need to add all-wheel drive or switch to a mid-engine layout. Based on the photos we’ve seen, it looks like the C8 will definitely get the latter. And if rumors are correct, there may be a high-performance hybrid that gets the former. Even if it drives the price up a bit, it’s a change that makes sense for the Corvette. But we’ll definitely miss the C7. It’s been an exciting last several years.