PAHRUMP, Nev. — Well, we finally got to drive the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette in anger. The putative car of the year, and certainly the most talked about car of 2020, and we finally got the C8 on its natural habitat. Located on the outskirts of California’s Death Valley — near sunny, downtown Pahrump, Nevada, home of the world famous Chicken Ranch — Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch was the perfect place to test Chevrolet’s first mid-engine supercar, all rollicking pavement and tricky decreasing-radius switchbacks. So without further ado, here’s what new C8 is like to drive flat-out.
As it turns out, the key to C8 Corvette happiness will be to manage expectations — as in, what exactly does the new Corvette compete with? Are we meant to judge it — as would be logical, if we’d all stopped to put some logic to the hype from the last year or so — as a improvement on the C7? Or do we — and even I have to admit, I got carried away with this — really think that The General has waved some form of magic wand and created a car super enough to take on the might of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche for three, four, or even five times less money? Managing those presumptions is crucial if you’re going to be happy in the new C8: This is, by quite some margin — and in so many ways — the best Corvette ever. Compare it with the Ferraris and Lambos of the world, however, and it’s — as had we been thinking straighter, we’d have already surmised— a little disappointing.
The good, the bad, and the just plain tricky
Mat the C8 coming out of any corner — be it a long sweeper or hairy little switchback — and all that mid-engine weight distribution works its magic. The rear plants, the front sticks, and the Vette tracks as if on the proverbial rails. It’s so far ahead of the C7, it’s as thought they’re different cars … which, of course, they are. Anyone looking for an abject lesson in front-versus-rear-engine vehicle dynamics will find no better exemplar than the C7 and C8 Corvettes. The C8 shares so much — an engine, general chassis construction, and rough sizing parameters — with the C7, and it yet feels like a completely different, ruthlessly efficient animal from apex to corner exit.
On the entry to corners, not so much. In fact, the C8 feels almost as tail-waggy as the C7 while trail-braking into corners, the rear end getting so “light” that it’s hard to believe there’s an engine back there. Compared to every other mid-engine supercar — at least, every other mid-engine supercar I’ve driven — it is much more prone to off-throttle oversteer. I won’t claim it’s as bad as an older-generation Porsche 911 Turbo, but it certainly doesn’t feel as glued to the pavement as, say, an Audi R8. At first I thought this was because …
Chevrolet is a little sneaky when it comes to the definition of what constitutes as “stock”
The test cars we usually drive are supposed to be totally production-ready. Dropping a “ringer” into the mix that you might gain advantage is considered a righteous no-no. So, when it came to our attention that the cars we were driving on the track actually had more camber built into all four wheels — more angled tires, like you sometime see on rice rockets, generate more grip at maximum cornering speeds — a nefarious plot was suspected. Had Chevy’s engineers cranked in the camber to get more side grip, and the resulting compromise was poorer stability during braking?
In the end, there was no subterfuge, the Corvette’s service manual detailing to owners how they can set up the car for maximum track grip. But let’s understand this: This resetting of tire angle is not some push-button adjustment made from the comfort of the driver’s seat. Nope, this is good ol’ manual labour of the type NASCAR race engineers perform just before they send Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick out for their final qualifying run. Essentially, you have to remove all four tires, take a few suspension bits apart, change some shims and then bolt it all back together. It’s not something you should be doing in your driveway with your Vette up on blocks.
Nonetheless, it turns out it’s all above board. Carp all you like that it’s hardly the kind of thing that most track day enthusiasts will do, or even the liability General Motors is opening itself up for by having owners fiddling with suspension hard bits, but the C7 had a similar adjustment available and Chevy’s tech types swear up and down owners actually take their cars half apart when they’re heading to the track. Which is why I think
The C8 is still very much a Corvette
According to Steve Padilla, the lead in charge of vehicle dynamics, ride, and handling for the C8 Corvette, the real reason that all that tail-happiness was built into the C8 is because Corvette owners wanted it that way. The longtime vehicle performance engineer confirmed that GM could have easily tuned out all the slippy-slidey, but most of the Corvette’s traditional clientele would have considered that a neutering too far. So, unlike any other mid-engine supercar — or, at least, any mid-engine supercar I’ve tested lately — the mid-engine C8 likes to tap dance a little when it’s charging at an apex. It’s also why …
The engine remains resolutely traditional
If the hoi polloi wanted no part of any of that stinking stability stuff, you damned well know they weren’t going to accept some namby-pamby, double-overhead cam hybrid in their Vette, either. Hence the LT2, as high-tech a smallblock as we’ve seen, but archaic nonetheless. Pushrods and overhead valves haven’t been state-of-the-art since before Zora Arkus-Duntov ran all things Corvette, so sticking to GM’s traditional cam-in-block V8 is definitely a sop to the diehard at the expense of modernity.
So, how does that compromise work out?
Pretty darned good, actually. The numbers speak for themselves. Zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) takes 2.9 seconds, and considering the Corvette’s gearing, a full 100 km/h should take but scant milliseconds more.
That’s seriously world-class performance, as is the 310 km/h top speed and the C8’s 11.2 second quarter-mile time. Nor does it feel any less super in the real world, the 495-horsepower — if you order the $1,375 Performance Exhaust system — 6.2-litre V8 catapulting the C8 with serious intent, despite it weighing about 40 kilograms more than the C7. If you were raised on good ol’ American V8s, it also sounds like a good’un, all basso-profondo pomp and circumstance spilling out of its (totally) tubular headers and quad-tipped muffler.
That said, that traditional sound — a loyal Vette owner would be more likely to describe the exhaust as “righteous” — did cause me some issues. Used to high-revving Ferraris and Lambos any time pistons are combustion behind me — rather than in front — I kept forgetting that the LT2 is redlined at 6,600, not 8,500 rpm. Lost in the mayhem of all that acceleration and cornering Gs, I ran into the rev limiter more than a few times and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get used to shifting when the motor right behind my right ear sounded like — or so my “European” programming kept insisting — had lots more revs to go. That’s not a criticism of the motor, so much as message to loyal Ferrari and Lamborghini owners that you may have a little trouble adjusting to the Corvette’s rhythm should you choose to go “native.” Which brings us right back to…
So, where does that leave the new Corvette in the pantheon of cars claiming to be super? Well, this first track test certainly puts paid to the false assumption — admittedly championed by Yours Truly, as well as others — that Chevrolet wanted to build an American Ferrari. It was probably also a bit foolish of us to think a $69,998 Corvette could take on Lamborghini. One look at their respective Nurburgring times — a top-of-the-line C8 recorded a much-more-than-respectable 7:29.9 recently, but a Huracan Performante bests it by more than 30 seconds — should be enough to convince anyone that the Corvette — at least, this Corvette — is not quite ready to dethrone Italian supercar superiority.
But it’s, by far, the best Corvette ever, the most amazing sports car under $70,000 and an epic achievement stylistically and dynamically. And what you get for less than $100,000 — a fully-loaded Z51 with all the bells and whistles, says Jamie Dewhurst, Chevrolet Canada’s national marketing manager — is simply amazing. Bowling Green loyalists everywhere are no doubt rejoicing.
But, hear this: The new C8 is much more a mid-engine Corvette than it is mid-engine supercar.